Black Magic Woman | We Went to a Vegan Voodou Ceremony in New Orleans
Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman takes us on a journey into the netherworld
Sparks flying at a New Orleans' Voodou Temple. Photo: Damien Gabet
“This neighbourhood used to have one of the highest crime rates in the United States – which means the world,” says my Uber driver, as we come off the highway into the Bywater.
While the area’s now considered “up-and-coming”, owing to a cluster of hipster-friendly dive bars and dude-food eateries, there’s still a flicker of foreboding in the air when I alight at the top of a gravel track between two streets, named Piety and Desire.
I’m here to attend a voodou ceremony and, hopefully, interview its leader, High Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman. The directions I was given read: “Next to Rosalita's Backyard Tacos”. I take my time to look around, smoke, and contemplate about how fitting these street names are.
“At one point the lead singer runs around with a machete in his hand. With no farm animals in sight, I begin to worry I might be the chosen goat”
In front of me, there’s a track fringed either side with fences covered in skeleton paintings. As I walk up it, an intermittent drum sound is getting louder. At the end, on the right, the double doors of a small building are wide open. A woman coming up behind me, all in white, walks towards them and inside. I do the same and ask after Sallie. She’s yet to arrive, so I stand and wait in silence while a handful of people, all in the same loose linen, potter around, talking among themselves.
Beside occasional looks of suspicion, I’m ignored. To conquer the awkwardness, I look around at the kaleidoscope of offerings that line the floor’s edge. Money of course, but then lots of booze too. Apparently Barbancourt rum is the spirits’ spirit.
My prejudice demanded a muscular woman of colour; Haitian probably, with beguiling emerald eyes and hair fantastic enough to make Medusa mewl. What I got, when Sallie arrived, was a small, white, middle-aged woman. Fairy-like in a way, but an American with Ukrainian-Jewish roots no less. In hindsight Pirates of the Caribbean was a lazy cultural reference.
In fact, most of the congregation are white. Sallie Ann later admits she would love to have a ‘better ratio of Haitians’. While I don’t ask why, the natural assumption is that her voodou would be improved the presence of those born to it. Because it is to the sugar-cane slaves brought to this Caribbean island that we can attribute voodou’s conception.
Sallie brings dusk into the room with her and visibility drops to what’s available by candlelight. Three drummers begin playing polyrhythmic beats with purpose. They’re led by Fonfon, a quiet chain-smoker whose playing is remarkable for its complexity and power. I take refuge in the corner as call-and-answer singing begins. A lead guy hollers creole in a voice high-pitched enough to seem implausible; the crowd around then reply in choral chants.
Nearby, Sallie is doubled over dripping cornmeal from her hand, slowly forming ornate sigils called ‘veves’. “They’re meant to be temporary,” she later tells me. “The magic is in the drawing of them. Like a mandala.” The next hour and a half is a melee of maraca shaking, water spitting and dancing with dolls in the dark. At one point the lead singer runs around with a machete in his hand.
“I don’t sacrifice animals – the traditional way to evoke spirit,” says Sallie, who’s a vegan priestess. She admits that her stance has invited controversy”
“Blood sacrifice,” I immediately think. Am I scared? My pulse seems to think so, as I’m ushered out of my seat to kiss a flag, Haiti’s presumably, and then Sallie asks if I want a “blessing”. With no farm animals in sight, I begin to worry I might be the chosen goat.
But instead of a blade across the throat, Sallie gently shakes a maraca around my body. That’s because she’s a vegan priestess. “I don’t sacrifice animals – the traditional way to evoke spirit – I give people blessings,” she says. She admits that her stance has invited controversy: “There are two schools of thought: the fundamentalists and the agnostics. But there wouldn’t be voodou if it couldn’t adapt. It’s always taken on traits of the cultures it encounters, including Catholicism.”
While Sallie faces derision from others in the city’s voodou community, she’s also fighting a bigger battle: one to defend voodou’s identity altogether. The sensationalised, Hollywood stuff we’ve all seen is something entirely different; something called hoodoo. Hers is a religion, this is a folk tradition of spellcraft.
“Changing some of the prejudices and fears people have about voodou is hard. The negative imagery is so intense,” says Sallie. She’s quick to debunk myths such as the pin pricking of effigy dolls, though admits there are practitioners in New Orleans with self-serving intentions. “There are categories of spirits that can be bought by people practising witchcraft. These people are answering to their own morality.”
One of Sallie’s subsequent lines particularly resonates: “This whole thing is a technology for opening doors between the visible and invisible world,” she says. And that’s what we’re waiting for this evening: for a spirit to enter and possess someone. I sort of hope it’s me. But then as things seem to be climaxing, Fonfon walks out without warning. “Cigarette break.”
As a result, the momentum is lost and the lights turned on. While I’m slightly disappointed, I can’t help but smile at how very human it is to put the brakes on summoning the divine with a Marlboro Red. I notice that cigarettes are among the offerings around the room, so I reckon our estranged spirit will let Fonfon off.
Sallie is apologetic and explains what it can be like: “Sometimes they are stuck to the spot, other times they can break into incredible dancing. I’ve seen people, possessed by Damballa the snake, slither up trees without using their limbs.”
What’s remarkable afterwards is how dizzyingly positive the mood is – and how chatty everyone now is to me. I’m offered a fun-size Mars bar, a remarkable volte face. The people here have turned whatever pain they were harbouring into levity, via creative expression. It’s also now apparent just how deep the congregation’s affection is for Sallie. “It’s all about elevating one another, it’s a mutual thing. This is very intimate work.”
Sallie is completely open to newcomers; even the faintly curious, like me. “People wander in from the taco place all the time.” Though if you only choose one ceremony, make it on the Day of the Dead, at the start of November. “It’s when line between the living and the dead is thinnest. The ceremony’s very intense: the spirits are pretty outrageous and dramatic.” Unfortunately I couldn’t make the most recent one, but the congregation who amassed at the New Orleans Healing Centre was apparently 500 hundred strong.
It’s not just the faithful who take this seriously either. Sallie was once asked to do a ceremony with the local police force to try and rid the Bywater of its overwhelming crime problem. “The crime rate dropped 65% immediately and never went up again. Now we’re this trendy, nice neighbourhood that’s relatively safe.” As I walk back out past the taco stand, I realise that earlier feeling of foreboding has gone. What was it my Uber driver said? “It used to have the highest crime rate in the US?” And I can’t help wondering if he knew the real reason behind that change.
Damien Gabet is a freelance writer based in London who covers travel, food and events.
- New Orleans