Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism

By Weems, Mickey | Western Folklore, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism


Weems, Mickey, Western Folklore


Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism. By Michael Largey. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. xvi + 284, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, illustrations, musical notation, glossary, notes, bibliography, index. $60.00 cloth, $25.00 paper)

The relationship between local folk culture and elitist culture is often constructed simply as oppositional. The reality, however, is much more complex a complexity well illustrated in Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism. Author Michael Largey points out the role that composers in Haiti have played in negotiating boundaries between elite and folk, and religion and politics, and in the ambivalent relations between Haiti and the United States (occupiers or supporters?) since Haitian independence.

According to Largey, Haitian and African American musicians and authors have - multiple times - ignored, "discovered," and repackaged Haitian folk music in forms amenable to aesthetic legitimization and international consumption as a commodity. The roots of Haitian music in Vodou rhythms, rituals, and cosmology have been framed as a basis for authenticity in Haitian folklore both by those who denigrate local Haitian culture and by those who enshrine it as speaking the truths of a people. These roots have been co-opted time and again by just about everyone (except for the Haitian ruling class) as a prime part of pan-African cultural heritage.

Largey's approach is to present a chronicle of negotiation by various literary and musical artists, such as Jean Price-Mars (1876-1969) and Occide Jeanty (1860-1936), who collaborated on musical stage dramatizations of Haitian history. The chronicle includes the United States military occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) and the use of music by Haitian noirist elites to lampoon the occupying force (Largey 2005), as well as pilgrimage to Haiti by composer Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960), poet John Frederick Matheus (1887-1963), and poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) in search of their African roots during the Harlem Renaissance. Haitian African culture (especially Vodou) is re-imagined, re-packaged, and occasionally performed by American dance ethnographers Melville Herskovits (1895-1963), Harold Courlander (1908-1996), Maya Deren (1917-1961), and Katherine Dunham (1906-2006).

Much of what inspires this process is what Largey calls diasporic cosmopolitanism, a pan-African consciousness in which Haiti is lauded as the first independent Black nation and a reservoir of African traditions. Largey shows how the French components of Haitian culture were privileged initially but displaced in the twentieth century by Dahomean and Bantu components. …

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