Actually, we have *many* things called Pwen; this is one of those words in Kreyol that has many, many different meanings based on context.
Pwen means point; the usual meaning of the word most Americans get exposed to is in the context of an item that strengthens the relationship to a spirit, such as a paket Kongo. Pwen can take other forms, too; the cane that Papa Ghede dances with, or his hat; Kouzen’s hat and pipe, Dantor’s dagger, Feray’s machete… each of these are pwen; physical items that, through exposure, have acquired a certain amount of essence from the spirit that uses them and can help in bringing them down into possession; their items are pwen, points of contact that hold a concentration of the spirit.
There’s another layer, one that doesnt trickle out of the tightly knit Vodou community very often; a few anthropologists have written about it, but sadly those books dont make it out as much as the sensationalist voodoo-y books.
Chante pwen, or the Singing of the Point.
One level, in song, a pwen is a message; the point of the song and the message it conveys. People sing the songs of the spirits in liturgy as call and response, but the reason behind the singing is the power the song possesses, the pwen it contains. Some songs are best for bringing the lwa in; others transfer heat to them and encourage their stay to be longer and stronger; finally, some songs are sending songs, aiding the departure of a lwa’s energy making room for the next spirit to be saluted (we do NOT insult the spirits by using these songs to force them to leave… such a thing would be against the grain of the tradition). Each song has purpose, and a flow; the salute’s pattern of 3 songs, each repeated 3 times (at minimum) allows for a calling song, a sustaining song, and a sending song, each led by the Houngenikon or priest/ess in charge of the music (sometimes led by a guest houngan or manbo known for their singing), replied to by the combined voices of the congregation. The pwen of these songs and the knowledge held in their very lyrics is the deep core of the religion itself; the singing of these songs is how the religion functions.
Now, on another level, there are the songs that a spirit in possession will begin to sing/lead the congregation in singing during a fete. Usually, these are the ‘sustaining’ songs mentioned above… Lwa use heat, both physical and purely energetic, as a part of what sustains them and gives them strength. They will “echofe”, or heat up, the space by leading the congregation in singing specific songs, the pwen of which increases the spirit’s available energy and heat in the room where service is being held… in turn giving them the strength to stay in our world for longer and do what they came to do; give treatment, give messages, dance and walk with their people. If you’re there at a fete, you’ll notice the exertion involved… the human horses of the spirits begin to sweat profusely as the spirit does their work. (not *every* time; some people are so accustomed to being ridden by the lwa that the exertion is less of a strain on their bodies, but in the main the physical effort brings a flood of perspiration as the heat is put to use by the spirit directing the flesh)
*The spirits need this heat; its the entire point for the way the rites are performed… the drums, the salutes, the dance, the singing; all is designed to raise the temperature in the space as well as raise the ambient “energy” (both referred to as Heat; there’s no real separation in theoretic basis). During a party, if someone opens the door for too long and starts letting in cold air from the outside, everyone inside is gonna start screaming to close the door.. otherwise the cold breaks the heat that’s been generated by the rites.*
Now, there’s a third level… and sometimes, it’s the most important. Songs in Vodou contain another kind of pwen, a point… a message.
This third level moves in two ways; a spirit in possession often frames the message they have for someone (individual, or group) as a song… the lyrics, while coded, apply to different people in different ways, depending of course on the song. The spirit will sing the song “throwing the point”; the message in the lyrics may apply in a range of ways… what matters is less how the message is sent out, but how it is received; how the ‘point’ strikes its target.
Take, for example, a song that sometimes Ogou Feray sings; a section of its lyrics translate as “They see me smile, but I do not show my teeth”.
This can mean many things; does it imply that the smile is only slight, not enough to be uninhibited? Is the smile false?
Or, is showing the teeth an implication of snarling? Is the smile a sign of good will, or is the smile an implication of warning?
All of these meanings (and more!) will of course be partially unlocked by the song’s delivery… but the rest is held by the person/group who hears them.
Part two of this third layer works in the same fashion, but is person/group-to-person/group; Pwen can be thrown to send messages, especially messages of deep insult. Haitian culture has its own rules about personal strength and the differences between action and re-action… acting is one thing; REacting shows a lack of control, an inability to stay cool/clearheaded under pressure. Pwen songs push the point in a way that circumvents the need for reaction; in a way they can be much more kind than bringing a problem right out into the open, but look to Haitian history for the truth of that idea… Protest is often met with the most violent response of guns and blood in a nation known for an occasionally wild and volitile political system. Coded messages and songs that say more than they seem to keep people safe; they distance the speaker from the spoken-to, clouding the actions in the ambiguity of music… if the song has meaning to the listener, they internalize the point and the pwen hits its target. Others who hear for whom the message coded in the song has no relevance have nothing to worry about… but, one who is hit by the song is also prevented by social convention from reacting; to do so would be to lose their cool and, in the eyes of society, automatically to lose. The message can be a suggestion, it can be a course of reccomended action, or it can be a scathing, withering attack.
We are a people of song.
THIS is, so much, a reason why it is of vital importance to be a part of a house, a community, a network… there are those who would teach that all it takes is an english-language of “Row row row your boat”, but they miss the point entirely; the faith, the tradition, codifies its entire body of lore and knowledge into what it, as a non-written/orally transmitted tradition, has as its only option… song.
To trivialize the religion by ignoring its immense body of musical lore is a grave sin; true, there’s information that can be taught through forms like this blog and a tantalizing beginning CAN be made putting you in touch with your spirits, but it would be better by far to begin exploring the religion with spoken words from the heart than it would be to pretend that singing a random radio love song can bring Freda closer the way her actual songs are made to do. Chante lwa (the songs for the spirits) and Chante pwen (singing the point) are vital, core components of the transmission AND expression of the Vodou religion.
It tells you a lot when information as vital as this is withheld; either from a desire to give just enough to make someone who comes for information a customer instead, or for whatever reason they have for not telling you such a key truth. It makes me genuinely ashamed of the current state of public Vodou education… there are even people who are led to believe that they can become initiates, clergy of this faith who believe they have the rank to pass it on, who can neither speak the religion’s language nor sing its songs. Its why Im always so free in bringing people to my House to hear my amazing spiritual mother and my powerhouse of a sister lead our House in song… One can experience a little tiny bit of Vodou from a distance, but to really embrace it, to KNOW, requires its music, its own ability to speak and to sing. Maybe the pwen will hit its target.
Come sing with us.