As the drumming rumbles on, Hollywood actor Djimon Hounsou walks shirtless with a voodoo procession making its way through the dusty streets of Heve in his native Benin.
“I am like an African who has come home, who needs to know and learn about his culture,” says Hounsou, who has starred in blockbusters like “Blood Diamond” alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and “Gladiator” with Russell Crowe.
The American-Beninese actor is now making and starring in his own film documenting his quest to understand voodoo in this west African state where it was born, before history spread it overseas.
“The practices here are not bad and they aren’t savage,” says the tall 51-year-old with a shaved head and a salt-and-pepper goatee, decrying the negative image often depicted on the silver screen of back-alley sorcerers casting malicious spells.
One classic is the 1973 James Bond film “Live and Let Die” where a Caribbean dictator uses voodoo to frighten and manipulate his island.
But Hounsou says such images undermine the religion.
“That concept dates back to slavery. That is why we need to clarify what defines voodoo,” Hounsou tells AFP, explaining that racism in the past is still perpetuating negative stereotypes about voodoo.
In the village of Heve, which lies at the western edge of Benin’s coastline, the people have long practised voodoo, celebrating air god Dan and water god Mami Wata.
As the worshippers file through the streets, resplendent in white robes and draped with multicoloured beads, Hounsou’s crew films everything.
– Worshipping ancestors –
By mid-morning, the heat in Benin, a country of more than 10 million people, is already intense. As technicians set up equipment in the town square, girls draw water from a tap.
The village, with its devoted voodoo cult, was not chosen at random.
“These spirits are very well preserved and people kept dedicating themselves truly to voodoo,” explains priest David Koffi Aza, who practises Fâ — a system of divination — and is working as a guide for Hounsou and his crew.
“Imported religions didn’t take hold so it’s a purer practice.”
Spirits play a central role in voodoo, acting as a link between the living and the dead in a religion which is built upon the worship of both ancient ancestors and the four elements: earth, water, wind and fire.
In the wake of the slave trade, voodoo practices spread from west Africa to the West Indies, Brazil and the United States.
According to the last census in 2002, 17 percent of Benin’s population practises voodoo — an official religion in the country — while 27 percent are Catholic and 24 percent are Muslim.
However, such figures mask the reality that many Beninese, whether they go to church or attend mosque, have voodoo shrines in their homes.
– ‘A story badly told’ –
“After spending so much time in Europe and the US, seeing African diaspora traditions that resemble ours, I began to ask questions,” says Hounsou, dabbing sweat off his brow.
Working with Hounsou on his bid to document voodoo in Benin is co-director and star Sorious Samura, a well-known journalist from Sierra Leone.
The two met nine years ago on the set of “Blood Diamond”, a film that was based on Samura’s documentary “Cry Freetown” which dealt with the civil war gripping his country.
“Voodoo is a story that is very badly told, full of witchcraft, magic and evil — even Africans believe that,” says Samura, adding that such ideas have been “buried deep in our psyche.”
The two directors hope their film, entitled “In Search of Voodoo: Roots to Heaven,” can help change that misconception.
With less than a month until they finish shooting, Hounsou says they are not seeking to win converts.
“Voodoo has existed for centuries. It doesn’t force itself on you,” he says.
Shooting of the film is expected to finish on January 10, when a huge voodoo festival will be celebrated across the country.