On the Steps of the Cathedral: Heresy, Lived Religion, Dominican Voodoo, Music, and Catholicism.
D.M.A in Music
Because of their African aesthetics and their cultural proximity to Haiti, Afro-Dominican genres of religious music (palo music) have traditionally been marginalized and at times prohibited by law in the Dominican Republic. In recent years, however, the music and rituals of Dominican voodoo have gained visibility through performances in festivals, clubs, and dance halls. These public performances have influenced rural and traditional voodoo (or Vudú) ceremonies, and conversely, club goers have developed a new way of dancing to the music where mimicking spirit possession has become part of the dance. This move of a repressed and ostracized sacred music into popular dance and music clubs, especially in a nation traditionally constructed as White, Hispanic, and Catholic, goes straight to important issues orthodoxy and heresy in contemporary culture. As many religious studies scholars have recently claimed, secularization itself is a religious process, and, as I will argue, the sacred and profane elements of Dominican Vudú and its music cannot be seen as antagonistic or anti-Catholic forces. What seems clear is that there is an opening of new spaces where the commodification of the music has changed the ways in which the religion is expressed and experienced, and this openness represents a break in the historical linear narrative of Dominican identity in which Afro-Dominican traditions and identities were kept in private. Religion, scholars have argued, like gender, like racial identity, is socially constructed. In making this move, however, the danger has been to deny the subject any agency. Recent work in this area encourages us to learn to “craft new theories of subjectivity, insisting that it no longer be defined in terms of meaning and intentionality, but through the signifying practices of language and action” (Furey 9). Moving away from beliefs to practices that are practiced by agents—both individual and social—allows us to see practitioners, musicians, and dancers as true co-creators of a new religious narrative in which Vudú and palo music play an essential role.
This paper will examine the reasons and significance behind this current shift, focusing especially on liminal spaces where Catholicism and the more “heretical” Vudú mix, creating three-way tension between marginalized religion, institutional religion, and lived religion. In this presentation I will be focusing on three examples and their resulting controversy and discourse: 1. A performance I observed of palo drumming literally on the steps of a cathedral. 2. A seminal recording of merengue music that included palo drums and singing. 3. The recent phenomenon of palo music and vudú rituals in commercial dance clubs.