A report by Adolf Alzuphar for The Brooklyn Rail.
Electro-vodou is a new genre of Haitian music that has emerged with a mission to bring traditional Haitian Vodou music to the world’s trance dance floors. By melding Vodou rhythm—meant to ask deities resting in trees and in water for guidance, through song and dance—to trance, which aims to possess a dancer’s body through secular music, electro-vodou explodes the possibilities of traditional rhythms and lyrics, which are very intricate and demand dedication to learn. It is the newest of the styles of Vodou music (vodou-jazz, vodou-rap, vodou-rock, Rasin Seche) making their way in the world. Gardy Girault, Michael Brun, Val Jeanty, Chouk Bwa and The Ångstromers, and Erol Josué have all produced noteworthy electro-vodou and are the pioneers of the genre.
Haitian Vodou was created as a way to bring the different faiths of slaves from different African tribes together with indigenous Haitians, the Taino, as a single religion. The first maroon communities on the island of Hispaniola’s Bahoruco mountains were made up of Taino and escaped ex-slaves who produced an independent way of life with a religion that would go on to become Vodou.
Music and dance have played a central role in the religion. Vodouisants, those who serve the deities, or lwa, of vodou, dance and sing a liturgy to hundreds of different lwa, each with a song. These are services that can be performed at home, but Vodou music is used in ceremonies inside of ounfòs, Vodou temples. The master of ceremonies is the houngan (if male) or manbo (female), who become kanzo and Asogwe, able to speak to the different lwa, by meeting Papa Loko, a Taino god with adepts in South America—where the Taino originate. Drums are the ceremony’s main instruments, played by the Hountagi, along with the Ason, a sort of rattle played by the houngan/manbo, and triangles, Ogan, and bells. The singer is a simidor if a man, or a renn chantrel if a woman. A choir (a ke a ounsi) is often used, depending on the prominence of the ounfò.
Vodou ceremonies often go on for hours, one song after the other. Electro-vodou brings the music of these ceremonies to trance dance floors. The DJ becomes the new master of ceremonies and replaces the houngan. The simidor, renn chantrel, ke a ounsi, samba, hountagi, all become part of the electro-aesthetic. Tradition and modernity meet in every electro-vodou composition. In some compositions, the houngan takes the ceremony back from the DJ, turning electro-vodou into a magical festivity. Gardy Girault, Val Jeanty, and Michael Brun are all DJs who replace the houngan. Erol Josué and Chouk Bwa are houngans, producing Vodou.
Gardy Girault’s “Papa Pyè” (2020) is a great example of electro-vodou by a DJ. It features singer Erol Josué as houngan—Josué is famous as a museum director in Haiti. On Papa Pyè he is simply a simido, offering a rendition of a traditional song that Girault nests beautifully in pulsating polyphony. “Sole,” (2016) featuring James Germain as a simidor, does the same. It’s music meant to delight the ecology of a dancefloor. Girault’s music is especially popular in Port-au-Prince and Pétion-Ville, two of Haiti’s wealthiest and most dynamic cities. For audiences into lifestyle and not Vodou he offers unique and well-produced dance nights, along with producing songs and albums that most often include bande a pye, Haitian street band, wind instrumentation.
Val Jeanty, known as Val-Inc, does the same in New York City. An impressive musician who performs as both a percussionist and a DJ, she has collaborated with Henry Threadgill. She considers her music Afro Electronica. She often paints her face and sports a bald head, as innovative stylistically as she is musically. “Legba” (2011) is a personal favorite, it sounds like a contortion and distortion of both electronica and the traditional Vodou song “legba nan barye a” which we hear as “ba nan barye a” over majestic drumming. Compare it to Gardy Girault’s “Legba” (2015)—his is straight forward entertainment.
Michael Brun is the best known of the electro-vodou DJs and has been profiled by Esquire. His is the most mainstream sound, and his collaboration with Paul Beaubrun “Vodou Seremoni” (2019), from Rasanbleman (Red Moon), works because Beabrun’s pop singing melds well with Brun’s music. Like Girault, Brun uses a lot of bande a pye wind instrumentation in his music, as in “Vodou Seremoni.”
Chouk Bwa and The Ångstromers Vodou Alé (2020) is the most impressive electro-vodou album to date. The members of Chouk Bwa belong to Lakou Soukri, one of Haiti’s oldest and most prestigious Vodou temples. Recorded in Brussels, the album combines the rawness of Chouk Bwa’s vodou drumming and singing, and the sublime of The Ångstromers electro. “Vodou Ale,” the title track, is a masterpiece of raw drumming, singing, and electronica. It reaches heights of trance and Vodou, while never forgetting the raw voices in Vodou temples. Via email, producer Michael Wolteche wrote that electro-vodou has the potential to appeal to listeners of African electro groups like Konoko No. 1, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Erol Josué makes vodou-pop, vodou-jazz, and electro-vodou. His music is not entertainment; it is Vodou. A self-described Simidor Lagodwesan (ladogwesan is a necklace with beads representing lwa) Josué’s album Régléman (2007) features electro-vodou on several tracks. The name of the album says it all: regleman in Vodou are rules to follow, and we find ourselves following Vodou for guidance.
Electro-vodou is in the Creole language and Creole culture, a culture born in the Caribbean from the early need for Europeans, Africans, and natives to communicate with each other for commercial, political, and intimate reasons. The process by which they became coherent to one another is creolization, and it is this process that has led to electro-vodou. It’s a rich new genre with a bright future.