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Haiti: Voodoo rock ’n’ roots

It’s Thursday night at heritage hotel, the Hotel Oloffson. About 50 locals are jostling to see through a hatch from the bar area, while others attempt to gyrate between tables in the stifling heat. On stage, to whoops of delight, resident ‘voodoo rock ’n’ roots’ band RAM produce what look like double football vuvuzelas.

Haiti: Voodoo rock ’n’ roots
Voodoo offerings. Image: Debbie Ward

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As the musicians make a volley of blasts through the unwieldy horns, singer Richard Morse, who’s also the hotel’s owner, lets rip at the mic, his white dreadlocks draped over what looks like a chef’s outfit. He’s certainly cooking up a storm.

This is Haiti’s capital Port Au Prince, four years after its earthquake, and any lingering concerns I had that being a tourist might somehow still be in bad taste have just melted along with the make-up of the partying Haitians.

True, out on the streets, red corrugated iron surrounds the gaps where a host of government buildings once stood, the Catholic cathedral is just a facade and there is still, if not a tent city, a tent town.

However, many roads remain unscathed and there’s a pervading buzz of business. Every second person I see seems to be selling something: bottled water, fruit, motor parts, lottery tickets, football flags, souvenirs… Souvenirs? It turns out tourists are not as scarce as I thought, it’s just that most, as yet, are returning Haitian ex-pats.

Voodoo, or vodou, as its called locally, is partly responsible for this optimism. It’s the country’s underpinning faith and culture, and I encounter it through candlelit woodland vigils, market stalls of potions, art and, yes, even rock music.

In fact the world’s most successful slave revolution, through which Haiti’s dispossessed Africans gained freedom from the French, was launched with a vodou ceremony.

“Vodou gave the slaves a common way to come together,” academic and guide Emmanuel Brignol tells me. “They were worried about a genocide of their beliefs.”

The 18th-century slaves first rebelled by transposing their spiritual figures onto the Catholic saints they were forced to worship. In more recent times, under home-grown political oppression, RAM turned its vodou rock to similarly subversive ends, its lyrics earning it death threats from the 1990s military junta.

The words may be mostly in Creole, but I’m feeling the power of the music myself. Dabbing my forehead to stop the sweat dripping into my rum and lime, I tell myself if it were possible to actually raise the roof on the Oloffson’s covered courtyard and relieve the heat, these guys would make it happen.

I step out for a breather and find a grotto under the hotel entrance where some freakish art is picked out in candlelight. A statue of a diminutive top-hatted spiritual figure reminds me of Odd Job from the Bond films. Behind him, there’s a nail studded relief of a half-sunken baby doll, while another’s dismembered limbs frame a similarly nightmarish scene. It looks like Barbie wouldn’t stand much chance here, but I’m assured this is the expression of a benign faith.

From inside, I hear RAM still keeping up a vodou beat passed down from the drums of slaves.