This song about Moses is unique in the repertoire of traditional Vodou songs because it mocks rather than embraces Judeo-Christian ideas. Commonly, Vodou believers welcome religious figures from other cultures because they do not view themselves as having a monopoly over the spiritual world. This song is an exception. Rather than celebrate Moses' reported great feats, the song ridicules them and presents them as less grand and less worthy than service to the Lwas.
Vodou songs are rarely critical of Judeo-Christian heritage. Such criticism is philosophically at odds with a religion that embraces a plurality of religious teachings guided by the core principle to each his own- chak hougan hougan lakay li, meaning each religious leader has jurisdiction over his/ her congregation. Beyond philosophical reasons, Vodou songs avoid criticizing Judeo-Christian characters for practical purposes such as fear of Christian persecution of non-Christians who have less local and international political power.
Although we can't be certain of when the song was composed, it may have survived in Haiti because it mocks Moses rather than Jesus, the central figure in Christianity. Mocking and persecuting Jews was a longstanding Christian tradition anchored around the false Christian claim that Jews killed Jesus. Pope John Paul II apologized for this accusation but only after it had done its damage. Jews suffered 2000 years of persecution in Europe. Elements of that persecution were taken to Haiti. In 1685, the Christian French Government expelled all Jews from the island (Saint Domingue). Over in the Kongo, priests of the Capuchin and Jesuit order championed the idea that Jews were evil. Considering this anti-semetic background, a song critical of Moses, a great Jewish hero, did not risk angering Christians.
The song exploits old Christian bigotry against Jews to show that service to the African Spirits is more worthy and more principled than admiration of feats said to have been performed by Moses. The song mocks Moses for allegedly parting the Red Sea. He is nicknamed Moyiz 2 zo, meaning Moses of two waters or Moses of water. Unimpressed with his separating the sea, the song assigns him a greater task.
The task is called a principle to allude to Moses having received principles to live by, namely the 10 commandments. These commandments came from a foreign culture and did not mention the necessity for religious devotion to African Spirits, the Lwas. The song reminds Moses of this omission and calls upon him to give proper service to the African Spirits. To do this, he will have to perform a task even greater than that of parting the Red Sea of the Middle East. Moses is ordered to accept his assigned task as a principle: he shall carry water by the spoonful to fill a jar in honor of the African Lwas – W a pote dlo pa kiyè pou plen kannari Lwa mwen*.
The task is to be performed by the spoonful because it is intended as punishment for Moses who failed to include service to the Lwas in the list of principles he claimed to have received from God. How could Moses neglect the Lwas who according to a Dahomean creation story, were created by God to aid humans who in turn must show appreciation for the assistance provided? Moses appears to have been unaware of this God given principle. For this omission, he is punished with the same substance he allegedly used in performing his great miracle- water.
Moses is assigned to carry water by the spoonful to fill a jar used for service to the African spirits. These jars were used in the countryside of Haiti to store potable water. The water was often carried from a distant source, such as a river or a spring. The jars could hold about a bathtub of water, a volume equivalent to 225 to 425 liters. It could take between 40,000 to 85,000 spoonfuls to fill such a jar and doing so would require at least an equal number of trips to and from the water source. As this task would pre-occupy Moses for the foreseeable future, the song moves on to talk about the virtue of owning up to one's responsibilities, another principle left out of Moses lists of Commandments. It tells this moral principle by considering the behaviors of dogs in Haiti.
This transition from Moses carrying water to dogs eating meat seems abrupt. However, throughout the song, there are terms used that are linguistically related to dogs. The word zo in the first line refers to the waters but in Creole zo also means bone which is commonly fed to dogs. The word kannari for water jars came to Haiti from the Canary islands where the word was derived from the Latin term canine for dogs. Due to the large population of dogs found on the island of the Gaunche people off the west coast of Africa, the Spanish renamed the island Canarias which became Canary in French, and Kannari in Creole. How the term came to mean water jars is unclear. Elderly people of Baradere Haiti report that the jugs were initially used to transport salted beef, ti bèf sale, to Haiti. As the Canary Islands were under Spanish control, these islands may have been populated with Spanish cattle and the salted beef may have been acquired from there. Once in Haiti the salted beef containers were then used for water storage, possibly making a canary island import synonymous with it local use as a water container. This same name kannari (canary) is also used in Trinidad and Tobago for clay water jars.
Using the behavior of dogs as a teaching tool, the song goes on to talk about being accountable for one's actions as well as for the actions of those under one's control. The singer makes this point by stating that if his dogs were to eat the neighbor's goat, it would be his responsibility to reimburse the neighbor. This principle is recognized by common law in the countryside of Grand-Anse, Haiti. The singer presents himself as a morally upright individual who would be willing to abide by this just law. He says just tell me and I'll pay: pale m, m a peye. But the singer stipulates that evidence should be presented, suggesting that one should not be moved by blind faith, but should instead base one's actions upon clear evidence, hence the phrase: ti nèg mande wè, se lè y awè y a kwè- people want to see this, it's only when theysee, do theybelieve. In the country side of Haiti, when a dog is accused of eating a goat, people often wait to inspect it's stool to see if it contains undigested hair. The accusation is not taken on blind faith an inspection follows. The owner of the dog often demands this proof before reimbursing the cost of the goat.
To emphasize, the need to see to believe, the phrase se lè y a wè y a kwè, is said in the plural sense to also reflect the voice of the public that the singer is addressing. That public also wants to see if indeed the singer is able to reimburse the neighbor as he so boldly claims. They are not taking his words on blind faith. The listening public wants proof that the singer is capable of reimbursing for damages, this is said as Ti Nèg mande wè.
The rejection of faith as a substitute for evidence is a well disguised attack on a core principle of Christian religion. It is disguised in the words of doubting Thomas, a Judeo-Christian character who lacked faith in Jesus and wanted to see his feats to believe in his reported superhuman powers. Thomas is known for the need to see to believe, just like the ti nèg in the song. The song does not cite Thomas' name like it does Moses, so as not to attract Christian attention to the fact that Thomas' skepticism of Jesus' claims is just as appropriate as skepticism regarding Moses parting of the sea.
Like so many other principles, seeing before believing is not a foolproof way of preventing the acceptance of false ideas. Nonetheless, if the principle of seeing before believing was more frequently applied, it certainly would reduce the many false claims that circulate with loyal believers.
Just as Christians avoided criticizing Vodou in Dahomey when the leaders of the kingdom were powerful,** Haitian Sèvitès avoided responding to Christian criticism, while the state/ colony was governed by Christians.Vodou songs composed in Creole concentrated on preserving the Vodou religion rather than on responding to Christian criticism or on attacking Christian beliefs.
A Vodou song critical of other beliefs is a rare find among Vodou songs. It is possible that the song survived because it exploited Christian biases. This allowed the song to punish Moses as a Jew for his pretension to have received a set of commandments from God that omitted key principles, particularly, the God given duty to serve the Lwas. The song ends by undermining the common Christian practice of lifting faith above evidence and asserts: Ti nèg mande wè.
*As in the Kongo, in Haiti, the underworld is called the world beneath the waters. For this reason containers of water were viewed as symbolic of the home of the spiritual world and that enabled Sèvitè to use kanaris as sacred objects devoted to various Lwas. Although some singers just say kanari mwen, to have the song fully understood within the context of its religious significance, we've inserted the term Lwa after kanari.
**Christians the world over have been very critical of Vodou, often vilifying the religion without mercy. This air of Christian superiority vis a vis Vodou developed only as West Africa, engulfed in the commerce of people as slaves, became ever weaker in comparison to Europe which steadily grew in military strength and wealth. At first, Christian missionaries in Africa preached that African religions were equivalent to Christian religions. The first cathechism published in Dahomey in 1658 even called God by the Vodou name Lisa, (or Mawou Lisa). Later, as more Africans became captives, Africans and the spirits they honored completely lost the respect of Christian Missionaries, who no longer feared being disrespectful of Africans. Across the Atlantic where Africans were powerless and could not demand any respect, Vodou went from being described as Godly in the first African cathechism to being called demonic in Haiti in Chritian cathechisms.