In the song, Gede holds a distinguished position earning him the title Papa. In other songs, Gede is usually called Baron, a title given to high office holders in the Kongo and in Haiti, particularly under the government of Henry Christophe.
Papa Gede was born in the Gedevi city of Abomey in the Kingdom of Dahomey.After his death, King Gele of that kingdom was the first to recognize Gede as a Lwa and established how he should be served. Todayin Haiti, Gede is celebrated in November particularly on the days that represent all the ancestors, namely, All Souls and All Saints Day.Under Portuguese influence, Ancestors’ Day in the Kongo was celebrated on the first and second of November and was one of the most important Kongolese celebration in the 1700’s. As approximately 50% of the Haitian population is from the Kongo,Ancestor celebration continued in Haiti. However the name of the celebration, Gede, was taken from another influential group in Haiti, the Gedevi-Dahomean people.
Gede is the Ancestor believed to have been placed by God to be the spirit that guards the crossroad of life and death. Gede plays a key role in deciding when a soul enters the world as a person, and when it departs from the world as a spirit. Since in the Kongo, the color symbolic of people is black and that symbolic of spirits is white, Gede’s colors are black and white. In no uncertain terms, these contrasting colors capture the plain truth that we were once born and that we must at some point die. In facing that reality, or in celebrating Gede, people commonly paint their faces half black and half white.Usually, the black is on the left side of the face as that side represents sunrise or birth. The right side is painted white as that represents sunset or death. It is to emphasize the symbolic colors of Gede that the song has him dressed in black and white like deputies and senators used to do in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Ancestor celebration was not only important in the Kongo but throughout Africa. The Nago and Dahomean peoplefor example would celebrate an ancestor over an extended period of time.It is likely because of the influence of these groups, that in Haiti, Gede is not celebrated only on the 1 and 2nd of November but rather over the entire month.
The song refers to Papa Gede as a bèl gason, an attractive man. It does this because at times, Gede’s gift of death is appealing, it is liberating. Historically, this was true of people enslaved under the French Code Noir. They often yearned for death to unfasten their shackles. Under better circumstances, death is shunned and referred to unflatteringly as fatra (garbage). This gives rise to the Gede song:
“Lè yo bezwen mwen yo rele m Papa. Lè yo pa bezwen mwen yo rele m Fatra.”
There are numerous other terms used in association with Gede reflecting people’s attitudes towards life and death. Some songsrefer toGede as Gede Nibo. Nibo is an Ibo word meaning here.Nibo is also the name of an Ibo city. Gede Nibo can mean the ancestors are here. It can also mean the ancestors from the city of Nibo.
The world we inherited was largely shaped by those who came before us. Much of the medicine we use, the homes we live in, the roads we drive on, the religion we practice, are the fruits of the labor of those who came before us.The song pays homage to Gede in recognition that indeed the current generation is indebted to those who preceded us. We, in turn, will continue the cycle and give birth to the upcoming generation.In Haitian Traditional Faith, Vodou, this is expressed as Gede guarding the crossroad of life, dressed in black and white.
The song Papa Gede was first popularized by Lumane Casimir. Many artists have paid homage to Lumane with their own rendition of the popular song.