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Sunday, Oct. 22, 2000


All you ever wanted to know about voodoo

Gaston Jean-Baptiste, known as "Bonga," is a voodoo priest and a conga player. Bonga has been touring Japan giving workshops on Haitian music and teaching the traditions of Haiti. Luckily, one of the stops on his tour was my living room. A small, amiable man with dreadlocks, Bonga spoke from his "zabuton": "Ask me anything."

I didn't know what to ask. I felt the way my students must feel when I say to them, "Ask me a question in English." I was searching for the right questions, but nothing came. So I did what my students do under these circumstances. As articulately as possible, I blurted out single words. As I gained confidence, I worked up to full sentences.

Me: Voodoo!

Bonga: Voodoo is a religion, just like any other religion. It was brought to Haiti by African slaves and was a unifying force for them. Vodoo is what gave the slaves in Haiti the strength to overcome Napoleon's army and gain freedom in 1804. So you can see, voodoo is very strong.

But what you know about vodoo is probably its misrepresentation by the media and the entertainment industry as evil, barbaric and criminal. In truth, voodoo represents a positive force in Haitian culture. Vodoo combines wisdom with beauty and utilizes elements of music and dance to bring happiness.

Me: Zombies!

Bonga: I don't know about zombies because my father didn't teach me about this. Nonetheless, I have heard about people who have risen from the dead. In actuality, they probably never died. Most likely, it came about when people were given a drug that made their heartbeat so weak that people thought they were dead. The person was then buried. After a couple of days, when they're taken out of the grave, they're still alive but because the oxygen was so limited, they are left brain damaged and mute. People then used them as labor to work in the fields. But zombies are not voodoo. Evil, crime or negativism has never been a part of voodoo.

Me: What about possession? Fire!

Bonga: There are many gods in voodoo. The god of fire is Ogou. Ogou calls for the liberation of negativity. When the Ogou spirit enters someone's body, that person is possessed by him. The possessed person can enter the fire, dance around, even eat the fire and not be harmed.

Me: How did you become a voodoo priest?

Bonga: Not anyone can become a priest. You have to see it in a dream or you have to hear it from someone who is possessed. My father was a voodoo priest and he had a dream that I would become one. I had to stay in a room and study for seven days. I couldn't leave the room for seven days. The only person I could talk to was the person who would initiate me. The study of voodoo is very secret.

Bonga also showed us how to dance to Haitian music. The dance steps are easy and fun. It's like doing aerobics in slow motion while holding a beer in your hand. It's that easy and it feels happy.

One part of a voodoo priest's job is to help sick people. If something is ailing you, Bonga won't prescribe aspirin. He'll probably prescribe an instrument instead. Listen to the entrancing M'bira, for example, and headaches and stomach aches will disappear.

Bonga brought out a baton, entering a playful communication with it as he threw it back and forth between his hands and balanced it on his arms. He calls the baton "jon." He passed the jon around the back of my head in a circle. "This is to bring happiness," he said.

"Tanbou," the conga drum, is one of the most important elements of a voodoo ceremony and is used to call the voodoo gods. Bonga makes his drums himself from gum trees and goat skin. Bonga's drums have called up more than voodoo gods -- they've called up some of the human gods as well: He has toured with Grace Jones and opened for the Rolling Stones on their Voodoo Lounge tour in 1994. This is some serious voodoo. His own band called Culture Shock, just finished a tour in Japan to promote their new CD of the same name.

Bonga has left now, but my living room isn't quiet. Original voodoo beats are pulsing out of the stereo from Bonga's solo "Kanzo" CD. I'm hoping this CD will call up some of the voodoo gods. If they do come, you'll be the first to know.

This is Amy Chavez, reporting from my living room.

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com

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