On Halloween in the Quarter, the original VOODOOFEST celebrates its 21st year with drumming, dancing and a ceremony to honor the Ancestors. Meet the Voodoo Priestess who started it all.
- by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
- photos by Ellis Anderson and courtesy Brandi C. Kelley
In a turn-of-last-century Mississippi farmhouse with laying hens in the yard, a dog named Azalea at her feet and family photographs on the mantel, dainty Brandi C. Kelley sips her home-brewed herbal tea and shatters preconceptions about her religion: Voodoo.
Looking half her age – Where’s the potion for that? – with a long braid over one shoulder and an athlete’s toned legs tucked beneath her, the charming founder of New Orleans’ original VOODOOFEST agrees with me that “you don’t want to do a bad story about a Voodoo priestess.”
Brandi started the annual, free, Halloween festival 21 years ago “to give back to the spirits.” People came. Lots and lots of people, including her Voodoo godmother, Mama Lola from Haiti. There was African drumming and Creole food and educational lectures and a closing ritual that honors ancestors, “a shout-out to the people we have lost.”
Now almost everyone knows about another Voodoo festival that has grown into a major musical event that this year will feature Guns and Roses. But the first, Brandi’s child, continues. Its spiritual core remains the same and is held in the block outside her shop – Voodoo Authentica at 612 Rue Dumaine.
Along with her family of priests from around the world, Brandi still leads the closing ancestral ritual, an emotional thrill that leaves some weeping and some dancing with joy because “the veil is thin that night.”
In 1999, she sought advice from good friend, Quint Davis, the producer of Jazz Fest and began to prepare for growth while keeping the focus on the event's spiritual authenticity.
“Spirit inspired this event. It was clear to me that this needed to be a free festival available to all people,” she says. “It was crucial that it keep a spiritual and educational focus instead of becoming just another commercially-driven festival.”
"When Spirit talks," Brandi says. "I listen."
Spirit found Brandi when she was a child. “In New Orleans, it was in the air, the water, everything….”
As a young girl, she was especially sensitive to the energy people projected. Being around someone sending out negative vibes could make her physically ill.
The veil between this world and the one beyond has never been an opaque one for Brandi. She'd sometimes converse with entities who no longer had a physical form, but the experiences felt like congenial visits rather than hauntings. She also remembers loving the books in elementary school about ghost ships and Marie Laveau, yet realizing she wasn’t getting the “whole truth.”
As Brandi grew older, half truths weren't enough. Did she hear a calling before she became a lifetime spiritual seeker? “It was a chicken and egg kind of thing.”
At age 14 she started working at New Orleans’ Historic Voodoo Museum, making Voodoo dolls and leading swamp tours as she learned to appreciate the imprint of Voodoo on New Orleans culture. Oh, so slowly – she counsels patience for those sincerely interested – she was fully initiated in Voodoo in Haiti (and has the papers to prove it).
According to "New Orleans Voodoo; A Cultural History," priestesses like Brandi are "true leaders, advisors and visionaries." They are guides to the spiritual world. Yet Brandi remains a Catholic and says New Orleans Voodoo is a gumbo of African, Haitian and New Orleans traditions.
It wasn’t much of a stretch eventually to start her own spiritual shop in 1996. Voodoo Authentica is a kaleidoscope of altars and potions and African tribal masks, Haitian spiritual art and sweet smells that beckon people with a purpose or simply an active curiosity. “It never gets old, because you never know who is coming in.”
Locals come to buy their supplies or to use the active altars – “Maybe they have nosey neighbors” – and some come needing help they are not getting “from another faith system.”
Sometimes, Brandi and staff refer the visitors back to their own church, for instance if they seek an exorcism. “The Catholic Church has protocol for that; it’s part of the canon.”
Possessions by spirits are another story, part of the Voodoo Brandi practices. During a full ceremony, Spirit is invited to come into practitioners, who might then heal or perform feats of extraordinary strength.
“It’s a positive thing,” she says. “Divinity is right in your presence. These benevolent visitations are a big part of Voodoo. When it doesn’t happen, it’s like your special guest didn’t come to your party. It’s expected but never taken for granted. Common but not commonplace.”
A woman named Lestelle is working the counter the day I visit Voodoo Authentica, and she says potions may be the most popular item the spiritual shop sells. You can buy one that purports to help you get a job you want, or win a case in court.
Potion oils and gris gris bags, soaps, and baths salts are made on site and can be custom blended on the spot for clients. The Voodoo dolls sold at the shop are made in New Orleans by local practitioners. Readings are conducted by initiated priests and priestesses and are available by appointment, and those are in demand as well.
The beauty of the place is indisputable, whatever your beliefs.
“It’s a feast for the senses,” Brandi agrees. “Voodoo is made up of sensual traditions. During ceremonies, there are specific foods, songs and dances that summon spirits.
"That’s why it’s such a good fit for New Orleans - we love doing all that stuff anyway."
VOODOOFEST 2019 events include a 1 p.m. opening ceremony with music beforehand by artist Amzie Adams, who creates the posters for each year’s event. Lecturers during the day include Nana Sula, Belfazaar Ashantison, Jesse Brunet, Ava Kay Jones, Dr. Ina Fandrich, Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Luisah Teish and local musician and historian, Sunpie. Topics cover everything from Cajun contributions to the city to Katrina’s effects on embracing diversity.
At 6:15 p.m. is African Drumming 101. At 7 p.m. the closing ancestral healing ceremony takes place.
Scroll down for a detailed schedule.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a veteran reporter and former syndicated columnist for King Features Syndicate of New York. She is the author of eight books, including "Poor Man's Provence; Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana" and "Good Grief," the only authorized biography of "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. She is the recipient of the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award and the National Headliner Award for commentary.
Full VOODOOFEST Schedule from the Voodoo Authentica Website:
1 PM: OPENING CEREMONY with Amzie Adams & Spiritwalker, led by Mambo Maggie, Papa Jean Francois, Maestro Piterson & our family of initiated Priests.
1:30 PM: Nana Sula, author of “Spirit of the Orisha," takes us on a soul-filled musical journey into the world of the African Spirit Forces, sharing the meaning and beauty of Orisha songs.
2 PM: New Orleans Voodoo Priest, Belfazaar Ashantison, published author of "Beneath the Sheltering Oak," & "Voodoo Through My Eyes," speaks about his close relationship to the Ancestors & how They assist him in his work as a Spiritual Consultant & Root Worker.
2:30 PM: Haitian-Initiated Cajun Vodou Priest, Jesse Brunet, a true Louisiana original, speaks about the fascinating history of the Cajun people and the tremendous contributions they've made to our local history & culture.
3 PM: New Orleans Native, Priestess Ava Kay Jones, speaks about her Spiritual journey, the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the importance of embracing diversity.
4 PM: Published author, academic & Vodou Practitioner, Dr. Ina Fandrich, speaks about the life & times of our Great Ancestor, Voodoo Queen Mam'zelle Marie Laveaux.
4:30 PM: Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson, of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society, gives us a feminine insider's view of the uniquely New Orleans Mardi Gras/Black Masking tradition through her interactive, multidiscipline presentation.
5 PM: Chief Priestess Luisah Teish, acclaimed author of “Jambalaya" and other cherished works, will lead us in songs to Eshu, the Trickster, Oya, the Boss Lady of the Cemetery & other Elders of the Night.
5:30 PM: Internationally renowned local musician & historian, Sunpie, discusses the African roots of our locally beloved music and dance, while performing some of his most popular songs.
6:15 PM: Bring your drums (and your clapping hands) for African Drumming 101! Award winning percussionist, Luther Gray, of Bamboula 2000, discusses the African roots of our locally beloved rhythms. Everyone is asked to participate & learn a few basic beats.
7 PM: CLOSING ANCESTRAL HEALING RITUAL with Master Haitian Drummer, Houngan Fan Fan, our extended family of initiated Priests, the Voodoo Authentica Ritual Troupe and YOU!