A drum ceremony held on State Beach Tuesday evening commemorated Haitian Vodou community leader Yolande Vital, her congregation, and all who perished in the most recent earthquake in Haiti.
Island musician Rick Bausman has been working for years to bolster the spiritual, cultural, social, and economic infrastructure of Haiti, while also teaching folks in other places about the connections between the Western world and Haitian Vodou culture.
Bausman was in Haiti doing community and philanthropic work when the earthquake struck, and was able to escape and head home early.
For him, his close friend Vital represented all the potential that a caring and compassionate community could provide, and embodied the mission of Bausman’s nonprofit organization, the Milokan Project.
The project seeks to strengthen connections between Americans and Haitians, and create more understanding about what Vodou means. It also seeks to increase the opportunity for Haitians to learn more about their own culture, history, and how drumming and music play such major parts in that. In the end, Bausman is working to construct cultural centers in Haiti so that people can go there to learn about the vast Vodou culture and history that have been so severely misrepresented in America.
In the earthquake, Vital — who owned and operated an orphanage and a church in Haiti — was killed along with her congregation and the children in her orphanage when the peristyle, a sacred place where ceremonies were held, in her building collapsed.
Vital was a high-ranking member of the Vodou clergy, and a major community leader who was known to give selflessly, and bring in members outside her congregation regularly — particularly children who had no home or who had been deserted.
At State Beach, Bausman and a number of other drummers and musicians paid respects to Vital and others who were killed or had their lives affected by the disaster.
The ceremony included Haitian Vodou drumming and singing, along with a Potomitan (ceremonial pole) and a Veve (spiritual symbol) that represented the Vodou deity embodied by Vital.
Bausman explained that each member of the Vodou clergy embodies a different spiritual entity based on their personality and beliefs. Bausman recounted that when leading the ceremony, Vital would often be taken over by Bossou the bull, the Vodou deity representing strength and wildness. “She would come to ceremony dressed in a black and red Chicago Bulls uniform and black and red Air Jordan shoes — red and black are the colors of Bossou. Yolande was funny, light, powerful, and absolutely selfless. Probably thousands of kids have grown into adulthood and are alive because of her and her orphanage,” Bausman said.
On the Potomitan at State Beach, Bausman placed a picture of Vital alongside a red and black Veve.
Bausman said the memorial celebration on the Vineyard is representative of the “very subtle and nearly unrecognized but significant connection that this community has with Haiti.”
“Yolande was a beautiful, hard-working, loving person. Most of the world holds her and her faith in contempt, and many people would regard her as a wicked witch. Maybe the best thing we can do to honor her passing is start to reconstruct the narrative,” Bausman continued.
He thought back to when he first felt the ground tremble where he was staying in Haiti, and knew at that point what it would mean for his friends who lived close by.
He said it’s difficult for some in America to conceptualize the trials that people in Haiti face every day, but for his fellow drummers and him, the earthquake and ensuing tragedy put the issues in stark perspective.
“A tragedy like this helps us understand on a more human level — this person who worked so hard for her community, in the space of a few seconds, she and her whole congregation and all the kids in her orphanage perished,” Bausman said.
He explained that although the ultimate goal of the Milokan Project is to strengthen the internal systems of Haiti and allow for long-term sustainability, the people of Haiti need help right now. “This makes it all the more clear that we need to stick together, as human beings. And at certain times, it’s good to send money to those who are in immediate need,” Bausman said.
He continued to say that if Vital and the many others whose homes collapsed during the earthquake had enough means to pay for rebar in their homes, the outcome could have been different.
“That’s true for everybody in Haiti, and it was true in the 2010 earthquake as well. This speaks to the larger issue of social and economic stability for everyone in a community,” Bausman said.
Because Bausman is so deeply connected within Haitian communities, he said, he will be able to take any direct contributions and make sure the money is going where it needs to.
At the drum ceremony, Bausman was able to raise around $600 to go toward efforts to rebuild in Haiti, and is currently working on garnering more donations.
“It’s not going to be a lot. I am not going to take on rebuilding the school or the hospital, but I will network with my people and figure out who needs what, and what is reasonable for the community here to try and tackle,” Bausman said. “Plans are already in motion to do that really important work.”
Go to drumrol.org to make a donation to the Milokan Project.