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Vodou Nation

Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism

While the Haitian musical tradition is probably best known for the Vodou-inspired roots music that helped topple the two-generation Duvalier dictatorship, the nation’s troubled history of civil unrest and its tangled relationship with the United States is more intensely experienced through its art music, which combines French and German elements of classical music with Haiti’s indigenous folk music. Vodou Nation examines art music by Haitian and African American composers who were inspired by Haiti’s history as a nation created by slave revolt. 

Around the time of the United States’s occupation of Haiti in 1915, African American composers began to incorporate Vodou-inspired musical idioms to showcase black artistry and protest white oppression. Together with Haitian musicians, these composers helped create what Michael Largey calls the “Vodou Nation,” an ideal vision of Haiti that championed its African-based culture as a bulwark against America’s imperialism. Highlighting the contributions of many Haitian and African American composers who wrote music that brought rhythms and melodies of the Vodou ceremony to local and international audiences, Vodou Nation sheds light on a black cosmopolitan musical tradition that was deeply rooted in Haitian culture and politics.

256 pages | 5 halftones, 28 musical examples | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Black Studies

Folklore and Mythology

Music: Ethnomusicology


Vodou Nation investigates the lives and works of the principal Haitian elite composers who sought cosmopolitan respect as well as national acceptance through the production of nationalist art music. It is also the story of those who followed such musical trends and consumed Haitian elite music and culture. Entertaining and tightly organized, this book explores insightfully the role of art music in mediating tensions in postcolonial societies.”--Gage Averill, Dean, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto

Gage Averill

“Michael Largey’s Vodou Nation offers a nuanced history and revealing interpretation of the vital role of Haitian composers in constructing national ideology for both domestic and foreign audiences. Largey at once sets forth the important role of compositional activism, explores the ethnographic processes through which the music is constituted, and narrates the emerging politics of Haitian art music. This groundbreaking book stands to make an important contribution to multiple fields well beyond the boundaries of musical scholarship.”--Kay Kaufman Shelemay, G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and African and African American Studies, Harvard University

Kay Kaufman Shelemay

"Largey skillfully reconstructs the literary and intellectual climate that shaped Haitian music in the Western tradition. . . . A major contribution."

G. Fleurant | Transforming Anthropology

Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism offers a compelling account of the agencies and actions of Haitian elites in the period of the 1890s through the 1950s and the development of misik savant ayisyen (Haitian art music). Michael Largey presents a series of well-crafted and finely detailed discussions that foreground the lives and works of selected Haitian intellectuals and art music composers as well as some of their African American counterparts in the United States. These biographies are interwoven within the shifting political fortunes and social alliances among Haitian elites, the foundation of a ‘modern’ Haitian ethnological movement, and the materialization of cosmopolitan diasporic imaginings of an emergent black consciousness. Largey argues that Haitian elites increasingly employed Vodou-inspired cultural practices and aesthetics in their efforts to promote a vibrant and, importantly, ‘authentic’ Haitian national culture.”

William Hope | American Ethnologist

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Orthography
Introduction: Performing the Nation: Musical Constructions of Haitian Cultural Identity
1. The Politics of Musical Ethnography: Jean Price-Mars and the Ethnological Movement
2. Recombinant Mythology and the Alchemy of Memory: Occide Jeanty, Ogou, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines
3. Africans and Arawaks: The Music of Ludovic Lamothe and Justin Elie
4. Visions of Vodou in African American Operas about Haiti: Ouanga and Troubled Island
5. Ethnography and Music Ideology: The Music of Werner A. Jaegerhuber
Epilogue: Roots Music and Cultural Memory


Society for Ethnomusicology: Alan Merriam Award

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