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New York Musician Cherishes Vodou Cultural Roots

New York City, the ultimate American melting pot, has long welcomed people of all nationalities, races, backgrounds and religions. A recent addition to the city's vibrant mix is Erol Josué, a vodou priest from Haiti, who is making his mark as a musician. He is our guest on this edition of New American Voices.

In the three years since he came to New York, Erol Josué has worked to establish himself as a vodou priest, an activist in the Haitian community, and a musician.

His music, which he characterizes as "world beat", has its roots in his family's vodoun tradition, -- a tradition, Erol Josué says, focuses on Haitian culture, on healing and helping people .

"I grew up in a vodou temple, I hear music, vodou music, traditional music every day, every ceremony," he recalls. "A lot of old men and women come to my home, to my family temple, to sing vodou, to sing. And I realized that Haitians have a bible, an oral bible, and this is vodou music -- by that music they say everything they want to say."

Erol Josué says he learned the vodou traditions from his grandmother in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, where he was born. He himself became a vodou priest when he was 17 years old. It was at about the same time he found a voice teacher and started to study singing. But economic and especially political circumstances forced him to leave Haiti, and he spent 13 years in Europe, mostly in France, before finally coming to the United States.

Mr. Josué says wherever he may be, his Haitian background remains his most defining characteristic. "Wherever I go, I go with Haiti, because my way of life is vodou, my music, my dance, I go with that because it is in my heart," he says, adding, "Not in a part of my heart. My heart is Haiti. I live the Haitian life every day."

As a vodou priest, or houngan, Erol Josué serves New York's large Haitian community in a variety of ways."Vodou is a religion, it's a modern religion, and it's a way of life for Haitian people. The vodou priest, he's a social worker, he's a healer, he's a 'leaves doctor' -- we work a lot with herbal medicine," he explains. "We do ceremonies also, and we help people with different kinds of problems, with psychological problems. We teach them the philosophy of life, the philosophy to respect their ancestry, the philosophy to respect their country."

Erol Josué is also a member of the Interfaith Center in New York. As such, he participates in a number of programs intended to help different ethnic communities. For instance, he is often called upon to mediate when Haitian immigrants find themselves in court, for one reason or another. "Because a lot of jurors would like to understand what happens in the Haitian community and the vodou community," he points out, "myself, as a voudo priest, I serve as a bridge between them and the vodou, sometimes, to make them understand a lot of things about vodou and the culture, and the person in the case they have."

Mr. Josué is called by hospitals in cases when Haitian patients refuse to take medication, to explain vodou health practices and remedies. In his capacity as a vodou priest he frequently participates in interfaith ceremonies in New York. He takes part in seminars on religious diversity in America, explaining the vodou culture and trying, as he says, to dispel some of the misconceptions about vodou spread by Hollywood. He says he wants to foster better understanding between his Haitian community and the broader New York public.

"I'm here, New York City takes me in, I feel happy," Erol Josué says. "The work I'm doing as a vodou activist, as a singer, and as an artist is very important to me, but I [consider it] like a pilgrimage, to go and speak about Haiti, to sing Haiti everywhere, to integrate it into a different kind of community, different kind of circle."

The most effective way of integrating his Haitian background with his new life in America, Mr. Josué believes, is through his music. He sings mostly in Créole, and incorporates various styles and influences into a cultural fusion he calls electro-vodou.

Feeling very much at home in New York, Erol Josué believes the city allows him to nourish his various interests and talents. "I love New York. I love the melting pot in New York City," he exults. "As a musician, I love New York. There's a lot of things going on. I think this is the place to do world music, this is the place to meet people. New York gives me the buzz! You can feel life! This is New York City -- buzz, vodou, drum, Haitian, Brazilian, African-American, African, white people from Europe from different countries -- and I met these people in New York. I met very good musicians in New York. So this is my baby, this city, made up of different kinds of energy, different kind of cultures."

Erol Josué will be releasing his new record, Réglémen, with a performance next week at a Manhattan club called SOB. This online feature incorporates musical excerpts from that CD.