New Orleans Voudou can be found in many aspects of New Orleans culture. Beyond the obvious commercial exploitations that can easily be seen in the media and the tourist industry, Voudou can be seen in the food, music, architecture and even the predominant Catholic religion found in New Orleans. The tendency is for most folks to separate the sacred from the secular, and when this happens, people miss the Voudou that is right in front of them. But, if they put on their spiritual lenses, Voudou culture becomes front and center. Following are five ways Voudou hides in plain sight in the Crescent City.
1. Mardi Gras Indians
The Mardi Gras Indians stem from a Yoruban tradition called "egungun," which is a masquerade festival and ancestral tradition. In New Orleans, The Mardi Gras Indians "mask Indian" to pay their respects to their Native American ancestors that helped African slaves escape and survive the hostile social and environmental conditions of that era.
With their elaborate costumes and fabulous performances, the Mardi Gras Indians' flamboyant displays cause the average onlooker to miss the important role they play in the history and shaping of New Orleans music and culture. Their contributions to the enduring Voudou tradition lies in the transmission of cultural knowledge via chants, dance and music. Their authentic African rhythms are those that are used in the rituals and celebrations of major Voodoo holidays and rituals.
2. Jazz Music
New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz music, which can be traced to the Voduou rituals that took place at Congo Square on Sundays when hundreds of blacks congregated to play music, dance, and socialize. Thus, jazz music is directly connected with African music in the syncopated rhythms, drum beats and characteristic call and response patterns. The Louisiana Black Code outlawed drumming by slaves for a time, which gave rise to the retention and transmission of ancestral musical rhythms via patting juba, stomping and clapping.
Jazz funerals utilize jazz music in the ceremony, as well as Voudou traditions. When the procession leaves the grave site of the person who was just buried, they stop at the cemetery gates to ask the Loa of the dead Papa Guede, also known as St. Expedite in New Orleans, for advice. The advice given is typically that enough mourning has been done and it is now time to celebrate. So, when everyone is outside of the cemetery gates, the leader of the procession calls out "cut loose!" and the music changes from a funeral dirge to high-energy, joyful music in celebration of the life of the deceased.
3. Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras has heavy African influences in its dance, music, masquerading and artistic expression. The popular call out "A Labas!" is actually a call to Papa Legba, or St. Peter in Catholic syncretism. One of the most Voudou of celebrations in New Orleans, Mardi Gras ceremonies take place from 4:00 in the a.m. to midnight, when the Skull and Bones gang start the day off with the Guede in a ritual no one sees, to the procession in the streets where everyone can see and participate.
Referred to as the "Black Sister of Catholicism," New Orleans Voudou has been under the influence of the Catholic Church in a number of ways, although the manner in which this has occurred was not the original intention. With the implementation of the Louisiana Black Code (Code Noir) in 1806, African traditional religions were outlawed in New Orleans. Through a process of syncreticism, however, the African Gods became associated with the Catholic saints and representations of certain saints were used as "stand-ins" for the worship of the African Gods. Under this dynamic, St. Peter was Legba and St. Patrick was Damballah Wedo, for example.
Connections to Voudou are evident in some of New Orleans most popular dishes. Black Eyed peas, known locally as Hoppin' John, was a favorite dish for the Voudou Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveaux, for example. Gumbo derives its name from the Bantu word for "okra" and includes ingredients from a variety of cultures, including West African, French, Spanish, German, and Choctaw.