Monday, January 23, 2017

Memories of Kay Aboudja, a Traditional Haitian Vodou House in New Orleans, LA

(An article I wrote a few years ago.)

Today is the one year anniversary of the passing of Bo Houngan Aboudja, Mark Moellendorf, and I feel moved to preserve in writing some of my memories of having been a part of his Flower of Abomey Society, aka Kay Aboudja. I first moved to New Orleans in 2001, the same year Kay Aboudja was founded, and I met Aboudja online. We met where he worked at the CC’s coffee shop on the corner of Royal and St. Philip Streets in the French Quarter. Talked about religion, spirituality, modern Paganism, and then the conversation turned to Haitian Vodou. I’d only read the most superficial excerpts about it, but Aboudja had recently returned from Haiti where he had gone through the Kanzo for the third time.

Although we met and talked as often as I could, as I was in the Religious Studies Master’s program at Loyola University, it wasn’t until January of 2002 that I was invited to attend my first Vodou ceremony. It was the public portion of a Sevis Tet ceremony, presided over by Mambo Marie Carmel, and it was being held in the two-family house Mambo Michele owned in uptown, on General Pershing Street, near S Claiborne Ave. Mambo Michele and her children lived on one side, and Aboudja rented the other side, which also housed all the altars in the large downstairs living room. The second ceremony I attended was in the same location, but after that the ceremonies were held behind the New Orleans Mistic, the botanica owned by Houngan Tribble at 2267 St. Claude Ave. Kay Aboudja operated out of the Mistic until around 2004, and although it was only a short time, the events that took place are some of my fondest memories of my early days in Vodou.

After Kay Aboudja moved its base of operations to the Mistic, Aboudja rented a small Creole cottage on Bourbon St, between St. Philip and  Ursulines Streets, across the street from the Lafitte Guest House, managed by Eddie and Andy who were Tribble’s benefactors for the Mistic. Tribble had rented the cottage for office space, but didn’t need it anymore after the Mistic opened, so he gave it to Aboudja. It was a tiny, one-room apartment with high ceilings, but Aboudja built tall shelves for his large book collection and was very creative with his space. The main room had a small walk-through room to the kitchen and bathroom, and that was where he had his Lwa altars. I spent many hours with Aboudja in that apartment learning how to vire, or salute, the Lwa, learning the different nations and spirits, the reglaman, prayers and songs, and being taught what I could both before and after my Kanzo. I still have some of the cassette tapes Aboudja made for the Priye and the ceremony songs, although my copy of the transcriptions Aboudja pain-stakingly hand wrote were lost in floods from Katrina.

In May of 2002 I moved into an apartment on Spain Street in the Marigny, just blocks away from the Mistic. This was a dream come true as I was able to walk over to the Mistic to visit Tribble and help in the shop on the weekends and into the French Quarter to see Aboudja whenever I wanted. Spending time with Aboudja talking about Haiti and Vodou was one world I was exposed to, but spending time with Tribble at the Mistic opened me up to another one, that of New Orleans hoodoo and spiritual practices of the local people who came into the Mistic. It was the first time I’d ever seen a botanica, and all the different glass candles, saint statues, oils, powders, and charms, not to mention the altars Tribble had everywhere, were very enchanting, to say the least.

Kay Aboudja grew quite steadily with Sevis Tets here and Kanzos in Haiti. My memory of exactly who went through which ceremonies is a bit fuzzy, however it seems that in the first group of Sevis Tets, around 2001, were Tribble, Mike, Michael, David, and possibly a few more. I believe the first Kanzo of Hougan Aboudja and Mambo Marie Carmel together took place in the Summer of 2002, in a borrowed peristyle in Port-au-Prince, with Tribble, who made Houngan Asogwe, Deb as Mambo Asogwe, and Connie as Mambo Sou Pwen. The next Kanzo was in January 2003 which included Shane as Houngan Asogwe and myself as Hounsi Kanzo. One of the last Sevis Tets that took place at the Mistic included Toby, Cheryl, Raul, and Johnny. (I know I’m possibly leaving out some people, so I beg pardon if I am.)

The ceremonies were always grand events, as Aboudja would have it no other way. We’d pool our resources (those of us who were poor at the time dedicated time and physical labor) and fly down Mambo Marie Carmel, singers and dancers, and drummers. On several occasions Frisner St. Augustine and his Troupe Makandal came down to drum for the parties and provide drumming workshops in the days leading up to them. Months of preparations with go into every ceremony with a lot of ticket-buying and hotel-reserving being the source of the majority of the costs, which is why we usually only had two big parties a year. The altars for the parties were always loaded with statues, drinks, food, flowers, and decorated with lots of fabric and string lights...I remember this particularly as I helped with most of them. The shop would be buzzing and brimming with people cooking, talking, laughing, singing, and running out for last minute items. As chaotic as the prep time was, it always came together and Aboudja and Marie would sit down and begin the Priye. What followed would be some of the most beautiful and magical hours as we slipped through the gate and met the Lwa coming up from Ginen.

On these occasions, there was always a large crowd with people from far and wide, including visitors from the local universities, sometimes a film crew to record portions of the ceremony, and local residents who would hear the drums and wander in to discover a piece of their lost ancestry. Aboudja was such a charismatic, talented, dedicated, knowledgeable, skilled, and attractive Houngan, he became quite the Vodou celebrity. He had his faults, though, and he was far from being a saint, however, he was a personality to be reckoned with, and he managed to attract many people from many walks of life. Many of these people were influential in their careers and wanted to get involved with Aboudja for both spiritual and financial benefits. It seemed that the sky was the limit for Kay Aboudja.

However, as with everything in life, there came an end to this time of innocence, joy, and wonder. The darker side of human nature crept in. Jealousy, greed, pride, conspiracy, paranoia, all finally succeeded in destroying one of the most precious periods of my life, as Kay Aboudja fell apart in 2004. From one house, came three: Kay Aboudja, Casa Alta Gracia, and eventually Kay Mystique. I spent the majority of 2004 with my parents in Mississippi, and so was shielded from most of what happened, but the stories I was told sounds as though it was a very rough ride. I returned in January of 2005 and lived with Tribble, Eddie, and Andy in their mansion at 820 Marigny St. There was one last grand ceremony, held by Tribble, in June 2005, before Hurricane Katrina dispersed the majority of us all across the country. We found ourselves in Texas, Georgia, New York, Massachusetts, and some other places. Tribble tried to keep the Mistic open in the aftermath, but eventually he had to close up shop and sell only from the website, working out of his sister’s home on the West Bank.

Aboudja went back and forth from New Orleans to Texas to New York to Atlanta to California before returning to New Orleans one final time in 2010, just after Toby came back from Texas and I came back from Massachusetts. Not long after that did we receive word that Tribble was very sick, and then before we could blink, he passed away due to cancer. That was August. Aboudja never re-established his house here, but he had plans to establish a non profit cultural center in New Orleans and a peristyle in Haiti. However, in late 2011 did he find out he, too, was battling cancer. I visited him during his chemo cycles, and after he completed them and received a clean bill of health, he stayed with me for a week before going to visit his sister in Atlanta. But before I could turn around he was sick again and back in the hospital here at the LSU Medical Center. He lasted three weeks in intensive care, and I would check in on him almost every day and update his family and friends who couldn't make the trip to see him. For those who could, I ran a hostel in my apartment. When he finally passed, I felt a very large chapter in my life close. I was honored to have been a part of such a unique chapter in the history of New Orleans and had to the opportunity to have been part of Aboudja’s fascinating life.

Today there are only three people living in New Orleans who were members of Kay Aboudja. Both (ti)Kay de la Fler Blan (the house of Houngan Toby) and Root of the Bone Spiritual Society (of which I am co-founder) carry part of the legacy of what was started here 12 years ago. Let us never forget where we come from, and let us never repeat the mistakes of the past, looking only to serve the spirit and to build a better future for the spiritual generations to come.


Steven Bragg
Hougan Twa Pote, aka “Sen Josef”
July 19, 2013

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