Tuesday, October 27, 2015

2015 KOSANBA -- Amazing time with Amazing folks

I attended the 2015 KOSANBA conference in Montreal. It was an amazing communion in the crossroads of art, literature, practice and scholarship. Along with Manbo Ke Kontann, we presented our papers among some pretty stellar luminaries -- Lois Wilken, Liza McAlister and Claudine Michel to name just a few.

The conference was focused on Azaka Mede, Klermizine and Gran Bwa.  Poor Klermizine was lost a bit in the shuffle, as most of us focused on Gran Bwa and his forests or should I say his disappearing forests. The over-arching theme was how trees take us to God. We heard talks on the matrilineal rite of burying baby umbilical cords beneath a tree in the family lakou; how there are no more trees to make the large drums outside of Goniaves; and our own Manbo presented on Medsin Feys and their healing leaves. I used a metaphysical tree in my own talk on the sosyete and how we've evolved over the years as an American Vodou house. We were quite the hit, and the following day many of the manbos presenting focused solely on Manbo Ke Kotann and myself during their talks.

The first day presented a wealth of information: 6 panels of four presenters covering all kinds of topics. Session 1 was on Memory, History and Resistance in Vodou and Haitian Literature.  Marie Cerat presented a dialog about veves as signs of power and resistance among the Africans. Although given in French by the chair Florence Bellande-Robertson, I could follow along well enough to get the gist of the talk.  The author's thesis was that veves were a way of conveying information in secret. That the whorls and diagrams not only spoke to a connected heritage of Taino resistance, but that they were also methods of communication among the enslaved plantation populations. I was wishing my French language skills were better by the end.

Bamidele Demerson presented a lovely talk on the artist Ulrick Jean-Pierre.  Jean Pierre paints scenes from Haiti's history in full figure size - the paintings are enormous, and Demerson spoke at length on the Makandal painting. I haven't heard such great discussion since I was in art school.  An in depth look at the historical figure of Makandal, along with some serious art critique on the technique of the painting made it very informative for me.

Ann Mazzocca, a dance professor from Virgina spoke on the embodiment of Vodou in dance and movement. She had visited Souvenance in '07 and '08, and was taken by the movement of ritual as a method of encoding the liturgy and faith of Vdou. We spoke later about dance, Haiti and Souvenance, only to discover an amazing synchronicity - I had taken print making in 1975 at the University of Connecticut with her father. Talk about 6 degrees of separation!

Finally, the masterful Dr. Kay Zauditu-Selassie spoke about the representation of trees in African Diasporic Literature. A stunning work, she was mezmerizing and I could have listened for hours. Later, she came up to me to say she was curious about our sosyete and to ask what I knew of twins. Another sychonistic hit, as I am currently working on an installation of elemental twins - Marasa Anba Dlo (water), Marasa Bwa (wood), Marasa Twa (fire) and Marasa VanVan (air or wind). Ayibobo!

(I will write a little more each day on all the panels - they were very worthy topics, that need their own space.- Manbo)

Manbo K and I sat up high in the auditorium, animatedly cheering, laughing, and giggling at all the right (and of course) wrong moments.  This earned us the nick named "Ab-Fab Manbos" from the younger presenters. We jumped in with both feet, delighting both the kids presenting and others who found our silliness captivating (if not annoying!).

That night, there was a memorial service to the late Dr. Karen McCarthy Brown and Ayti Max Beauvoir, honor to them both.  McCarthy-Brown was remembered by all as someone who gave freely of her time and talents, as well as being a path blazer for female anthropologists.  Ayti Max had three of his favorite manbos present, and they led a quiet action de gras for him, which we finished with a rousing yanvalou dance in his honor. As the music began and the 30 or so people present began the call and answer, I joined in. I was totally unconscious of my doing so, until I realized this was what I had spent so much time looking for. Community. A chance to belong to something greater than myself.

Fifteen years ago, I was in an Atlanta suburb, attending a Yoruban bembe for my friend's birth as an iyalorisha.  The drummers were from West Africa and were pounding out a huge beat. At one point, an American priestess jumped up, gave a hoot and began to sing with the drummer.  Another person, a visitor from Cuba came forward and asked if he could sit in with the drummers. And the wife of the Baba who hailed from Martinique, stood up and offered a dance to the spirit the music was for. There it was - the mystical crossroads I had been looking for - a West African drum beat, picked up by a Cuban national, sung to by an American and danced by a Martinique priestess.  And it happened that night in Montreal as well. As we listened to beat of the drums, Americans, Haitians, Africans and European people all came together; to sing, to dance and to remember Ayti Max. I found myself in sync with everyone, singing without thinking, moving without hesitation and just being in the moment naturally. A gift of spirit, one I will not soon forget.

The next day there were more stellar presentations. When the event concluded, I took the first leg of my return trip home with one of the young scholars. As we flew to JFK airport, we talked about our work, our hopes and the future of Haiti. I said that as an independent scholar, my work was not as important as hers was.  She gently scolded me, and reminded me that my work was very important. That everyone there was working with their minds, but that I was working with my body and soul. Later she shared that her best friend had passed away, and that this friend never felt that she belonged anywhere. "You are making a place for someone like her. I wish she had known someone like you," the young lady wrote. My young friend moved me to tears.

And so I will keep writing, thinking and dreaming. And I will also keep serving, singing and dancing.  I do know that the crossroads I have always sought are within myself. The only difference is that now I can manifest them outside of myself.  And I am discovering that I need to be the signpost in that place, so that others who are looking, can find their way home as well. Ayibobo.

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