Volume 80, Number 22 | October 28 — November 3, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Tequila Minsky

Didier Civil with molds he made for creating papier-mâché heads for giant puppets of Baron Samdi and Gran Brigette.

Oh, that Vodou that you do(u); Mask guru gets in Village spirit

By Tequila Minsky

When Jeanne Fleming, the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade’s director for the past 30 years, heard that Haiti’s cherished annual pre-Lent carnival had been canceled after this January’s earthquake, she immediately wanted to involve Haiti in this year’s Village parade.

“We were reaching out to another carnival culture,” she explains. To Fleming, Halloween is America’s version of carnival.

Fleming researched Haitian carnival and found artist and master mask maker Didier Civil from the city of Jacmel, two hours south of Port-au-Prince. Jacmel, which was also damaged in the quake, is the soul of Haiti’s carnival and known for its incredibly costumed processions.

Civil was invited to artistically and authentically head up the presence of Haitian traditions for the Village Halloween Parade. For years, he’s been making masks for groups of carnival marchers. As a boy, he learned his art from Jacmel master mask artist Lyonel Simonis.

Before the earthquake, Civil also taught and worked with children — paying them for their help — in the courtyard of his home, now destroyed. Civil envisions an expanded art school in Jacmel where children can learn arts and crafts, eventually to have a means of economic support.

Since arriving in the U.S. from Haiti in late September, Civil has been working in a barn/workshop near Rhinebeck, creating the figures that will lead the parade. He sculpted 3-foot heads from clay to be used as the molds for the papier-mâché heads of Baron Samdi and Gran Brigette, the chief Vodou gods of the cemetery.

The finished heads were attached to 16-foot puppet bodies. Baron Samdi is wearing his black coat and bowler hat, carrying the gavel of justice. Wife Gran Brigette, toting a cane, is clothed in the holiday’s traditional purple with black and white trim.

In Haitian Vodou ancestors are honored on Nov. 1, on Gede (pronounced Ge-day), when especially these two Vodou gods — with authority over the cemeteries — appear.

Gede coincides with the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead that also celebrates the departed. Nov. 2 in Haiti is the day devoted to Catholic saints; Vodou and Catholicism coexist.

A huge chili pepper (Brigette and Baron like hot stuff) and a massive papier-mâché alcohol bottle­ (the sacrament for ceremonies) and a grave, tomb and coffins carried by zombies will also be part of the Haitian contingent.

On working on the theme of the Haitian gods of the cemetery Civil said, “I’m not a Vodou practitioner, but I’m Haitian.” He understands Vodou and its symbols and signs.

Every year at the parade starting point, drummer and Vodou priest Bonga performs a small ceremony and creates a design for Gede, a veve, on the ground. The Haitian contingent of puppets, plus skeletons, will begin the procession. Upfront will also be Nadia Dieudonné, dancing as Baron Samdi, and rara band Jharara, playing their traditional Haitian rhythmic one-toned horns, to lead off the expected 60,000 revelers.

Said Fleming, “We will fully feel the spirit that night.”

Anyone in costume is invited to attend. People start gathering south of Spring St. and Sixth Ave. at 5:30 p.m. The parade begins at 7 p.m., Sun., Oct. 31.

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