A small man with a gentle, unassuming air and easy smile, Sanba Zao is a celebrated figure in traditional Haitian roots and Vodou music. But he is unknown to most of these women, who nod politely, but uncertainly. They light up when he breaks into song, his enormous, resonant voice suddenly transforming the sterile white auditorium with spirituality and power. Startled, the women applaud. “Ayibobo!” one calls out, a Vodou salutation with multiple meanings: amen, hallelujah, respect, and blessings.
“Is that Vodou?” another woman asks.
It is indeed.
Zao has been in Miami since early April for a new, year-long Haitian cultural program that Miami Light Project and world music organization Community Arts and Culture are producing in Oak Grove Park, a heavily Haitian community in North Miami-Dade. The program, which kicked off in February with the Great Day in Oak Grove Park concert, is funded by Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation, which contracted MLP and CAC to create and run it.
Zao is teaching workshops for children and older adults at the park’s Father Gerard Jean-Juste Community Center, some of whom will join him at a free concert he’ll give at the park at 3pm this Saturday. The concert is part of CAC’s 25th Afro Roots music festival, and the CAC is finishing an album they began recording with Zao back in 2012.
Zao is not only a musical artist, but a powerful emblem and proponent of Afro-Haitian Vodou culture, one of the original and leading artists in the mizik rasin, or roots music, movement. A Sanba is a ritual singer and poet in Vodou. Now 68, Zao (whose given name is Louis Lesly Marcelin), is a legendary figure. He lives in the mountaintop neighborhood of Bazilo on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, where he makes music, runs a children’s school, and teaches at the L’Ecole National des Arts; he sometimes tours internationally with the group Lakou Mizik.
“He is so popular even the gangs won’t touch him, they respect him,” says Jan Sebon, a leader in Miami’s rasin music scene and a decades-long friend of Zao. “He is like a lwa [Vodou deity]. It’s not mystical, but because he’s so important in what he does he becomes a kind of lwa.”
Zao’s music has become part of Vodou. “They sing his songs in Vodou lakous,” Sebon says. “Zao says we cannot just sing what people left for us long ago and not compose Vodou songs for the new generation.”
At a time of violent political chaos in Haiti, with proliferating evangelical churches continuing a centuries-old Western practice of condemning Vodou as evil and anti-Christian, Zao says maintaining Vodou and Afro-Haitian folkloric traditions is more important than ever. “We are in a country where people don’t believe in themselves very much,” he says in Creole, sitting with Sebon, who translates, in a classroom at the Oak Grove community center. “A long time ago, in Haiti, wherever you went, especially in the mountains, but even near the capital, you can hear the drums playing. Because there is a Vodou lakou there. Now instead of hearing drums you hear the evangelist church. In Haiti right now there is a church on every corner, where they sing and play drums. They play the drums in a Vodou rhythm, but at the same time they want to finish with Vodou.”
Both men grew up in Carrefour, a Port-au-Prince neighborhood, where Sebon saw a young Zao perform French and American pop. “I would come home dancing and singing and making rhythms with my mouth,” says Zao, laughing, “I had a big Afro.” In his early 20’s a music teacher took him to a lakou, a Vodou family/spiritual/community compound. “When I heard them playing music I almost cried I was so happy,” Zao says. “I thought ‘this is mine, really mine’.” In the 80’s and 90’s he became a leader of the rasin music movement, whose best known group is Boukman Eksperyans. In Miami, Sebon co-founded Koleksyon Kazak, a rasin dance and music collective beloved here from the late 80’s into the 90’s.
Sebon’s daughter Inez Barlatier grew up listening to and singing Zao’s music. In 2010 she and her father visited Zao in Haiti, where she spent days spent learning and jamming at Zao’s house, filled with Haitian drums and instruments. Now she carries on the family musical tradition with her own Haitian folkloric ensemble, often performing for schoolchildren. MLP has hired her to coordinate Zao’s activities in Oak Grove.
“I’m overjoyed Sanba Zao is here,” Barlatier says. “This is part of our culture, and I’m very proud of it.” She says Vodou and Haitian folkloric traditions have taken root in Miami. “This culture has always been fostered and cultivated in our community,” she says. “It’s part of us. What’s important is to continue the work that’s been done here.”
“Vodou culture teaches us that we are more than this life we live. We will all become ancestors. This practice honors those who came before us, so that we may be celebrated for the work we’ve done for our communities.”
Oak Grove is a fertile community for Zao – and Haitian culture. The community center, which opened in 2019 and is the largest facility in the County park system, bustles with activities, especially for children and older people, that attracts eager participants from a diverse neighborhood that, while heavily Haitian, also includes Jews, Latinos, Asians and African-Americans. They flock to the center for low-cost swimming and fitness classes, aftercare and summer camp, food drives and backpack distribution, and more.
It has been years since Miami Light Project presented Haitian artists like Daniel Bernard Roumain and Haitian-Cuban ensemble Grupo Vocal Desandan. Now, Boone says, the OGP project is enabling MLP to reconnect with the Haitian community in a neighborhood close to their new home in Miami Shores. They’re working with longtime friends like Sebon, a former board member. (MLP also recently got another County contract to produce Metro Music Mornings, a weekly concert series at the Government Center Metrorail Station, which Barlatier curates and coordinates.)
The free Great Day concert was a rousing success, drawing hundreds of people for artists that included Barlatier, famed singer Emeline Michel and compas stars Tabou Combo. Up next are a summer film series with O Cinema and a children’s music project. “This felt like an opportunity to reconnect with the Haitian community in a meaningful way,” Boone says. “As a cultural organization, to go into a place with an audience eager for what you’re bringing them is very gratifying.”
Vallery Agenar, the Center’s manager, says the new cultural programs are also enormously gratifying for her and the community. “As a first generation Haitian-American, this brings me great pride,” Agenar says. “Growing up Haitian in South Florida was hard – it was to be made fun of. To see people want to be involved in Haitian culture, see it being highlighted, to hear people say ‘I want to know more,’ to see kids take pride in Haitian culture – it’s beautiful.”
Zao’s music is something to be proud of, says Jose Elias, a Cuban-American musician and bandleader who founded Community Arts and Culture, and has presented Zao several times. “He is such a humble human being,” Elias says. “His charisma comes through in his music – he’s a force of nature. He embodies a true spirit of liberation; not just human rights, but on a spiritual level.”
The CAC has presented and recorded many Haitian musicians, and partnered with the Rhythm Foundation’s popular Big Night in Little Haiti concert series from 2011-2016, hosting after-parties at 7th Circuit Studios, their former base in Little Haiti. But they, too, haven’t worked with Haitian artists for some time. “Now we are able to focus on a part of Miami we haven’t been a part of for a while,” Elias says.
In Miami and beyond, Haitian-Americans are finding new ways to connect to Vodou traditions and spirituality. But many remain wary of vodou.
“They hear the drum and they think ‘it’s not for me, it’s not Christian’,” says Elitte Silver, 76, an Oak Grove Park regular whose sister was part of Kazak. “But I’m part of a generation that was instructed really well in my culture. You cannot take the drum out of me. You grow your god with your drum.”
Zao aims to reaffirm that power inside Haitians. “Everyone has god in them, a lwa in them,” he says. “Whether people can see it depends on what you do.”
We are accessible and assistive listening devices are available. To request materials in accessible format and accommodation to attend an event, please contact Eventz Paul at 305.576.4350 or email us, at least five days in advance to initiate your request.
Eventz Paul is currently the Technical Director and Productions Manager at Miami Light Project. He has been a part of this organization since 2011. He participated in Miami Light Project’s first class of the Technical Fellowship Program held at The Light Box. He joined this program hoping to improve his existing theater skills. He received training from experts in the industry that mentored and further his theater technical skills. Now, he has successfully used his professional knowledge and has had the opportunity to work with various arts organizations and venues throughout Miami including Miami Theater Center, National Young Arts Foundation, the Colony Theatre and many more. He has become an instructor and conducts audiovisual classes to incoming technical fellows.
Beth Boone has been the Artistic & Executive Director of Miami Light Project since 1998, developing critically acclaimed artistic programs that have asserted the organization as one of the leading cultural institutions in South Florida. These programs include: the establishment of Here & Now, South Florida’s most respected commission and presenting program for community-based artists; premiere presentations of internationally acclaimed; pioneering historic international cultural exchange with Cuba; and the creation of The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, a multi-use performance and visual art space in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District. She previously served as Associate Director of Development for Florida Grand Opera, Deputy Director for the Department of Cultural Affairs at Miami Dade Community College, Wolfson Campus, co-founded an Off Broadway theater company (New York Rep), and served for six years as a Program Associate in the Arts & Culture Program of the AT&T Foundation. She received a B.A. in Fine Arts from the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and a MFA in Theater Arts from Brandeis University in Boston, MA.