Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Volume 4

Four majors marched together at the head of the band. Thomar danced along, crouching, yellow shirt, calling the band over his shoulder, the president at his side. The two coronels with their whips behind the four majors, their batons flashing in the sun. Behind them the vaxines, and behind them the mob, singing and dancing. Clouds of dust rising up from beneath their feet.
—Alan Lomax, field notes

Of the many elements of Haitian expressive culture, rara may be among the most difficult to describe and explain succinctly. Whereas the service of the saints (also known as Vodou) in Haiti is generally pursued in the home and in the ounfò (temple), in rara it is brought out into the public spaces of the streets, crossroads, and cemeteries. Taken on as a sacred promise to a lwa (god) or group of lwa, a rara band (bann rara) will be organized by a head (mèt or master, or perhaps a president) for a certain number of years: seven is typical, although many rara bands become permanent fixtures in their regions. The band is modeled on military and courtly or governmental hierarchies and engages in ceremonies to consecrate the band, rehearsals to develop its music, and then weekends of preparatory perambulations before embarking on an exhausting string of marches during the days leading up to Easter Sunday or Monday. Although its celebratory atmosphere and often ribald lyrics may not suggest a sacred purpose, the event is both sacred and profane.

Rara may have started during the colonial period as a French celebration called Carnaval Carême (Easter Carnaval), a week of celebration to end Lent and to lead into Easter; the practice of playing for patrons en route may be a holdover from the plantation-era practice of playing for colonial masters. Indeed, an early alternative name for rara, lwalwadi, may be a corruption of
“la loi di”, meaning “the law allows,” referring to the permission in the Code Noir of Napoleon for slave celebrations of this nature.

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