But wait a minute! Who said I can’t sing? I think I did. How did the child of two musicians, one a pianist, the other a singer—yes, a singer—become so timid with her voice? Is it reversible? Well, I will never be a Nina Simone or a Toto Bissainthe, and that’s okay. But I can probably take some lessons from those incredible people who make up the Vodou chorus, the sèvitè (servants of the spirits) who belt it out in a perfect cacophony of sweetness and soul, and hitting the wrong notes is not a problem.
The Vodou song repertory is boundless. Ougan (priest) Max Beauvoir compiled a collection of 1,700 chants, and that was scratching the surface. As you travel through Haiti, you keep hearing songs you’ve never heard before. Songs are often born from dreams, or in the mouths of the possessed. And when you look up close, you see and hear that many songs are fresh takes on others. In fact, each song has a gazillion variants.
Another amazing fact: no rehearsal. The sèvitè simply grow up in the tradition and know the songs. Each brings her fully-fledged repertory to the dance. Okay, but each knows different variants. So without rehearsal, won’t they all be singing a slightly different thing? Or maybe even a very different thing? Yes, and that’s the point! That’s the aesthetic. An assortment of persons, each with his or her own style, melting into pooled energy: the perfect balance of the individual and the collective.
Just one more thing. How about the guy who can’t hold a tune? And there’s always at least one. Not a problem. The Vodou chorus has room for all.
Think about it, girl, and the next time an opportunity raises its head, belt it out.
Audio selection: The society of Manbo Francilia Chery (aka Cocotte) sings for the Vodou spirit Ayizan, the consummate manbo, protector of initiates, and guardian of the marketplace. Port-au-Prince, 1985. Recording by Lois Wilcken.
Featured image: Sèvitè sing for the spirits at a dance in Cyvadier in the southeast of Haiti, December 9, 2014. Photo by Lois Wilcken.