It happened like this: The Saints have contracted Quint Davis and his company Festival Productions Inc. (the team that produces Jazz Fest and the Essence Festival) to handle entertainment for the Saints' home games. According to Wayne Hodes, director of marketing for the Saints, approximately two weeks before the Saints/Rams game on Dec. 17, Hodes' office asked Davis to hire Ava Kay Jones, a well-known Voodoo and Yoruba priestess, to do a blessing before the game. The team had brought Jones in once before and the result (depending on whom you ask) was the first playoff victory in the team's history. A repeat appearance seemed like a sensible thing.
Jones was contracted, performed her blessing at the game (complete with snake and her dance group Voodoo Macumba), and went home. But throughout the event, there was an ill wind about, says Jones. The atmosphere in the Dome that night had been "negative" and made her uncomfortable. This was, after all, the same night some attendees pelted the field with cans and bottles.
An article by Dave Lagarde in the next day's Times-Picayune didn't help much. Lagarde wrote of the Monday night game: "They whipped up a hellacious curse on the dastardly St. Louis Rams. The Who Dat Gris-Gris ceremony they called it." Jones, who states in her literature and other materials that she only deals in the positive and in 25 years of practice has never cursed anyone, says she was disturbed by the suggestion that she had any connection to anything "hellacious" against the Rams. She called Lagarde and left a message telling him so.
Then, on Wednesday, while in the front room of her Mid-City shotgun -- right where she keeps her Voodoo and Yoruba altars arranged -- Jones says she picked up a sheet of paper that one of her associates had brought from the game. It was one of 70,000 fliers that the Saints' radio sponsor (Entercom Radio, which owns the radio station WWL and several other stations in the New Orleans area) had printed and distributed to fans at the Dome. Jones had been told about the fliers, and that the front of the fliers would say "Who Dat Gris-Gris." What everyone involved agrees upon is that Jones hadn't been told that the back of the fliers would include a "definition" of gris-gris that read in part: " ... the power, the weapon, the force, the strength, the might, the magic, the hex, the spell, the whammy. ... To kick one's opponent's ... posterior! ... A BIG TIME JINX."
For those with only a passing understanding of Voodoo, the wording on the back of the fliers might not seem like a big deal. For Jones, it is a very big deal. Not only is it not a correct definition, she says, but it's blasphemous.
"This is not what I'm about," says Jones. "Everything that I put out is about affirming African spirituality. If Quint Davis had hired the Reverend Billy Graham or a rabbi, would they have had a flier like that?"
Voodoo or Vodou is the Western incarnation of the traditional religious practices of West Africans. Enslaved people in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean, forced to embrace Christianity, found a way to merge their beliefs with those of their captors. The many saints and ceremonies of Catholicism, in particular, made sense to the Africans, because Yoruba and other African belief systems encompass a pantheon of deities (called Orisha in Yoruba) that embody various aspects of God (serving a purpose similar to Catholic saints). The African beliefs were reborn in Haiti as Voodoo -- and, in the other parts of the Americas, as Candomble and Santiera.
Jones, who was raised Catholic, says she is still very much a Christian. She was ordained as a Voodoo priestess in Haiti in 1985, and as a Yoruba priestess in 1989. She is frequently interviewed on the subject of Voodoo, which she says is misunderstood due to inaccurate portrayals, fear and prejudice. She says she is committed to educating the public about the faith she has embraced.
Which might explain why the priestess is bitterly angry about the suggestion that she was in any way cursing the Rams during her Monday Night Football blessing. She says she has worked with Quint Davis and Jazz Fest since 1978 and that he is well aware of her blessings-only policy. She says she believes Davis and the Saints knew she would have objected to the language of the fliers and deliberately concealed them from her.
"Quint knows that I do no evil for any amount of money," Jones says. "I am through with [Davis] for life. They maligned my name and my reputation and they did it on national television." Jones, who holds a law degree from Loyola University, says she is planning to sue both Davis and the Saints for damage to her reputation.
Davis was stunned to hear of Jones' anger. He says he spoke to her the day after the game when she called with concern about the Times-Picayune article, and he suggested she write a letter to the editor. He believed that there was no animosity between them, and he insists that he had no prior knowledge of the language on the back of the flier.
"When we got the request to [book] Ava there was no mention of a flier," Davis says. "I heard about [the fliers] later in the week and called to find out what the flier said because I knew I'd have to tell Ava and make sure she was comfortable."
Davis says he only saw the front of the flier and believes that no disrespect was intended. He says the objectionable language was an oversight. "The Saints, as a matter of policy, don't say anything bad about [their] opponents," Davis points out. "I'm sure they [the Saints] have as much of a problem with it as Ava does."
Saints marketing directior Hodes concurs that the fliers were a last-minute addition to the Saints-Rams game and were not reviewed with the usual scrutiny. "The sponsorship department never would have approved it if they'd seen it," says Hodes. He is unsure if Entercom knew about the Saints' policy of not demeaning opposing teams. An Entercom spokesperson could not be reached by presstime.
When told of Davis' declaration that he had no knowledge of the language on the back of the fliers, Jones responds frankly. "He's lying," Jones says. "He knew."
Jones claims that Davis knew about the back of the fliers and says she is going forward with her plans for a lawsuit. Jones has also sent a letter to St. Louis Rams to clarify that she had no part in any cursing or hexing. In part, the letter read:
"[A]s God as my witness, I was retained by the New Orleans Saints, Quint Davis and Festival Productions Inc. to do a two-minute blessing along with my dance ensemble, Voodoo Macumba. I discussed that blessing in detail with Mr. Davis and others as well. I told him that I wanted to give something of positive spiritual substance to the fans. I discussed saying such things as 'the most powerful gris-gris is faith, love and vision.' Quint Davis told me explicitly that this was an excellent idea. What Quint Davis did not tell me, however, was that by the time I did this blessing and put ingredients into little red gris-gris bags to symbolize love and other positive prayers, 70,000 people had been given fliers encouraging them to hex, curse and perpetrate evil against the Rams. ... I've built my reputation on love and doing only good work."
Things did not go particularly well for the Saints following their Monday night match-up against the Rams. Not only did the team fall to their opponents that night, but the remaining games of the season were rather nasty blowouts. Jones says she's not surprised. A negative vibe, she says, was sacking the team. "There's an African saying: 'If you spit in the sky, some will fall on you,'" Jones says. "It ain't nice to play with God."