Katrina Disperses New Orleans' Voodoo Community The word "voodoo" might summon dark notions of pin-stuck dolls and sacrifical chickens; but in New Orleans, voodoo is a real spiritual tradition blending elements of African religions, Catholicism and the Pentecostal Church. Neda Ulaby wondered how some of the city’s voodoo faithful have fared away from their spiritual center.

Katrina Disperses New Orleans' Voodoo Community

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Like Mardi Gras and jazz, voodoo is a part of New Orleans. It blends elements of African religions, Catholicism and the Pentecostal church, and its practitioners took their faith with them as they fled their city and their spiritual center. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on how they're doing.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

Ava Kay Jones is a lifelong New Orleans resident and a Yoruban priestess. She evacuated to California during Hurricane Katrina and there she continues her spiritual practice.

Ms. AVA KAY JONES (Yoruban Priestess): I pray every day, pouring gin at the crossroads--you know, when I have gin.

ULABY: Besides the distilled essence of the juniper berry, Jones says it's hard to find some of the materials she needs, materials sold at shops like Don Glossop's. He recently returned to his voodoo shop called a botanica.

Mr. DON GLOSSOP (Voodoo Shop Owner): I'm sitting here in New Orleans right now three blocks from my botanica, which is in a middle- to lower-class black neighborhood that hardly any of my neighbors have returned to the city.

ULABY: Although the Lower Ninth Ward has reopened, Glossop says most of the homes near his botanica are too damaged for habitation, and Glossop's store does not cater to tourists. His customers practice various African-based religions.

Mr. GLOSSOP: I have customers who are Cuban. I have customers from Brazil. I have customers from Haiti who were raised in the religions of voodoo.

ULABY: Many of Glossop's locally born customers practice a sort of vernacular voodoo, less organized religion than folk spirituality. He says those customers were generally from the neighborhoods hardest hit by Katrina.

Mr. GLOSSOP: Which is the birthplace of this African spirituality that's practiced in New Orleans. It was born there. It's continued there from generation to generation, right along with jazz and blues music.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) She's got a voodoo...

ULABY: Something else that the blues and voodoo share is their commodification. Even before the tourist shops, the first popular face of voodoo in the United States belonged to Marie LaVeau, the voodoo queen of New Orleans. Back in the 1800s, LaVeau was a free black woman who provided services to the Crescent City's high society. Her magical exploits remain New Orleans' legends. Don Glossop.

Mr. GLOSSOP: I think most scholars would agree that she was probably a greater businesswoman than she was a priestess of voodoo.

ULABY: Such a scholar is Ina Fandrich, a German-born anthropologist and a Haitian voodoo initiate who studies New Orleans' voodoo communities. Fandrich says some have estimated up to 60 percent of New Orleanians practiced voodoo, but she says it's impossible to know for sure.

Ms. INA FANDRICH (Anthropologist): Because some people who say they are actually don't do much and some who are heavy-duty into doing voodoo practices would never say anything about that.

ULABY: That's because voodoo still carries a taboo. But plenty of voodoo priests and priestesses are outspoken about their religion.

(Soundbite of voodoo priestess singing in foreign language)

ULABY: Ava Kay Jones is singing a Yoruba prayer to Oya, the goddess of the hurricane.

Ms. JONES: It speaks of Oya tearing down ordered structures, or structures that are outdated, and from the rubble emerges a new order.

ULABY: Jones says perhaps a greater purpose can be salvaged from the destruction wrought by Katrina. That optimism is shared by Elmer Glover. For 25 years he ran a Canal Street martial arts studio, but that was not his main business.

Mr. ELMER GLOVER (Shop Owner): But I practiced more as a bokor, which is a sorcerer or magician. So people come to me to resolve problems that they may have with relationships, with finances, bad luck. Sometime drug dealers come to me for help.

ULABY: Glover's clients mostly managed to stay in touch through cell phone after he evacuated to Lafayette. He's still there with friends and he's still consulting with clients.

Mr. GLOVER: They'll send a fee and in turn I'll be able to do the magic for them long-distance, as well as send them voodoo paths through the mail with voodoo dolls or voodoo oils.

ULABY: Elmer Glover wants to return to New Orleans, and he believes the city will remain a voodoo center, partly for tourists and partly for reasons metaphysical.

Mr. GLOVER: Voodoo will never leave New Orleans. It's well-planted there. There are a lot of--lot of people have died there and because they're surrounded by water it's sort of like a psychic seaport.

ULABY: Don Glossop is not so sure. Voodoo is a diasporic religion and, therefore, resilient, he says. But even before Katrina, New Orleans voodoo as practiced by people who learned it from their parents and their parents' parents was slowly dying out. And if the city is rebuilt without encouraging its poorest to return, he says...

Mr. GLOSSOP: My customer base might be looking mighty white if I have a customer base at all.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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