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Folklife Festival: Haiti Showcases Artistic Expression and Vodou Tradition - 2004-07-06

In 1804, Haiti won its independence from France. And while Haitians celebrate their bicentennial in their homeland, more than 100 Haitian artists are celebrating their culture and traditions in Washington D.C., as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. While festival goers enjoy the artistry, music and cuisine of the island, nothing is more exciting than attending a Vodou session.

Everything's hot out here in the mall? the weather? the music and dance... the food and the art. Hot colors are what artist Jean Eliser uses to paint traditional designs on a little bus, which Haitians call a Tap-Tap.

"Brightly colored buses are so popular in Haiti. I make the designs myself then paint the drawings. Such artistic touches make the means of public transportation look nicer on the roads."

Bright colors have a strong presence in the daily life of Haiti? and in the Folklife Festival tents featuring the island's culture. Local artisans use their own traditional creative techniques to bring colors to life on their products, whether it's pottery, a wooden mask, a metal sculpture, or a hat made of straw.

Straw artist Mamoune explains to curious festival goers the basics of her craft, how she naturally dyes her materials, and adds salt in the process so the straw won't dry out and break.

"Haiti: Freedom and Creativity From Mountains to sea" is the theme of these exhibits. And from mountains to sea, Haitians are practicing Vodou.

According to Vodou scholar, Henry Frank, this traditional religion is one of the most intriguing aspects of the Haitian culture.

"It's a religion the Haitians have inherited from the time the Africans came to Haiti, in 1502 till now. If you're planting, if you're having a harvest or a wedding, if you're looking for a job, vodou is there with you. It's a religion of benevolence."

But, he says, many people don't understand that? they might consider Vodou "black magic," or think that Haitians worship a pantheon of spirits. During the Folklife Festival, Mr. Frank demonstrates Vodou rituals, hoping to dispel those misconceptions and show people how it fits into the core of Haitian culture.

"When Haitian practice Vodou, they use paintings as symbols of the spirits. Folkloric music and dances are also practiced to enable spirits to come into all aspects of the ceremony. So, Haitian really practice vodou everyday in terms of the music, poems, and paintings. That's why it's very strong because it's not only a religion, it's a culture as well."

"I love it. It's fabulous," says one woman.

"It's so exciting," says a spectator.

"There are many Haitians here," says one visitor.

"Prior to this experience, I was afraid of it. This workshop and performance of Vodou inspired me to know more about vodou traditions in the future," says another spectator.

Mr. Frank says Vodou is not evil? but it can be a way to control and influence others. He says the spirits in vodou are mediators between people and God.

"If this person is giving me hard time, and you want to control that fellow, then Vodou helps getting that done. It's not to harm others, but to reverse the harm done by others. It's kind of self defense."

The chance to learn about other cultures, explore new concepts and sample different flavors in food and music is what attracts festival goers to the Haiti tents here on the mall. The annual event has also attracted many Haitian Americans, who find this year's festival as exciting and nostalgic as a summer family reunion.