To save money, they weren’t running the generator at night. City power, which is given at sporadic, unpredictable times, also wasn’t on. The house was so dark you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face, and the only sound to be heard was an occasional dog barking or rooster crowing. (I’ve yet to understand why I grew up thinking that roosters crow mainly at sunrise. Haitian roosters crow ALL the time!) It was around 1am. I was dead asleep and remember hearing bells ringing in my dream. They were getting louder and louder and as I woke up, I could still hear them. As the noises increased in volume, I could hear an array of random instruments that I couldn’t place, some drumming, chanting, and singing. The room started to glow with lights dancing across the wall. I stood by the window and above the concrete wall that surrounded the house I could see shadows bouncing up and down from what I imagined as torches being carried to light the path. The songs did not seem to have a melody. To me, they were eerie and haunting, though I reminded myself that I did not have a reason to be fearful. The parade of people didn’t seem to be interested in anyone or anything they were passing. They were caught up in the moment. Paying their dues to the gods. And continued on their way into the night.
So what is Rara anyway? That is the question asked often by visitors around this time of year. As Easter approaches, it’s not uncommon to see Rara parade pass in front of the guesthouse, both during the day and late at night.
In her book, “Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora” Elizabeth McAlister describes it this way, “Rara festivals are a number of things at once: they are musical bands, carnivalesque crowds, religious rituals, armies on maneuvers, mass political demonstrations, and performances of national pride.”
The history of Rara dates back hundreds of years and its roots trace to Western and Central Africa. The season of Rara begins around the same time as Carnival and continues throughout Lent. Festivities wrap up at Easter, a significant week for a couple of reasons. One, in 1685, King Louis XIV passed a decree called the Code Noir which allowed Holy Week as a break from labor for African slaves. And two, Rara participants believe that “they are conducting the spiritual work that becomes necessary when the angels and saints, along with Jesus, disappear into the underworld on Good Friday,” (McAlister). A Haitian friend of mine was recently explaining to me that those leading the Rara processions believe that they have a due to pay to the spirits and thus, they must lead Rara for the next however many years to pay back that spiritual debt.
Leogane is known for its elaborate Rara celebrations. Closer to Easter, they will set up stands along the side of the road in town for the public to gather and watch the parades. But all across Haiti, Rara bands gather and march the streets with their drums, horns, and other instruments. Many of the instruments are homemade, but you’ll also see parades with trumpets, tubas, and trombones. The handmade horns are called banbou or vaksin. They are bamboo sticks that have been hollowed-out and are cut at different lengths to produce a range of tones and pitches. The Rara tunes are short and repetitive, a technique called hocketing. The drums are typically made of goatskin and are hand-held or hung across the shoulder.
Many towns have local Rara societies who join together and have practices before taking their performance to the streets. Bands may stop when they come to a cemetery, to honor their ancestors. Some will have performers, including kinds and queens, captains, priests and others to tell a visual story and emphasize their songs. Sometimes participants dress in elaborate costumes, though for the ones that I’ve seen parading around, they are in normal clothes, some casually strolling along in the middle of the parade, others deeply into the music, sounds, and tradition of Rara.
If you ask a Haitian what they think of Rara, you’ll get a range of responses. Some seem to relate to it for historical reasons. Others talk about the traffic hazard of people marching in the street. Some don’t pay much attention to it at all. Sometimes I feel I’m no closer to understanding this deep-rooted tradition of Rara. An American friend of mine once tried to join a Rara band. He grabbed a banbou and went to practices for a while until they told him he couldn’t actually participate because he’s not Haitian. I suppose I’ll cross joining a Rara band off my bucket list. But it is another interesting piece of the history and culture of Haiti. So next time you’re in Haiti during Easter time, keep your ears open and you may just hear the rhythm and tunes of Rara pass you by.