Haiti has a very interesting history of culture and religion. Currently, while Roman Catholicism is the official religion, Voodoo can be considered the national religion; about half of all Haitians practice it. This culture and religious history – and current practice – is essential in understanding one of the most important genres of music in Haiti; Rara. One of the most important aspects of Voodoo is the summoning of the Lwa, or spirits. This is done in a service and drumming is an essential part of this service because it provides music. Dancing is also a very important part of the service. These services involve nearly everyone through either the drumming or the dancing.
There are two different types of drumming rhythm patterns that are used depending on which sect of Voodoo one is involved with; Rada and Petwo.
Rada is the most common sect of Voodoo; it constitutes 95% of all practiced Voodoo. This is the Voodoo of the relatively peaceful lwa, like the family spirits.
Petwo is the type of Voodoo that westerners tend to think of; it is the Voodoo that involves pin dolls and black magic. In contrast to Rada, it is the Voodoo of the angry, mean and nasty lwa. During a Petwo service, dangerous things occur such as the procurement of sexual orgies and death curses.
The now Haitian people were once African slaves under the rule of the French. The Catholic Church wanted to abolish Voodoo, so when the French were occupying the island, up until 1804, Voodoo was forbidden. They would, however, allow occasional dance parties that were, unbeknownst to them, Voodoo services.
The African slaves revolted in 1804 and in doing so, they threw the Catholics out of the country by killing the ones who tried to stay. So, the Catholic Church left Haiti and did not return until 1860.
During the 56 years when the Catholic Church was not in the country, Voodoo amalgamated with Catholicism; most lwa were also known as Catholic saints – the snake lwa, Dumballah, is St. Patrick and the earth mother, Erzulie, is the Virgin Mary. Through this process, it came about that the Haitians feel that there is nothing wrong with practicing Voodoo alongside Christianity.
From 1860 to the late 1940s, the Catholics came back and fought against Voodoo. The worst of this Holy War was in 1942-43. In the early 1950s, the Catholic hierarchy decided to change their tactics. They decided that instead of fighting against Voodoo, they ought to work alongside them. Nowadays the Haitian Catholic Church incorporates some of the drum patterns and melodies from Voodoo. Thanks to this co-operation, there has been relative peace ever since.
The Protestant Church, on the other hand, did not start sending people as missionaries until the 1970s. The Protestant Church has a very different viewpoint; they see Voodoo as devil worship. Despite their contrast to the most common religion in Haiti, they still own 7 of 11 radio stations, and conversions to to Protestant Christianity. It is believed that about 15% of Haitians who identify with Christianity are Protestant.
So, how does Rara fit into this rich cultural and religious history? Rara is a season of what appears to be young people parading very loudly through the streets in an effort to show off their musical ability; it is more than that. As part of the Catholic/Voodoo amalgamation, Rara began to begin on Epiphany in the church calendar, and runs through until Easter. It is about men establishing a masculine reputation through performance while parading down the streets in a boisterous manner. It is also a way to collect money; they stop for “noteworthy” people and perform for money – much like buskers in North America. The performances include the wa and renn dancing and singing, the baton majors juggling batons, or possibly even machetes.
The costumes are known for the flash and sparkle they give when the batons twirl due to the amount of sequins and colors involved in the costume. Each costume shows a mix of a lot of different festivals and carnivals from all over the Caribbean. Having said that, it is actually very much religious in ways that the other Caribbean festivals and carnivals are not.
Each Rara band is associated with a lwa; each band is usually asked to be formed by that lwa. In fact, the Rara itself is a gift to the lwa.
In the middle of the procession there is a ceremony going on for the lwa of the Rara band. At the same time, they are “heating-up” their instruments. Sometimes, they go to the cemetery so they can ask permission to capture zombi spirits – recently dead – so that they can help to “heat up the band”. This is a very complicated ritual.
The Haitians that practice Voodoo associate with the Jews because when the Haitians were African slaves, the Europeans expressly considered both Jews and Africans to be devil worshippers.
This works into the Rara because many bands will perform elaborate passion plays about the suffering and death of Jesus, while others will make straw dummies of either Judas, or a generic Jew, and imitate what the Pharisees did to Jesus – dragging him through the streets and beating him – and at the end of it they burn the doll, as opposed to Jesus hanging on the cross.
In a different version of Rara, it is believed that Rara is actually a Jewish festival that the Haitians continue in order to keep ancestral Jewish traditions alive. In addition to the history and Jewish comparison, these Rara festivals are thought of in a military sense; they are thought to be the military branch of a particular Voodoo society. Not only do they have rather extravagant musical bands and are competing with the Rara bands that might be around them, but they also have ranks. It is very hierarchical; they have Presidents, Colonels, Majors, Captains, and so on. This is believed to have originated from the peasant armies of the eighteenth century; marching bands accompanied them.
For this reason, and as a reason all to it’s own, Rara is also a political activist festival. It is in the context of Rara that Haitians make their views on everything from land erosion to massive migration, unemployment, poverty, famine, dictatorships and so on. Because Haiti is religiously free, like Canada, this religious festival is the perfect outlet for opinions and beliefs to be expressed. They express themselves a lot through their lyrics.
They express their views on politics in the local community usually, but sometimes they also express their views about the national situation. Because of their large number, Rara bands can express national political views that cannot be voiced otherwise. There is a spectrum of different types of Rara bands; they can be anything from simple to very complex. On the simple end of the spectrum there is “a capella” (voice only) and also “charyio-pye” (foot bands). The foot bands stomp the tempo of the song in a marching rhythm. On the complex end of the spectrum, there are bands that use brass musicians and instruments from kompa (popular music) and achieve national reputations because of it. These bands often play catchy melodies at very high volumes. Somewhere around the middle of the spectrum we find the typical Rara orchestra. This orchestra is made up of three drums, three bamboo instruments called “banbou” or “vaksin”, a few “konet” (metal horns), a grand amount of percussionists playing small, hand-held instruments, and lastly, a chorus of singers. Alongside the Rara is a set of performers (majò jon) or kings and queens (wa and renn) who dance for money.
Rara drums are most commonly made of goatskin and tuned by adjusting the small pegs located along the body. The three types of Rara drums are the manman, kata and bas. The manman and kata of are also used in the ceremonial drumming, however, the bas replaces the segon due to the portability and lightweight needed for the Rara that is not provided by the segon.
The manman and kata are both single-headed drums that use a rope across the shoulder to keep them strapped to the body. The bas, on the other hand, is a round wooden frame – much like a cross-stitch frame – with a goatskin top; it is a hand-held instrument.
The banbou/vaksin are pieces of hollowed out bamboo with a mouthpiece fashioned at the top. They are cut to different lengths to imitate a range of sounds. Each player has one note, so the combination of players improvise together until they find a pleasing short melody that is catchy and easy to play. To ensure they stay together in timing, they also use long sticks to hit the banbou making the instrument both percussive and melodic.
All in all, there is a lot behind the Rara, be it religious, political, or historical. Also, the instruments are mostly drums and banbou, as well as a plethora of other performers. It is a festival that runs right alongside the season of Lent in the Catholic Church. There is a strong tie to Judaism and the military. Rara is a very complex and interesting form of music.
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