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More Haitian Voices: The Rigaud collection finding aid goes online

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This guest post was authored by Marcia K. Segal, an archivist at the American Folklife Center who processed and authored the finding aid to the collection she describes below.

Melville Herskovits, Alan Lomax, and Laura Boulton – three notable collectors, whose recordings of religious expression in Haiti are among the collections at the American Folklife Center. In 2019, another collection joined this distinguished group: The Odette Mennasson Rigaud, Milo Rigaud, and Shirley Keller collection of Haitian Vodou recordings. You can read the finding aid here. The collection was donated by Scott Keller, the son of folk singer and radio show host Shirley Keller, who received the sound recordings from Odette Mennasson Rigaud in the early 1980s. The collection primarily consists of 81 sound recordings, with 31 now digitized. Most of the wire recordings document Haitian religious expression circa 1940s-1950s. The balance of the recordings are on sound tape reels and cassettes: some are dubs of the wire recordings, while others are include interviews of both Milo and Odette, and also Max Beauvoir (a source for the Wade Davis book, The Serpent and the Rainbow). Songs and some discussions are in Haitian Creole or French. Other recordings, including those with Odette Rigaud and with Max Beauvoir, are conducted for the most part in English.

recording container from the collection
Wire recording container from the collection. 

Both Rigaud and Beauvoir, in their respective interviews, try to demystify Vodou, and overcome stereotypes regarding both the religion and its followers. Odette Mennesson Rigaud explains the role of tourism in the perpetuation of stereotypes about Vodou:

During Keller’s interview with Beauvoir she asks about “voodoo dolls,” and he explains the meaning and use of paquet congo, which differs significantly from the role and form of these dolls in the popular imagination:

Most of the songs are fast-paced, high-energy, and intense, with vocals frequently sung in unison but also led by one or more voices. Instruments may include various types of drums, as well as whistles, rattles, and other instruments. In this selection you can also here the beat change:


Some songs are performed a cappella, as here:

Here, the skills of the singers are presented with minimal percussive accompaniment:

Another clip of leaders and group singing, with percussive accompaniment:

For the field of Afro-Caribbean studies, these materials provide another link to this interdisciplinary field. Some connections between the work of the Rigauds has been noted and documented elsewhere: the BHS inventory notes the relationship between Cicero St. Aude (a performer recorded by the Rigauds), who traveled as a dancer with Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe; correspondence between the Rigauds and Maya Deren, a poet and filmmaker, can be found in Deren’s collection (at Boston University), and even the brief mention in this collection of wire recording equipment used by the Rigauds, which belonged to Teiji Ito (a composer, and Maya Deren’s husband). Also, Deren was an assistant to Katherine Dunham for a year; yet another connection. With this collection, scholars have a new opportunity to deepen an understanding of the role of music in Vodou, and Vodou faith in general.

Here are a few collection bibliographic records to explore:

  • Melville Herskovits collection of Haitian recordings (AFC 1945/003)
  • Alan Lomax Haiti collection (AFC 1937/010)
  • Laura Boulton Collection, part 19: folk music in Haiti (AFC 1973/028)

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