In fine African tradition the festival opened at an entirely different location to that given in the programme and started with some offerings from the local Voodoo royalty at what looked like a neglected herbacious feature outside a petrol station on the outskirts of town, a site for which I can offer no explanation of significance. A parade back into town was motivated by a delightfully shambolic brass section with percussion backing, to which the many women danced with a smiling fervour. In an often very patriarchal land women do, at least seem to play a vital role in the religion and can be priests as well as men. Also when it comes to celebrating anything in Africa it always seems to be the women and often the older ones who are up there first, busting moves and shaking their stuff to get the party started.
After a couple of stops at shrines on the way to make some offerings we reach one of the festival sites in the town square. Seating was arranged in a square around a ‘performance’ area with one side reserved for dignitaries and we were treated to a day of wonderous chaos. Generally, several things would be happening at one time: different percussion and dance groups competed simultaneously, with some moving about the space. An assortment of important personnages turned up with a large retinue to make largely inaudible speeches over a ramshackle PA system, with musicians seemingly oblivious to their efforts continuing their frenzied clattering. Representatives from Brazil and the USA were testimony to the international reach of the religion and what little of the American delegation’s speech in French that was comprehensible was a tribute to the unity of its’ communities, before they were whisked off in a fleet of blacked out 4×4’s to the beach where a parallel event was taking place. While the black American speaker looked the part, his white counterparts, whose role I never discovered, seemed entirely out of place in their black suits and dresses.
Some wildly athletic dancing provided some deservedly appreciated entertainment as performers picked up enough momentum spinning about the axis of their bodies’ length to be almost horizontal. What I had really been waiting for, the dance of the xangbetos, at least initially proved to be a disappointment as they were for the most part surrounded by photographers and cameramen. These beings are the guardians of the spirit world and look like conical roofs of thatched huts, who for non believers would be operated by a man inside. At times they almost seem to float around to the accompaniment of one of the most intense group of percussionists you will ever hear, certainly not giving the impression of being lifted from within and for anyone inside the heat must be oppressive. Later in the day I had been standing right by the pair of them for about 15 minutes and seen them move and pulsate in a fashion that must require someone inside, but with a great flourish the cap of the conical shape and two lower sections were removed to reveal an utterly empty space, then within an instant of these being replaced, it lifted and whirled with great gasps from all around. The second xangbetos was simply tipped over to show it was empty and a man beside me crossed himself in the face of such evident sorcery. I can only assume that their team of “operators” must distract people enough to slip someone in and out at the appropriate times but given that I was within a few feet of both of them throughout I can only say that it was a mightily impressive performance. Outside the realm of the festival the power of the xangbetos is unquestioned by many believers as they serve to remind people of the power of the spirits.
Other creatures wandering around were the revenants, spirits of a family’s ancestors. Ok, so it’s a bloke in a big suit fashioned from hundreds of shiny squares and cowrie shells but their bulky, appearance is certainly somewhat menacing. Given the screaming terror I witnessed from a number of children running from one in the town of Abomey their appearance is taken seriously. This was reinforced later that evening when going for a walk in the dusty backstreets of the poorer part of the town. Walking into a large open area, as the early evening gloom added an aura of uncertainty I witnessed dozens of young men and teenagers running from the same revenant wielding a huge whip like stick in a most threatening manner. A number of times it would retreat and be goaded on by the men only to beat a hasty retreat as it advanced thrashing its stick. Inevitably I and a man I was talking to were cornered by it, thankfully I only had to placate it with a few coins, but given that the rest of the group were hardly laughing and taking it all as a big joke you could hardly doubt the seriousness of the occasion. Whether anyone would have received a serious thrashing I could only guess but only a few brave souls risked challenging it.
A more in depth version of this piece can be found in issue 1 of the Newhaven Journeyman here http://www.eleusinianpress.co.uk/?page_id=270