Sounds of the Spirit: New Orleans Voodoo and Haitian Vodou Drumming

Djembe 4 by Dave Gates.

Nothing typifies Voodoo spirit better than the drum. Literally the heartbeat of the tradition, the drums are the hands of Voodoo. They carry the messages of the divine through their skins. It reverberates and permeates our bodies and we are trance-formed. In New Orleans Voodoo and Haitian Vodou there are rhythms for each specific Lwa or deity. It is like the Lwa’s theme song, it is played both to call and to honor. Music is present at all rituals.

The first famous Voodoo drummer to gain popularity was Dr. John Montaigne. He operated as High Priest to Marie Laveau’s High Priestess and by many accounts he was almost as impressive as she was. Reported to be Senegalese royalty, he is said to have had many wives and a face tattooed with red and blue snakes. Marie Laveau herself has been the subject of many a tune, New Orleans Jazz or not, and  performed by everyone from Dr. John (Mac Rebennack), Big Chief Alfred Doucette, The Hanna Barbarians, Canned Heat, Bobby Bare and many others. The roots of N’awlins sacred music , however echo forth from the drum.

My recommendation for New Orleans Voodoo music is the cd titled simply Voodoo created by the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and featuring the lovely sounds of Priestess Miriam Chamani and Louis Maritinie drumming along with others. This collection features song and chants for Legba, the gatekeeper, Ogun, the Ancestors,

Voodoo Priestess Miriam Chamani as Queen of Krewe du Vieux 2010, photo by Lilith Dorsey.

Les Gede, Mami Wata, Omo Chango, and more. There is an amazing rendition of the Yen Valou (Yanvalou,) a traditional serpent rhythm of roots and resistance. As a member of the temple I can honestly say that one of the beauties of this cd is that it accurately represents the glory and the soul of the temple experience. It is a wonderful choice for ceremony and/or celebration. Louis Martinie is also the architect of Ritual Drumming: Evoking the Sacred thru Rhythms of the Spirit, created with his partner Mishlen Linden. Martinie is a phenomenal drummer and teacher, and he has served as Temple drummer, Bokor and most recently Priest for the past two decades. I am proud to call both him and Priestess Miriam friends and spiritual family.

Most of traditional Haitian Vodou recordings exist only on vinyl. Leading the list of my favorite collection of ritual Haitian music is Bonnie Devlin’s Action of Grace. She is another individual that I am proud to have as a spiritual mentor and friend. This cd includes sacred tracks for the ancestors, and for the different nations (nanchon) or Lwa such as Ibo, Petro and more. It functions as a complete ritual playlist from start to finish and I highly recommend it.

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