One of the most common associations with New Orleans is Voodoo, and also one of the most common misconceptions. It’s not all about putting hexes on people – that’s not our style here in New Orleans, which is largely derived from the Haitian practice of Vodou. In this episode of GoNOLA Radio, our hosts are here to set the record straight.
Our resident Vodou expert and ordained Vodou priest, George Ingmire from WWOZ’s New Orleans All the Way Live, delves into what Vodou is really all about and where you can see it represented at services and shops in New Orleans, like the Island of Salvation Botanica run by Vodou Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman in the New Orleans Healing Center. New Orleans Food Goddess, Lorin Gaudin, tells us where we can have an authentic Haitian meal on the West Bank. Mikko explains when Vodou came into play in New Orleans, after the influx of Haitian settlers escaping the revolution in the 1790s.
So next time you’re in New Orleans, when someone wants to visit the Voodoo Museum or go shopping for candles and dolls, you can impress them with your insider intel.
GoNOLA Radio is a free New Orleans podcast hosted by Sunpie Barnes, Lorin Gaudin, George Ingmire and Mikko about the food, music and culture of the Crescent City. Subscribe to GoNOLA Radio on iTunes or download to your mobile device on Stitcher. GoNOLA Radio features music by Cale Pellick.
Sunpie: Welcome to GoNOLA Radio. My name is Sunpie Barnes and I will be
your host of hosts as we explore New Orleans to learn about the city’s rich
cultural heritage, food and music. We bring you experts–the real deal
experts–who will talk with you about the people who make New Orleans such
a wonderful place to live and visit. It’s GoNOLA Radio.
Mikko: New Orleans is the center of a lot of universes, including the
Haitian Diaspora when that nation was formed in the 1790’s. And, one of
the big influences that they brought here is a word that scares some
people, excites others, and today, we’re going to take it dead-on. We’re
talking about Voodoo and I have two of my great friends here with me to
help tackle it. From the cultural, religious import and music standpoint,
we’re going to have George Ingmire…
George: Hi. That’s me.
Mikko: …who’s bit of an expert on things Voodoo and can set the record
straight on some of that stuff. And also, there’s always a food component
in New Orleans.
Mikko: And that’s why I always love to have you on my right, Lorin Gaudin.
Mikko: So, let’s call this the Haitian/Voodoo episode. My name is Mikko.
I alluded earlier to a big revolution in the 1790’s, when Toussaint
L’Ouverture took over and Haiti became the first black independent republic
in the world. They modeled themselves on the American Democratic model.
But, where New Orleans was concerned, between 1795 and 1800, when New
Orleans was still a European colony, the population basically doubled. We
were getting 10,000 Haitians a month coming in. And these were free people
of color. They were escaping the ravages of a revolution much like what’s
going on in Syria today.
They settled into New Orleans and they brought a very specific thing.
We’re going to talk about Voodoo in a second but, the cooking style, you’re
going to talk about. They also brought in the music, the color–a lot of
Carnival is based on this influence. Did you know, the first theater in
New Orleans was on the site of where Pat O’Brien’s is today? And that was
a Haitian musical–not really “club”–but it was a place where these new
immigrants to the United States celebrated their music and dance, and put
on festivals and things.
Lorin: No, I didn’t know that at all. That’s awesome!
Mikko: And, that became, really, the first “theater” theater in New
Orleans that wasn’t just an opera house. And it was also the first place
you could go–it wasn’t called the Quarter then–but you go and see an
exotic exhibition. But, it’s interesting. Haitian French–which is a
patois, the Creole, they call it–is, very interestingly, very similar to
the way that New Orleans people speak English. You know?
Lorin: And, it’s so fascinating, too. Because, I was in a restaurant and
they were looking sideways a bit at me and I was just ready to experience
the whole thing. And, they started speaking French, and the French was
just enough for me to understand and I could speak just enough Parisian
style French for them to understand. And, in between was that patois and,
when you listen really carefully, it’s so fascinating, because it is like a
jumble of French, and English, and the Creole. It is its own language and
it is stunningly beautiful.
George: In Haitian Creole, if I were to tell you my name, the full way of
saying it would be, “Mwen rele George,” but the “M” gets kind of swallowed.
A lot of times, words kind of just merge into each other, so I would
actually kind of go “M’rele George,”…
George: …which is like “I’m George.”
Mikko: We got into this Haitian thing and we’re going to explore that some
more, but let’s specifically focus in on Voodoo. I’m sure that people…
Mikko: I don’t know, was that a good thing you just said?
George: I don’t know. It’s kind of like an “amen.” A Voodoo “amen.”
Mikko: Excellent. People listening in, I’m sure–and even through my
research, I’m not an expert, by any means–I do know it’s not this big,
leering, evil thing that has been portrayed. Like in the famous James Bond
Lorin: “Live and Let Die”?
Mikko: …”Live and Let Die,” which was a beautiful movie, but it’s a
little cartoon-ish. And, there’s been a few other–a lot of other
depictions. And, one last thing. When Marie Laveau died, they ran a full
page obituary for her in “The Saturday Evening Post.” And it was elegantly
written, but it was so full of fabrication and the page, itself, had swamps
with skulls and dripping Spanish moss. It was creepy and it was actually–
today, it would be seen as insulting. You know?
It’s a testament to her greatness that she got a full page and that they
knew about her in New York, but at the same time…George, finally a
question that it could take a two-hour show to answer. What is Voodoo,
specifically, and Haitian Voodoo, and really, where does conception come
from that it’s some kind of a bad thing?
George: Well, begin with the conception of it being bad. The accounts
that we have about Voodoo, that we still kind of hold onto today in
America, were written by the Colonial slave masters, who, indeed, were the
actual evil ones. The slaves, themselves, were practicing something that
had to do with rebuilding their lives spiritually, physically, emotionally,
because you’re talking about religious groups, tribes, that were torn apart
in one part of the world and then had to rebuild their existences here in
the Western Hemisphere.
Out of Haiti, you had a big influx of people who were dealing with the same
thing. So, Voodoo’s been maligned in film all along. It’s always
something really spooky. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I still
get calls from producers. They want to cover Voodoo and they know
that…I’m an ordained Voodoo priest, actually. I’m an houngan. I
initiated in Haiti and I also initiated here in New Orleans. So,
Lorin: Isn’t that brilliant?
George: It’s pretty interesting stuff.
Lorin: Yeah, it’s amazing!
George: It’s weird for me to say I’m a Voodoo priest, though, because most
of the time, I just feel like George.
Lorin: And you look like him, too.
George: Yes. So, nonetheless, they call me up and I start telling them
about it and then, they want to hear about the evil stuff. And I’m like,
“I don’t know much about that, actually. I mean, I know some things you
can do, if you really want to like, cause harm, but I would never suggest
it, or even give you advice on how to do it. It’s just, like, stuff I
don’t want to go into.”
But, at the heart of Voodoo is seeking spiritual balance and community
balance. Ceremonies are put in place to restore those harmonies. People
may have physical, or mental, or emotional wounds that need to be
harmonized. Well, ceremony’s one way of doing that. There’s drumming,
there’s dancing, there’s singing, and then there’s spirit possession, which
is not like exorcist style possession. It’s trance.
And at the heart of trance, it’s just like when you’re watching an actor
onstage who embodies his character–as you can imagine, Mikko–when you
become more, it’s no longer just Mikko when you’re in character. Something
steps in and you’re personified by a larger entity.
In Voodoo, you’re personified by something archetypal. You could be a
warrior like Ogou. Or, you could be a woman who’s always in love but
always disappointed by love: Erzulie Freda. Or, you can be a really
pissed off woman, who’s protecting single women, like Erzulie D’en Tort.
Or, you can be kind of a sacred clown and slightly naughty, like Ghede, who
rules over the cemeteries, and sexuality, and regeneration.
Lorin: But, where do these spirit sources come from? Is there a Christian
base, or are they of their own evolution?
George: Well, they come about, in some ways, from actual people. In other
ways, they’re just mythological figures, in a way. They’re distillations
of…archetypes, I guess, would be a real heady way of describing it. And
there is some Christianity woven into it. There’s a couple of ways of
looking at this. Some people say, well there are people that are
practicing Voodoo and using saints as a front. But, that’s probably not
true because, the little I know about Voodoo–from hanging out with people
from Haiti–is that if something makes sense, they fit it in, they
assimilate it. So, when they see…
Lorin: So, when it makes sense, it makes sense.
George: …when they see St. Patrick, with the snakes, they think of
Damballah. You know?
Lorin: Oh, interesting!
George: When they see St. Michael, with the sword, they think of the
warrior, Ogou. Even more recently, Darth Vader appears in a film, and what
he represents is spookiness. And then you’ve got Baron Samedi, who
actually plays a really large role in New Orleans style Voodoo. Baron
Samedi is one of the Haitian rooted Voodoo spirits that finds its way into
New Orleans Voodoo. New Orleans Voodoo is slightly different from the
stuff I’m familiar with and the stuff that I actually practice and drum.
Lorin: In what way?
George: There’s more of a focus, in New Orleans Voodoo, on ancestor
worship and less on the spiritual pantheon, even though there is access to
that. Legba plays a really large role in New Orleans. You’ll hear
references to Legba. Legba’s like the gatekeeper, the, you know…
Lorin: Kind of the St. Peter, if you will?
George: The St. Peter. Exactly. New Orleans Voodoo has a legitimacy.
For anyone coming into the city, there are tons of shops where you can buy
spiritual supplies, spiritual art.
Lorin: Like gris-gris bags and juju bags, and herbs and so on, right?
George: Yeah. All throughout the French Quarter, there’s shops like that.
Then, there’s some that are outside of the Quarter. There’s the Botanica
over there on Broad Street. Then, there’s the Island of Salvation Botanica,
which is part of the only recently built healing center.
Lorin: Yeah. Fabulous, right? On St. Claude.
George: It’s an interesting place where you can do Yoga. You can buy
organic food. You can listen to music. You can eat Turkish food. Right
on the first floor is the Island of Salvation Botanica, where Sallie Ann
George: …she can do readings for you. You can buy incense. You can buy
Lorin: They have candles. You know, all that good stuff. I love them!
George: They have all kinds of interesting prayer candles. Something,
just before I get off my little box here: prayer candles. They’re all
over the city. They’re in Walmart. You won’t necessarily find prayer
candles in Walmart in Boise, Idaho.
George: But, you’re going to find them here, because throughout New
Orleans, people practice something they don’t even know is Voodoo anymore.
But, those candles are used to petition the saints to effect change in
people’s lives. In Haiti, they say 70% of Haitians are Catholic, 30% of
them are Protestant and 100% of them are Voodoo practitioners.
Lorin: That’s awesome.
George: So, even if you don’t necessarily know you’re doing it, you’re
Mikko: What are we going to eat? What do the Haitians bring to the table
in New Orleans?
Lorin: Well, it’s a fascinating thing, because I was very surprised to
know that we haven’t had–we’ve got tons of Haitian people but, because the
food is really a common home cookery style of food, you don’t really have
restaurants, per se. However, recently, I discovered an actual Haitian
restaurant called [Belle Fouchette]–not “fourchette,” which just means
“fork” in French, but “Fouchette.” And it’s on Holmes Blvd. on the West
Bank. If you get off Holmes Blvd., you get off the bridge. I almost called
it the GNO–now doesn’t that tell you something? The Crescent City
Connection and you take Terry Pkwy. It splits at some point and that
becomes Holmes Blvd.
Then you head towards Behrman Hwy. Right before Behrman, on the left hand
side, is this building, and inside of it is Belle Fouchette. Beautiful,
beautiful Haitian people. They recently opened and I just went in because
curiosity killed this cat, and I always have to find out what’s going on.
And, they were so amazing, because they knew that I was not very familiar
with their food. And, they just fed my youngest son and I like we were
family, and it was incredible.
When George mentioned earlier, about recognizing French–one of the dishes
that I ate was called bouillon. And in French, bouillon is just broth.
It’s soup. Now, to the Haitians, bouillon is a completely different thing.
It is, indeed, a soup, but it’s more of a stew. There’s meat in it and
there’s different types of plantains, and starchy types of root veg, and
things in bouillon that give it some girth and some filling. It gives it
And, what’s fascinating to me about that is that, obviously, what they did
was incorporate what was available to the Haitian people, in Haiti. So,
you have lots of fruits and starchy veg and beans. Really simple, clean
and obvious the foods that could grow in the tropical climate. Then, they
brought that here. And, it’s not too dissimilar from the African peoples
that also brought that same kind of thing. Whether they brought okra, or
they brought beans and rice and those kinds of things.
So, bouillon–I’d never had it before–absolutely gorgeous! Sometimes,
they’ll use goat meat in the bouillon. Sometimes it’s beef. I believe
this was goat meat, the day that I had it, and it was incredible! I got
chunks of different kinds of root veg like boniato. If you’re listening
and you’re of Latino origin, you’ll know what boniato is. It’s a starchy
root veg that has a sweetness to it, somewhat like a white sweet potato.
There were chunks of that, chunks of plantain–both sweet and savory
plantain. There was yuca malanga, all these starchy root veg in there with
beans. And then the soup broth and the meat. And, I’m not kidding, it was
And then, the other thing that they offered–they have a little bit of
everything, whether it’s chicken or fish–they had something on the menu
that was called tasso. Well, we’re from New Orleans, we know what tasso
is. It’s that spicy ham that we make. Nope. It’s fried meat, typically
goat. So, we had a big plate of fried goat meat, or fried beef cubes. I
mean, sometimes it’s beef, sometimes it’s goat. But, it’s fried cubes of
meat. In this case, I know it was goat, because it was chock-full of
bones. And if you’ve ever eaten chunks of goat meat, you know you’re
always constantly pulling those little bones out.
The way they did it was, they just dropped it in chunks, into the fryer, so
there was no batter, there was no coating. It has crispy on the outside
and then, in the interior, tender, tender goat meat, and that little bit of
gamy flavor to it that just gives it the punch that you’re looking for
served with mashed, twice-fried savory plantains, green plantains, which we
might otherwise understand as tostones if you’re from the South American
cultures here. So, tostones on the side.
Also, an incredible Creole style sauce with a tomato base and a little bit
of seasoning that you might drag your foods through that, again, wasn’t
bold in flavor, but just enhanced everything in front of you. And then, my
favorite part of the meal was this simply silly salad of iceberg lettuce.
And I thought, well, how in the world? Where did that come from?
But, sure enough, as I did my research on Haitian food, what I discovered
is that is a very common salad. Iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, maybe a creamy,
Italian style dressing. And that is how you eat. You have a green salad
on your plate, tostones, maybe the fried meat. Bouillon is usually served
on Saturdays, typically speaking. It’s kind of like the menudo, if you
will, of Haiti.
And that one restaurant, I had this full-on, incredible Haitian experience
and the food was magnificent, and it was inexpensive. You’d never want to
say that it was “cheap,” because, of course, that would imply something
else. Reasonable, I think, is the right word and such a cultural
experience. And, I think if you have that opportunity, to go to the West
Bank and seek this place out, I think you should absolutely do so.
If you’re in town, we’ve got a lot of African style restaurants, and I say
“African style” because some of them are owned by African peoples, and they
do African foods from different countries in Africa. So, you have
benachin, which really concentrates on the West and the Cameroon area and
the food of that region, which are one kind of thing. And, recently, we’ve
been very fortunate to have Eritrean or East African food, Ethiopian food
land on our doorsteps here. We have two restaurants now, one called Cafe
Abyssinia and the other, of course, is called Nile.
Now, those foods, because they’re from different parts of Africa, really
have nothing to do with Voodoo and nothing to do with Haiti. It’s just
that the foodstuffs have this certain similar vibration and soul to them,
and you can get a flavor and a taste of what these peoples were eating and
what came to our incredible city and became the foundation for dishes like
gumbo, red beans and rice, white beans and–whatever kind of stewed beans–
because that’s what they eating and that’s what they cooked, and that’s how
our food culture formed.
Mikko: We’re going to wrap things up here, but I want to talk about one
more thing and George, you may be able to speak to this. If you’re coming
to town, is there a way to have a Voodoo experience? Public sorts of
things that people can attend?
George: Absolutely. There are public ceremonies throughout the year. We
just had one this weekend, which was like a hurricane ceremony, to ward off
hurricanes, over at the temple that Sallie Glassman has. There’s the Day
of the Dead ceremony on November 1st, which is a pretty amazing one. It’s
George: …bunch of black and purple, and just a pretty amazing ceremony.
There’s a ceremony on the Bayou for Marie Laveau in June.
Mikko: All right, kids. Thank you so much, again. It’s always a joy. I
learn so much here. Really…
Mikko: …we should talk to our bosses about getting honorary degrees in
whatever we talk about. But, thank you so much and, I guess, I don’t know.
How do you say “goodbye” in Haitian? Do you have a salutation? Good
luck? Amen, what was the “amen”?
Mikko and Gaudin Together: Ayibobo.
Sunpie: GoNOLA Radio is a production of New Orleans Tourism and Marketing
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