A Transatlantic History of Haitian Vodou
Rasin Figuier, Rasin Bwa Kayiman, and the Rada and Gede Rites
A unique historical examination of Haitian Vodou’s political and religious origins
Connecting four centuries of political, social, and religious history with fieldwork and language documentation, A Transatlantic History of Haitian Vodou analyzes Haitian Vodou’s African origins, transmission to Saint-Domingue, and promulgation through song in contemporary Haiti.
Split into two sections, the African chapters focus on history, economics, and culture in Dahomey, Allada, and Hueda while scrutinizing the role of Europeans in fomenting tensions. The political, military, and slave trading histories of the kingdoms in the Bight of Benin reveal the circumstances of enslavement, including the geographies, ethnicities, languages, and cultures of enslavers and enslaved. The study of the spirits, rituals, structure, and music of the region’s religions sheds light on important sources for Haitian Vodou. Having royal, public, and private expressions, Vodun spirit-based traditions served as cultural systems that supported or contested power and enslavement. At once suppliers and victims of the European slave trade, the people of Dahomey, Allada, and Hueda deeply shaped the emergence of Haiti’s creolized culture.
The Haitian chapters focus on Vodou’s Rada Rite (from Allada) and Gede Rite (from Abomey) through the songs of Rasin Figuier’s Vodou Lakay and Rasin Bwa Kayiman’s Guede, legendary rasin compact discs released on Jean Altidor’s Miami label, Mass Konpa Records. All the Vodou songs on the discs are analyzed with a method dubbed “Vodou hermeneutics” that harnesses history, religious studies, linguistics, literary criticism, and ethnomusicology in order to advance a scholarly approach to Vodou songs.
"A Transatlantic History of Haitian Vodou definitely makes an original contribution to the fields of Haitian studies, ethnomusicology, comparative religion, and Africana studies. At the center of the book is a transcription of lyrics from two albums of Vodou music released in 2004. In themselves, these lyrics in Haitian Kreyol with English translations by the author will be useful as primary sources for scholars and valuable listening aids for world music fans, but the book offers much more. Along with an interpretation of each song from both albums, the book develops an extensive historical and theoretical approach that allows the author to read the lyrics as sacred texts that reveal key aspects of Vodou culture and theology, and the remarkable capacity of Vodou to offer a language for commenting on and mediating contemporary problems ranging from urbanization and migratory exile to the restavek problem, money transfers, the perils of work among market women, AIDS and the dehumanization of women sex workers, and more. Hebblethwaite sheds new light not only on Haitian ethnohistory but also on the history of precolonial Africa, the complex interaction between Aja, Yoruba, and Fon people in the formation of the Kingdom of Dahomey, and the rise and subsequent impact of the Middle Passage and transatlantic slave trade. "- Kevin Meehan, professor of English and Caribbean studies at the University of Central Florida, owner of Sugar City Music, and author of People Get Ready: African American and Caribbean Cultural Exchange
"With the publication of Benjamin Hebblethwaite’s excellent new book we finally have such a historiographic tracing by a superb linguist and one of the best academics working on the religion today. . . . Vodou’s complexity, richness, and roots have never been better represented than they are in this book. Highly recommended. An instant classic."- Terry Rey, Temple University, New West Indian Guide