Vodou at the Crossroads: Conversation with a Mambo & book signing
Caribbean Cultural Center
African Diaspora Institute
March 2nd, 2011
Some people felt Mambo Marie Carmel was too young when she became a priestess. But, her frankness easily skirts the skeptics aside:
“The spirits don’t want old people,” Mambo Marie Carmel declares. “They want young people to work harder for them!”
Having been initiated into vodou preistesshood at the age of eighteen, today Mambo Marie Carmel is a statuesque and glowing woman with a kind and strong face. Though passionate, she is humble when discussing her transition into becoming a mambo or vodou priestess, a vocation that was not necessarily her first intention.
Carmel had planned on becoming a social worker when she arrived in New York City from Haiti. And yet, in a way, it is still social work that she does. Having over forty “spiritual children,” every day Carmel serves as a medium for those who seek her help, attending to each person like a spiritual caseworker.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mambo Marie Carmel at a book signing in Manhattan this passed week, though in reality the event was much more than that. It was a presentation of vodou, specifically Brooklyn vodou, a tradition often misunderstood and maligned by everyone just outside its borders. The event was held in order to showcase the release of Brooklyn Vodou: Five Ceremonies with Mambo Marie Carmel, a new book by photographer Stephanie Keith who has spent years photo-documenting Christian rock concerts, Muslim Americans, and, most recently, vodou as it manifests in our humble little borough.
Stephanie Keith’s stunning photographs are full of color and profound emotional intensity showcasing her five-year exploration of vodou practices throughout Brooklyn. I was floored by the brilliant costumes and rituals, and I must admit, was surprised to see so much white and pink, golden yellow, and fuchsia purples on display. Apparently I was more indoctrinated with perceptions of “dark voodoo” than I had realized.
For those who don’t already know, Haitian vodoun is a spiritual syncretic tradition, incorporating traditional African beliefs and Roman Catholic Christianity into a truly vibrant and creative spiritual path. Within the tradition there is a complex system of spirits, which at different times represent a variant of archetypal energies. Rituals are conducted in order to elevate and channel these spirit energies, and are led by a priest or priestess.
To the public, however, vodou is best known (or unknown, as the case my be) for its practice of animal sacrifice. When that particular topic came up Mambo Marie Carmel declared that indeed her next ritual would involve sacrificing a cow, though she would be doing this in Haiti and not in New York, potentially due to a suspected unfavorable public opinion. But, it was Stephanie Keith who chimed in in her defense asking, “Is it really considered animal sacrifice if you’re killing the animal to eat it?” Ultimately, it is only the blood that is used in the ritual, while the meat is divvied up and shared among friends.
On the whole, the event was truly inspiring. Mambo Marie Carmel emitted such a warm, inviting charisma that, despite noticing that I was one of two white people present, I couldn’t help but feel compelled to further research voudou, and wondered if there was potential for me to personally integrate parts of this practice into my own life. At one point, the Mambo clearly stated that voudou was not for everybody. Was it for me? When asked how many of Marie Carmel’s spiritual children were of non-Haitian descent, Carmel did not give a clear answer, but did explain that Haitians, or those of West African descent, have a closer relationship to the earth and therefore to the spirits. However, when slaves were brought to the New World, interracial breeding dispersed a little African blood into everyone, so perhaps there was a sliver of potential for a white person like me to engage with the spirits. I wondered how much of a conduit my Russian born body could be for communication with the vodou spirit world. I decided to save this question for a private conversation with the Mambo, and walked away with a charged feeling of new knowledge and a hand written phone number from Mambo Marie Carmel who doesn’t believe in cards for her services.
Liza Buzytsky is a Moscow born, New York based artist and art world professional. A graduate of Pratt Institute, she offsets the chaos of urban living by continuing to make sculpture and writing in upstate New York.