...but there was still the problem of defining rara - and more specifically finding footage that could bring its origins to life. A year and a half of archival research had provided some clues: Maya Deren’s Divine Horseman includes some gorgeous shots of rara dancing and vaksin playing. Anthropologists George Eastman Simpson and Melville and Francis Herskovitz documented both a few stunning processions, as well as many of the rites and rituals of village life from which the ritual or rara sprang. Other leads were more elusive: we heard a rumor from a scholar that Katherine Dunham had filmed rara’s in her graduate studies research.
After a year and a half of emails, phone calls and written requests, we were finally given access to the footage only to discovered that 1) while Dunham was a genius at writing, dance, and scholarship, she wasn’t particularly gifted at holding a camera steady, and 2) she did not in fact ever film more than a few seconds of barely-on-screen rara musicians.
Gage Avril, the editor of this box set, first tipped me off to the Lomax’s footage of rara (which the Lomax Archive was generous and helpful in providing). When I watched the footage I was immediately struck by the many remarkable paradoxes. The first was that the footage, shot in 1936, is in full color! (In fact, it became a challenge to convince audiences that the footage was as old as it is.)
The second paradox was that while it was one of the earliest recordings of rara in the field - it was also largely faked. As I’d learned from Dr. Avrill, the rara was staged for the camera, outside of traditional rara season, and within the confines of a private compound or “lakou.” The problem was that there were no public raras to film, since the local Catholic Church was in the midst of one of its periodic vodou purges, in which public ceremonies were banned, drums and ritual objects were burned, and by some accounts, vodou priests were occasionally killed.
So the footage didn’t have the usual chaos or a rara procession, where its nearly impossible to figure out what’s going on or where to look.. Instead a few musicians, dancers and singers made few orderly marches and turns, dancing, jumping and flailing arms along the way. (Lomax’s team could record film or audio, but not both at the same time, so it was impossible to tell which songs were actually being played). Yet ironically, there was something in the staged exuberance of the footage that communicates the spirit of rara better than almost any footage I’d found. It was as if, knowing that the audio wasn’t being recorded, the musicians were giving the camera a silent charade of what rara was supposed to sound like. When we’d show the footage to audiences in rough-cut screenings, they always love the clips, and comment on its infectious energy. It ended up being one of the most compelling documents of rara we’d found.
In the end, just as it was impossible to define rara, we realized it was impossible to find footage which could show what a “true” rara looked like. The best we could do was to look to incredible documents like Lomax’s films for flickering hints about the origins, the meanings, and the spirit of the music which is still moving and electrifying audiences decades later and thousands of miles away.