Voodoo child: Erol Josué

Boston Globe, May 25, 2007

NEW YORK—The chance to savor the cuisine of the home you’ve left behind is a signal moment of bittersweet pleasure for an expatriate. So it’s fitting that it’s at a small Haitian restaurant here, before a dish of lambi, or conch-meat stew, that Erol Josue – singer, dancer, actor, and voodoo priest – settles in to discuss his new album, “Regleman,” in which he filters the traditional and sacramental music of his roots through the prism of his diasporic life in Paris and now New York.

Josue left Haiti at 20; now 33, he has honed an artistic identity and a personal aesthetic that inscribe him in the grand tradition of the soulful self-described exile. He is neither tall nor stocky, and inhabits his body with a physical assurance that reflects years as a dancer and choreographer with his own ensemble, Compagnie Shango, in Paris. His style is dapper, running toward brown vests and tight slacks. He speaks quietly, but with enthusiasm, and still favors French though he’s been based in New York for several years now.

“Regleman,” Josue’s first album, came out this week; he makes the second stop of his record release tour tonight at Johnny D’s in Somerville. The album is personal and heartfelt; its framing concept is encapsulated in the title, which, Josue says, carries a very specific meaning in Haitian, and specifically voodoo, culture.

“`Regleman’ is a word in Creole that means the voodoo liturgy,” Josue says. It refers to the procedural order of activities in a voodoo ceremony. “And for me, this regleman is my own, personal regleman.”

The album opens in keeping with protocol, with a call to the god Legba against the drums and rattles of traditional percussion. “Madam Letan,” the second song, invokes Mami Wata, the goddess of water, the element that gives life. The third track, “La Souvenance,” is pregnant with historical significance: It refers to a voodoo pilgrimage site where freed slaves from Dahomey once took refuge. “It’s a place where the voodoo is very pure, very African,” Josue says.

As the record progresses, however, cosmopolitan elements merge in: gentle guitar and keyboard grooves, sleek electronic production, and, in Josue’s warm, unhurried delivery, the influence of the French “chansonnier” singer-songwriter style. A sense of grounded, radiant gentleness pervades the record, lending it an exploratory and whimsical quality even though it begins and ends with the throbbing percussion of voodoo drums and is rhythmically satisfying throughout.

This combination of influences is at the heart of Josue’s regleman and explains why he did not set out to do a typical roots record. “I never wanted to do a typical voodoo album,” he says. “Artistically I had something to say, and part of it was the words of voodoo, the demands and claims of this religion. But it wasn’t by doing something ultratraditional that I was going to touch people. I used the sacred chants in some songs, but I brought in other things: my own inspiration, my exile, the voyage.

“It’s all the noises, the Paris metro, the New York subway, all this mix of sounds that makes me the person that I am. I’ve known the dictatorship in Haiti, I’ve known good and bad times, I’ve learned so much from each country. I’ve developed a philosophy, and that’s my regleman, the reflection of all those experiences.”

Josue’s voodoo roots are as deep as can be. Both his father and mother were voodoo practitioners, and he himself was initiated as a houngan, or priest, at the age of 17. Growing up in Port-au-Prince under a political regime that viewed voodoo as a vehicle for political opposition, he had to keep his spiritual life concealed from the authorities as well as from the Catholic priests at school.

“I grew up under a voodoo temple, but every morning I was with the priests in school,” he says. “And I couldn’t tell them. I had to go to church. And I couldn’t bring friends home from school. I could have been kicked out, and the Catholic schools were the best schools in the country so you had to attend them.”

Josue holds grievances against the priests, not for the substance of their religion but for their behavior as teachers, which he says was frequently abusive and unchecked. He says pedophilia was common and he recalls cruel beatings; in his view, many of the thugs, militiamen, and ruthless politicians who plague Haiti are merely channeling the brutality they endured as children.

For his part, Josue found resources in his spiritual life, in music, and ultimately in leaving the country and establishing himself as a young, struggling artist in Paris, living in the melting-pot neighborhoods of Belleville and Menilmontant. “Exile is arid at first, very dry,” he says. “But it didn’t take long for me to make my way.” That path led him to choreography and also acting, with a major part in a French-Haitian feature film, “Royal Bonbon,” which appeared in 2002.

But he also grew to resent the distance from his voodoo roots. “In Paris the community is scattered,” he says. “It’s not the same diaspora. You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of Haitian percussionists in town. I wanted to attend ceremonies, to restore my soul, to recall the dreams that I had as a child.”

Returning to Haiti, with its acute political instability, was not a realistic option. The next best, Josue says, was the United States, which has large Haitian communities in New York, Miami, and Boston, and much more active voodoo and roots subcultures.

If anything, he says, the problem on arriving in New York was establishing his credibility with a roots scene preoccupied by authenticity: “It wasn’t easy to get people to understand this idea, how someone can be a voodoo initiate, but wants to make something different. This guy who turns up from Paris, wearing his tight pants, yet singing voodoo chants at the same time – it was a little atypical.”

Valerie Jeanty, a Haitian producer and DJ in New York who contributed to several tracks on “Regleman,” says she and her friends often poke fun at Josue for “turning white” on them every time he returns from Paris. But in seriousness, she says, “all those influences are really perfect. He was able to absorb the best of that.”

Most of all, Jeanty says, Josue is an activist. “He’s Haitian first, of course, and a voodooist. He brings something that is sort of missing in the whole culture here, living in the States, where music is more a form of entertainment. He’s coming from the spiritual aspect of using music as a channel to reach out to the ancestors, to heal and to celebrate.”

“Regleman,” made in New York with a passel of prominent local Haitian musicians, confirms that Josue has made his mark on the scene. It succeeds in conveying the vitality of voodoo as a living tradition and in narrating in an impressionistic, lyrical way the journey of a people. It also injects new life into a Haitian roots-music scene that crested in the 1990s with bands such as Boukman Eksperyans and Boukan Ginen but has since, arguably, run out of steam.

Josue wants to help change that and restore a spiritually grounded music in contrast to the ubiquitous and lighter-weight kompa, a style of dance music. “It’s not with kompa that you can say certain things,” he says. “The country has a need for a look from outside, from the diaspora, and you can’t do that with kompa, which is a variety music. We need to draw on our cultural values, to defend our country and our culture.

“The roots movement is a strong movement. We need to redevelop it. It’s this movement that will wash the face of Haiti.”