Flame, blood, Papa Ogu: tools of the voodoo trade


April 29, 1992|By Ralph Cipriano and Mary Jane Fine | Ralph Cipriano and Mary Jane Fine,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Mambo Angela Novanyon pours rum on her hands, then cups her fingers around a candle. There's a burst of blue flame. Mambo rubs her face with the fiery liquid. A clap of her hands, and the flame dies out.

A high priestess of voodoo is ready.

For three hours she and a group of followers have beaten hollow wooden drums and chanted songs and prayers in Creole. Mambo, who has undergone a visible transformation, is possessed, her followers say, by Papa Ogu -- in voodoo, the spiritual force that governs the fires above Earth.

In a ceremony honoring that spiritual force, Mambo, brandishing a paring knife, straddles a black and white goat.

It's past midnight. Half a mile east of Broad Street and Olney Avenue -- 1,600 miles from Haiti -- Mambo Angela, the former Jocelya Smith, Germantown High School Class of 1970, is staging a Haitian voodoo ceremony in the basement of her brick house in Fern Rock.

Before going to Haiti to learn voodoo, Mambo -- Haitian for priestess -- was a computer coder for Sears and lead dancer for Arthur Hall's African dance group. She is one of the few African-Americans to become high priestess.

In Haiti, for initiation Mambo lived in bush country, slept in the same clothes for days and ate sacrificed goats and chickens.

In the United States she's a thoroughly modern Mambo, driving a smoke-colored Mercedes, writing books on her three computers and delivering guest lectures at places like the University of Pennsylvania.

"It's just the business of modern society," she said, sitting on a pink leather sofa in her living room. "And we have to be equipped to deal with the business of modern society."

Mambo is teaching the ancient religion to 50 followers -- mostly African-Americans -- who call themselves godchildren.

"This is the element missing in African-American life," said George Ware, 51, one of the godchildren. "We try to make it in the American world, and we do pretty well, but there's an element missing, and I think this is it."

Mr. Ware was a chemist and a mathematics professor at Goddard and Hunter colleges. Now he publishes a rap-music magazine and is Mambo's unpaid public relations director.

Mambo looks different when she is "transformed," or possessed. She wraps her straight hair in a white kerchief, and on this night she's also wearing what she calls her "Smokey the Bear hat." But the transformation runs deeper. Her normal radiant smile is replaced by a pout. Her smooth face looks bloated. Under heavy eyelids, the barest sliver of white is visible.

When Mambo is normal, she may laugh uncontrollably, and she has a hint of flirtatiousness in her voice. When possessed by Papa Ogu, her femininity disappears: After dispatching the goats, she sits on the tile floor of the voodoo sanctuary, smokes a fat cigar and waves a godchild's gift, a bottle of rum. "Merci beaucoup! Merci beaucoup!" she screeches in Creole.

Papa Ogu is one of many spiritual forces, or loas, that regularly possess Mambo and the godchildren. Loas are messengers of God, revealing truths that benefit humanity.

It's a Sunday morning service at Le Peristyle Haitian Sanctuary. Inside the crowded building, known as a humofor, it's hot as Haiti.

"Aaaayeee-bobo," Mambo chants. It's Creole for praise God. "Aaaayeee-bobo," her followers chant.

Three drummers beat tall wooden rada drums covered with the skin of bulls. The drumbeat moves fast, slow, fast again, challenging dancers to keep pace. While white skirts swish, bare feet sweep rhythmically across a tile floor.

A woman melts to the floor in what looks like a slow-motion faint. Mambo shakes a gourd rattle over the woman's shoulders. In moments, the woman lies face down, kicking her legs convulsively, before wiggling snakelike across the floor.

She is possessed, the godchildren say, by Papa Dumbala, loa of wisdom. Soon two other women crawl across the floor.

After 4 1/2 hours of drumming, chanting and dancing, the godchildren hold hands in a circle for a farewell prayer. "God be with you until we see you again," they say. Then a woman makes an announcement about raffle tickets.

Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume May 6.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.