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A BRUSH WITH VOODOO

Sure, samba is simply an Afro-Brazilian folk dance. But . . . what if it weren't? What if the dance really did have supernatural overtones?

Orson Welles thought it did.

The famed movie director and actor knew something about voodoo. He first ran into it in 1935, when he was 20 and oversaw an all-black Harlem production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" set in 1800s Haiti. For the show, funded by the WPA under President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, he imported a group of voodoo doctors and drummers from Africa's Gold Coast, led by a witch doctor named Asadota and a gold-toothed dwarf named Jazzbo.

The voodoo team demanded 12 live goats to sacrifice; Welles was able, amazingly, to requisition them from Washington. Weirdness continued. Welles recalled in his "Sketchbook": "The legend grew backstage . . . that to touch the drums was to die. And indeed, one poor stagehand did touch a drum and did fall from a high place and break his neck."

Despite such difficulties, the show went over big. But one critic, Percy Hammond of the New York Herald Tribune, blasted the production. Welles continued:

I was approached by Jazzbo, who said to me, (heavy accent) "This critic bad man." And I said, offhandedly, "Yes, he's a bad man." (Jazzbo) "You want we make beri-beri on this bad man?" All this dialogue's very much like the native bearers in "Tarzan' and so on, I apologize for it, but it's really what went on. I said, "Yes, go right ahead and make all the beri-beri you want to." . . . He said, "Drums begin now. He die - 23 hours from now." Drumming began, fine, show went on, I went home. Woke up next morning, proceeded on ordinary course of work, and bought the afternoon paper to discover that Mr. Percy Hammond for unknown causes, had dropped dead in his apartment.

Years later found Welles in Brazil, filming a documentary on the carnival scene. "We took up the whole question of samba . . ." he recalled, "and when I'd nearly finished the film, it occurred to me that the origins of samba lay in voodoo ceremonies."

Welles found a team of voodoo doctors and, with difficulty, made plans to film a voodoo ceremony. But money ran low, and the voodoo ceremony was budgeted out.

The voodoo team wasn't happy.

The witch doctor assured me that this was deeply offensive, and that he and his group took it very badly, and I said I was most sorry about it myself. . . . Had a long conversation on the phone, begging and pleading to be allowed to finish this picture . . . and I came back to the office to find that the doctor had gone, having been told that the deal was completely off, and on my desk - in a script of the film - was a long steel needle. It had been driven entirely through the script. And to the needle was attached a length of red wool. This was the mark of the voodoo. And the end of that story is that it was the end of the film. We were never allowed to finish it.

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