Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Music, Vodou, and Rhythm in Nineteenth-Century Haiti

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Music, Vodou, and Rhythm in Nineteenth-Century Haiti

Article excerpt

Across the Americas, across time, people of African origin have often nurtured (and been nurtured by) a close relationship with music. In situations of social or political repression, music has many times functioned as a tool of resistance, a means of expression that even the most stringent forms of control- slavery, segregation, dictatorships- have been unable to silence. Because many New World systems of control have been founded on racial differentiations, and served primarily the interests of white elites, black music's political resistance has most often been structured around questions of race and been directed toward those same elements in white society that perpetuate black subjugation. In short, black music in the Americas has often been a means of attacking, overtly or tacitly, ruling elites, and this resistance is often figured around a dichotomous, black/white model of social and cultural relations. What happens to this music and to this dualistic socio-cultural model, though, when the white elite is eliminated, and when ruling elites are themselves black? What becomes of the music, which previously was valorized as a force for resistance and liberation, once freedom has been achieved and the task of forming a modern state imposes itself? In considering the case of nineteenth-century Haiti, this article identifies some of the cultural paradoxes, contradictions, and ambivalences that can arise when the internal black/white dichotomy is eradicated from a former colony, and its cultural relations can no longer be conceived of in a strictly racial framework. Ranging through nineteenth-century Haitian history, politics, religion, music, dance, and literature, the article considers in particular how colonial conceptions of Vodou and its music and rhythms were in many ways replicated in the discourse of post-revolution Haiti, as the nation's elite stumbled toward realizing the most fundamental aims of the revolution.

Toussaint's decree

In January 1800, Toussaint Louverture, one of the great leaders of the slave insurgency in Saint-Domingue, issued a decree that outlawed "nocturnal assemblies and dances." Peaceful cultivators, Toussaint said, had been led away from their work in the fields by men with "bad intentions" to gatherings and dances, principally, he said, "those of Vaudoux." Such practices were, Toussaint said, contrary to the principles of true "friends to their country," and were moreover subversive activities that would henceforth be punished physically or by imprisonment (qtd. in Dubois, Avengers 244). A year later, Toussaint's constitution brought further restrictions on popular black culture, and declared that Catholicism was to be the only "publicly professed" religion in the land. Taking care to limit the extent of individual priests' "spiritual administration," Toussaint promoted Christian family values, "civil and religious marriage," and general "purity of habits" among the populace.

While the ex-slaves of Saint-Domingue were caught in the paradox that in order to defend freedom, they effectively had to surrender their freedom to Toussaint's state (Dubois, Avengers 245), there also existed a similar paradox in terms of culture. Toussaint's 1800 decree prohibiting Vodou dances meant that in order to be free politically, the ex-slaves had to surrender their cultural freedom to Toussaint's state, which essentially amounted to a perpetuation of the racist policies of popular cultural suppression that had characterized French colonial rule. Indeed, the suppression of Vodou ceremonies was nothing new in the colony; it was already prohibited by the Code Noir of 1685. The Catholic Church had worked assiduously toward eradicating African "superstitious" practices, and its missionaries were responsible for a series of police rulings that restricted the movements of slaves and controlled the use of objects associated with Vodou rituals (Gisler 78-79). In particular, the Police Rulings of 1758 and 1777 prohibited slaves "under penalty of death" from meeting during the day or night, under the pretext of celebrating weddings or marking the deaths of fellow slaves. …

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