By Kenneth D. Weiss
Suddenly, the lights went out. It was pitch dark, but the drumming went on, deep and rhythmic.
I was in the old Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince, Haiti on a dark night in 1992. In the taxi I had hailed, the lazy windshield wipers could keep pace with a gentle rain.
A gingerbread mansion built in the 1890s, the Oloffson became a hotel around 1940. On some nights it offers voodoo ceremonies for its guests, other visitors to the island, and some Haitians. Voodoo is part Catholicism but with drumming, chanting, dancing, and often animal sacrifice, sudden trances, and more. The voodoo dolls we hear of are a small part of it.
Entering the hotel, I passed the reception desk and crossed a room of wicker furniture and colorful paintings, then entered a larger space where 20 or more people enjoyed coffee, dessert, and smooth Haitian rum. There was a stage on one side. I sat at a small table and strained to eavesdrop on conversations in English, French, Haitian Creole, and other languages.
About 9:30 p.m., the lights dimmed, and drumming began off-stage, quietly at first and then faster, then still faster and louder. Then, drummers and dancers appeared on stage in exotic costumes. The dancers moved around a central point, bowing, swinging arms and legs, and chanting to contact the spirits. Over the noise, I could hear the rain start to come down harder.
The drums beat still louder, the dancers moved still faster, the atmosphere was electric, and then, pop! The electricity went off. The drumming did not stop, however. The show continued, lighted by flickering candles and flashes of lightning. The thunder was ominous. Those of us in the audience were awestruck. We were transported to a forest clearing on a stormy Haitian night.
The show ended abruptly, and the patrons sat in silence. Then, we stumbled out to a parking lot, lighted only by cars and taxis waiting to drive us away. The rain let up and, this time, my taxi’s windshield wipers worked well. In my hotel in Petionville, above the city, there were electricity and soft music.
Officially, only 2% of Haitians still practice voodoo but, unofficially, the number is said to be much higher. The voodoo in the Oloffson is for show, but the real thing continues.
Kenneth D. Weiss writes memoirs, creative non-fiction, and poetry, and translates from Spanish to English. His publications include a set of vignettes about Haiti, a book of translated poetry, magazine articles, and four books on importing and exporting. He is an active supporter of the annual book fair in Gaithersburg, Maryland and heads a Creative Writers Group in that city. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees, has lived in six countries and traveled to about 80, and speaks three languages.
Photos by Diana Pierre-Louis, The Real Haiti
Hotel Oloffson 2014