Embarking several years ago on a quest to find her "spirituality, roots and soul," Chief Sharon Caulder, PhD., left her California home for the cradle of voodoo, the west African country of Benin, a region and culture raped by Western demand for slave labor. Later this month, Caulder's journey culminates in a unique and ambitious venture with Chez Vodun, a 20,000-square-foot space combining voodoo ceremonies, art, healing, outreach and a restaurant-bar.
Chez Vodun (822 N. Rampart St.), completely remodeled in the former Armstrong Cafe & Bar location (and two doors down from the Voodoo Spiritual Temple), opens its doors directly across the street from the local sacred ground in Congo Square. In surmising her new business, Caulder jokingly poses the question: "Where else can you find spirituality and video poker under the same roof?"
In following the path that led her to New Orleans -- she's been living in the French Quarter for the past three months -- Caulder says she "was guided by listening to the spirits." Her story begins at New York's Columbia University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in neuroscience. However, the cut-and-dry elements of scientific study left Caulder unfulfilled because, she says, "such study does not take into account consciousness, elements of mind, body and spirit." A native of the New York/New Jersey area, Caulder next moved to California, where she earned a doctorate in psychology and mythology at Pacifica College.
Once Caulder arrived in Benin, she felt so at home that, after spending time in several villages, she sought initiation into the voodoo religion. (The difference in "voodoo" and "vodun," Caulder explains, is language; "voodoo" is the English usage, whereas "vodun" is French and is more academic. Caulder uses both, depending on who she's talking to, Americans or French-speakers.) As part of her initiation process, Caulder had her head shaved and spent 14 days in meditative isolation. After completing initiation, she was made a chief of vodun. Since leaving Africa, Caulder has authored two books based on her knowledge and experiences: Mark of Voodoo: Awakening to My African Spiritual Heritage (Llewellyn Publications) -- which Booklist called "fascinating" -- and African Vodu: The Spirituality of a People (Athelia Henrietta Publishers) -- both published in 2002.
"My task now is to teach people about voodoo, because it has been so vilified, especially by Hollywood," Caulder says. "People don't even understand it's a religion. They just think it's about bad energies and curses -- voodoo dolls. But, it's a healing religion that helps achieve evolution -- of the person, of the soul.
"The focus here is on the Haitian and New Orleans tradition," Caulder says of local voodoo culture. "What I have to offer is the information and the spiritual energy that comes from the source, Africa. ... I want this to be a center for voodoo rather than something that is exclusive."
Caulder's commitment to establishing a venue for voodoo is evident in the fact that she put down a $10,000 deposit on the new property she just bought -- site unseen. Now, plans for Chez Vodun are in place and reflect a grand vision. Operating under the auspices of African Voodoo Supreme Chief Daagbo Hounon Houma, the Benin "pope" of voodoo, the space will incorporate a temple complete with representations of the religion's 21 deities. As a temple, Chez Vodun will perform a number of ceremonies and rituals, including those for blessings, initiations, weddings and even divorces.
The second floor of the space will house the Marie Laveau Healing Center, which will offer services such as healing massage and crystal and energy healings. Facilitating this in part will be the Western Office of the Institute for African Herbalism, based in West Africa, which not only will sell herbal medicines but will also feature a laboratory in which new herbal treatments will be explored. The herbal institute will be under the direction of Caulder's daughter, Princess Vanessa "Wekenon" Flowers.
The first floor offers an art museum that will host a permanent collection of artifacts from Africa. The highlight is a mural From Here to Eternity by local artist Shakor. Painted with acrylic and measuring 32 feet long by 8 feet high, the work depicts the history of voodoo and African people, from ancient Egyptians to slave ships.
"It's important to attach history to our lives," says Shakor, who considers himself an "historical artist." "(The history) lets us know how it is in our times."
Along with objects displayed in the museum, African art and artifacts will be on sale in a marketplace in the same space. Chez Vodun will also offer daily tours and house a youth activity center. While the video games and various voodoo-related distractions of the kids' center are designed to accommodate the children of tourists in the Quarter, Caulder says it will also connect local children with their African ancestors' traditions.
The restaurant aspect comes under the direction of Chef Elsir "Bobby" Saadan, whose unique Afro-Italian heritage is reflected in the menu. The kitchen will offer a pasta bar, salads, paninis with homemade foccacia bread, plus signature items such as the spicy Zulu Chicken.
Despite the varied aspects of Chez Vodun, Caulder says her mission is clear: "We're offering something for everyone, but we're working for anyone willing to learn and honor the traditions of voodoo."
- Donn Young
- "People don't even understand it's a religion," Chez Vodun owner Sharon Caulder says of voodoo. "They just think it's about bad energies and curses -- voodoo dolls. But, it's a healing religion that helps achieve evolution -- of the person, of the soul."