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Ethnic City: king of voodoo

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Eighteen years ago, when Janice Boutte saw Dulce "King" Cesar for the first time, he was performing death-defying acts. He was chewing on broken glass, swallowing fire, lifting a man over his head with his teeth, and having steel needles driven through his throat and the sharp point of a machete thrust repeatedly into his abdomen--all without shedding a drop of blood or showing a single bruise. But Cesar wasn't only an entertainer--he was also a voodoo priest, a houngan, and claimed to be protected by spirits. "I was in deep awe," Boutte recalls.

She met him afterward, and he remarked to a friend "That lady's going to be my wife." He spoke in French, and Boutte didn't know what he was saying, but she did eventually become his business manager, assistant, occasional interpreter, and, as Cesar had predicted, his wife. "The spirits sent him here to meet me," she laughs.

Cesar, who grew up in Port-au-Prince, says spirits came to him in his dreams when he was eight years old and showed him how to do the voodoo that he can now do so well. He'd practice what he'd been shown when he woke up and eventually he became known as a healer and an herb doctor. "When poor people were sick or having a problem, I would see what they needed in my dreams," he says. "I helped pregnant women. I delivered many babies."

His reputation within Haiti grew, and eventually he was invited to give demonstrations off the island. At 51, he believes he may be the most powerful houngan in the United States--he's lived in Chicago for 19 years--as accomplished as any in Haiti. "We've seen many coffee-table books on Haiti in which King Cesar is mentioned," Boutte says.

Voodoo originated in West Africa and was brought to Haiti by slaves, who practiced mostly in secret since Haiti was a French colony. Catholic missionaries outlawed the African spirits so, Boutte says, "the slaves wound up using the church as a facade for voodoo, and many of the spirits were incorporated into the figures of the saints." The slaves revolted and in 1801, armed at best with faith and machetes, they defeated the French army. Boutte believes that the slaves' victory over what was then the most powerful army in the world was accomplished with the help of the spirits. She also theorizes that the uprising prevented a Napoleonic invasion of the nascent U.S. "Napoleon's army was using Haiti as a landing base. If it hadn't been for Haiti, we'd all be living in New France."

Today, many Haitians practice a mix of voodoo and Catholicism, even in America. While voodoo isn't illegal here, some aspects of its worship are--animal sacrifice for one. Boutte points out that the sacrificial chicken or goat is always eaten afterward. "The animal is not sacrificed due to an empty barbaric symbolism," she asserts. "It is consecrated and eaten," an act similar to saying grace before partaking in a meal of dead animals. But voodoo remains an underground religion in America. "Voodoo doesn't seek converts, nor does it discourage them. It is a way of life. Either you accept the way of life or you don't."

Cesar will preside over a voodoo ceremony on the rooftop of the International Arts Club gallery, which is sponsoring a "Haitian Night" in conjunction with an exhibition of Haitian art. He will draw symbols called verves in cornmeal and flour on the black rooftop, calling upon spirits to join the crowd.

Among the artwork on display are paintings of some of Cesar's invited guests: Erzulie Dantor, a siren usually depicted as a mermaid; her consort Ogoun, a warrior; and Damballah, the life-giving serpent. Papier-mache figures hang in a row over the staircase. Some of the works were made by houngans, many under the influence of the spirits.

Baron Samedi and Geddes, another form of Baron Samedi, a deity of death, will also be invited to the gallery by Cesar, but not for any evil purpose, Boutte says. She believes the dark side of voodoo is ridiculously overexposed in America. "Voodoo is a pure religion, a way of life, an ethical way of life. It has its dark side, as all religions do, but most of what has been said about it is nonsense. The dolls, for instance, that they sell in New Orleans. Those are folklore. They are not part of voodoo."

Rum punch, chicken creole, akra, and plantains will be served at "Haitian Night," which begins at 8 PM Saturday. After the voodoo ceremony Rafo's International Combo will play dance music. The gallery is located at 2362 S. Cottage Grove. Admission is $12, $6 for artists, and drummers with drums get in for free. Call 567-9898 or 567-9899 for more information.

--Jeffrey Felshman

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