Musical meaning of Haitian vodou singing : an ethnography of musical and ritual discourse at a Lakou Ginen in northern Haiti



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This dissertation is an ethnography of Vodou singing and domestic ritual practices in Northern Haiti. The study elucidates Haitian Vodou singing’s social significance and how its aesthetics and meanings contribute to its social value for participants in this study. Vodou singing operates within a broad social context of great suffering and persistent anti-Vodou sentiment bred of centuries of unchecked human exploitation in Haiti. This suffering may be seen largely as a moral crisis caused by an imbalance of self-interested action over social concerns. This study documents the role Vodou singing plays in constructing an alternate morality. It does this by modeling an ideal of social cooperation through its musical structures, by establishing interpersonal relations of mutual respect, and by transmitting spiritual values through its lyrics and even through singing in accordance with the expressive habits of the performance tradition established by the Vodou spirits. By teaching emotional discipline and respect, the spiritual practice of Haitian Vodou singing empowers practitioners to construct meaningful, healthful, productive lives even in the face of great adversity. Musical meaning is explored in this study through both discourse centered and cognitive approaches. The later considers how the mental organization of musical experience impacts musical meaning while the former locates musical meaning within the realm of public discourses (sung and spoken). Expanding ethnomusicological theories of musical affect and signification, this study considers the potential of music’s physiological and emotional effects to engender transcendent experiences—such as spirit possession trance—by altering a person’s usual sense of self, time, or place. This study uses a variety of analysis and notation methods to explain a theory of musical processes and patterns—like song forms, melodic modes, and expressive stereotypes—underlying musical production in this community. This dissertation adds to knowledge of domestic Vodou practices situated in the North of Haiti, and adds to the available literature on the role of devotional music in Vodou ceremony, social organization, and individual growth. As well, by balancing musical, linguistic, and anthropological investigation, this study integrates musical and lyrical meanings of song to an extant not achieved in previous studies of Vodou song.