This is a selection from a medley of traditional songs presented by Weena in her tribute to Ogou, a spirit served in the Rada region of Ginen who is particularly associated with the Nago people of Nigeria. The Nagos were once part of the Oyo Empire. Although today, all inhabitants of the former Oyo Empire are called Yoruba, the people of Dahomey called all the different ethnic groups comprising the Oyo Empire, Nago people. This practice continued in Haiti where the Empire is called Nanchon Nago (Nago Nation) or Nanchon Nago-Oyo. The Nago people were once numerous in Haiti because of their misfortune as people who fell victim to the commerce of people as slaves. Because they lived closed to the seashore, they were often targeted by those who raided seaside villages for captives.
Because Ogou was a popular spirit among the Nago people, it has become tradition in Haiti to insert Nago terminology like Awo Ache when singing about Ogou. To further emphasize the Nago and Ogou connection, at the end of this particular medley, the Nago city of Badagri is cited. This city is located in the Ogou (Ogoun) county of today’s Nigeria.
Since Ogou is mostly associated with the Nago people, the medley tries to stay true to Nago tradition in its citing of Nago words, ancestors, and cities. However, the Nago people were the neighbors of the Dahomeans. As a result, Dahomean influences can be found in the medley. This cross influence may be what allows the Gedevi Dahomean word Alovi, meaning fingers, and the Dahomean spirit Danbala, to be cited in the song. By contrast, the Kongo people lived far from the Nago people and had little influence on them. No Kikongo words appear in this tribute to Ogou.
The words used in the video as well as the gestures work as a unit to show reverence for Nago Ancestors. In the video, Weena touches the ground, symbolic of where the Ancestors are buried, and then touches her heart, symbolic of her love for them. Following that, she reaches to the sky to show the magnitude of ancestor appreciation. This common gesture in Vodou is called dogwe meaning to be respectful and at one with our foreparents. In Creole that relationship is commonly said as se yo, se nou. Weena makes this tribute to Ogou a call to safeguard our heritage and it is why she says we have sworn inside a govi not to reject the culture that has been passed down to us: nou pap rejete kilti ansèt yo.Govi are small jars used as symbolic representation of the presence of the ancestors in the life hereafter. African descendants in the United States used to call upon their Ancestors using similar clay jars filled with water. Some of these American govi have been recovered from the rivers of South Carolina.
The Medley begins by stating that we come from far away. Our foreparents knew this because it took them 3 months on average to cross the Atlantic. The song goes on to say nou mache trennen to remind us that Africans came to Haiti unwillingly in a voyage where 100,000 perished at sea. The song thanks Ogou for those who survived this perilous journey and requests of Ogou to continue to care for us. The appeal to Ogou is consistent with the traditional African belief that God does not involve him/herself in human affairs and had no participation in the commerce of people as slaves.
Our foreparents were expected to die early during their enslavement and most never survived to have children. They were constantly replaced with new arrivals. The song is sung by the descendants of those who survived long enough to have children and so it proclaims with pride that we defied the odds. This is said as yo di n an kwa, konnen nou pa kwa e.
The song appeals to Ogou to dispense justice and says forgive those who have done us harm and reward those who have been helpful to us. The call for justice begins with “Ogou bèbè o fa o” meaning Ogou don't tell them their fate. Fa is the Nago word for visionary and for fate. Gbe is Gedevi for speech and for refuse. In Creole, gbe gave rise to the term bèbè (gbegbe) meaning mute or to refuse to speak.
Both the Nago and Ibo people consider Ogou to be involved in establishing justice. So themes of justice often echo in Haitian songs about Ogou. How justice is done commonly depends on the singer’s own views of what’s appropriate. For example, in singing this song, some people say forgive those who have done us harm, while others say let those who have harmed us exsanguinate (kite san yo koule). The o after gbegbe and after fa are placed there for lyrical embellishment. It helps to make the words rhyme with Ogou. Fa o is pronounced as fawo, because in Creole when pronouncing the vowel a and o, they must be separated by a semi-vowel like w.
Gbegbe is a Gedevi-Dahomean word and in the context of this song, it helps to further emphasize the cross cultural influences of the Dahomean people on the Nago people and vice-versa. As a result of this cross cultural influence, the song cites Achade, the king of Dahomey from 1727 to 1775. It does so to recall that Achade was raised by the royal family of the Nago-Oyo Empire. He was held captive by that family to force his father, Kadya Bosou, then king of Dahomey, to pay annual tribute to the Nago-Oyo Empire. Having been raised in Nago territory, in Haiti, Achade is often considered to be a Nago citizen and is cited in Nago songs. In this song, Achade is asked to let the Nago people in Ginen know that we have survived the perilous voyage and the arduous life in Haiti.
The fact that Achade was raised away from his family is not lost in Haitian culture. People who find themselves isolated from their families and friends would appeal to Achade for endurance. This is captured in the following Vodou song:
Achade o, M pa gen manman isit ki pou pale pou mwen
Achade o, zanmi move
M pa gen fanmi isit ki pou pale pou mwen
Achade o, I have no mother here to speak for me
Achade o, friends are wicked
I have no family here to speak for me
In keeping with Nago tradition, the song says Awo Ache which is a Nago statement meaning by the Grace of the Mysteries (Spirits). This statement is common in Nigerian incantations. In Haiti, Nago is added to Awo Achè to remind the audience that it is a Nago statement. Nèg Nago di Awo Achè literally means Nago men say by the Grace of the Mysteries. When these words are said, the chorus responds by saying Iyalode meaning as do the ladies.Yalode is a Nago word for distinguished woman. One Nigerian informant explained that Oprah Winfrey would be considered to be a yalode because she is a woman with high public esteem.
The video for this medley to Ogou shows people on horseback. This scene helps one recall the Nago-Oyo calvary that allowed the Nago Oyo empire to become the dominant power in the Rada region during the 18th century. The Nago-Oyo Kingdom was the only territory in Ginen where horses could survive for more than one or two years. In the other regions, horses succumbed readily to tsetse fly infection. The Nago people were able to use horses which gave them a military advantage over their neighbors. Because of the use of horses by the Nago Calvary, Ogou is known as a horseman. Dance steps in honor of Ogou involve moves reflecting a person riding a horse.
As the belief in Ogou predates West African recorded history, it is uncertain how old this belief is. Robert G. Armstrong’s linguistic analysis of the word and of related words throughout the Rada region suggest that the term Ogou is linked to hunting during the Neolithic period. If so, Ogou may have been a hunter during that period. This would make belief in Ogou as old as 12,000 years. Skills developed in hunting became applicable in war. As a possible great hunter, Ogou became known as a great warrior, gason lagè. About 2,000 years ago, people in Ginen began to make metal which allowed for more powerful armies to emerge. It appears that during this period of time Ogou became associated with metal making giving him the name Ogou Fè or Ogou Feray in Haiti. Weapons made of metal, particularly the machete were the tools most used by the Nago-Oyo Calvary. It is for this reason that in the video, the horse-rider is shown holding a machete.
In more recent years, numerous African warriors and kings took on the name Ogou. The most famous of these is King Ewuare (1440–1473) of the Benin Kingdom (Nanchon Bini). King Ewuare conducted ceremonies in honor of Ogou. Among Ginen rulers, he is the one most associated with Ogou. Chango, the fourth King of the Nago-Oyo empire had a brother known as Ogou. In Haiti, great warriors are also known as Ogou. Desalin who led Haiti to independence is often called Met Jan Jak, Gason Lagè Ogou Desalin. President Hyppolite, a former army general who built iron bridges and the iron market became known as Ogou Panama. The association of Ogou with army generals is particularly interesting considering that the Nago world for general, balogoun contains the word Ogou. Other leaders who embody characteristics present in Ogou include Ogou Yanmson and Ogou Balendyo. In the video, Ogou is referred to as Ogou Baloni which is a fusion of Oba and Oni. Oba means king and Oni refers to the city of Oni, also known as Onire. The term ba, short for oba, appears in various names for Ogou.
Lele, is another African term from the Rada region used in this Medley to Ogou. It means sing it or shout it. Lele is variably pronounced in creole as rele.
In the video, the flag and its red trim is symbolic of Ogou in two ways. Firstly, the color is symbolic of war because warriors often spill blood. Secondly, with globalization, flags became popular in Ginen as a symbol of the state. Given that states are usually formed by warriors, flags became symbolic of Ogou and is often depicted in symbolic representation of Ogou called Vèvè. Sandra T. Barnes and Paula Girshick Ben-Amos showed that the association of Ogou with creation of new states is an old human tradition. They argue that in the past it was predominately hunters who discovered new territories in their chasing of prey. It was they who used their skills to conquer new communities. The association of Ogou with the creation and defense of states is not lost in this video where Weena calls on Ogou to defend the Haitian territory against those who would pillage its mineral resources: Nou pap kite peyi a ba yo meaning we will not surrender the country to them.
This month in honor of our Nago Ancestors we say, Awo Achè Nago and we touch the ground, then our hearts, and lift our hand to the heavens as we shout: Ogou Badagri, Ogou Yanmsan, Ogou Baloni o lele o…
Description of the photographs above, taken at the Smithsonian Museum
18th century Nachon Bini sculpture showing a soldier in metal holding a machete. Nanchon Bini is a group that is closely related to the Nago people. Machetes used in Haiti today are shape very much like the one displayed here from Ginen.
Ancient statue of a soldier from the Nago region on horseback. This practice made horseback riding symbolic of Ogou (Met Nago) in Haiti.
Jerry M. Gilles and Yvrose S Gilles. Remembrance: Roots, Rituals and Reverence in Vodou. Bookmanlit 2009, Davie Florida.
Kayode J. Fakinlede. Yoruba- English English-Yorura Modern Practical Dictionary. Hippocrene Books 2003, New York.
Sandra T. Barnes. Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New( Second Edition). Indiana University Press, 2003, Bloomington and Indianapolis