Archive for March 31st, 2010


In the spirit of the season: Notes on Rara

Rara Band in Gonaives

Rara Band in Gonaives

The phenomenon of Rara is particularly creative and is both fun and profound.  It is at once a season, a festival, a genre of music, a religious ritual, a form of dance, and sometimes a technique of political protest. [1] Rara is a parading, musical festival that typically happens right after Carnival ends, continuing for all the six weeks of Lent, and climaxing on Easter week—especially on Easter Sunday and Easter Monday [2] … Occurring in multiple localities, Rara represents the largest popular gatherings of Haitian people. Groups numbering from fifteen to several thousand people play drums and bamboo horns, dance along the roads, and stop traffic for miles in order to perform rituals for Vodou deities at crossroads, bridges, and cemeteries. Rara can be read as an annual ritual period when the religious work of Vodou is taken into public space. In this sense, Rara is a peripheral branch of this Afro-Haitian religion—a fluid, inherited, oral tradition of relationships with deities from various African societies, as well as relationships with ancestors. [3]

-Elizabeth McAlister, Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University and author of Rara!

Rara is perhaps one of the lesser known genres of Haitian music among the New York City diaspora circuit, as its purpose pertains more to political and social expression than it does to entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Although there’s a chance you might stumble upon a Rara procession around the right corner in Brooklyn during the time of Lent, it isn’t the type of music regularly showcased in NYC clubs like SOB’s and Le Poisson Rouge. For the most part, Rara stays out of the spotlight of pop culture–however, the outpouring of earthquake relief efforts and benefit recordings has allowed opportunities for even the lesser known aspects of Haitian culture to be appreciated by mass audiences. In this clip, Wyclef Jean begins with a reggae tribute to Haiti that quickly gives way to a celebratory Rara jam:

More explanation about Rara instrumentation–evidenced in the video above–written by Elizabeth McAlister, our resident Rara expert:

During Rara, often a Vodou society will form a kind of subgroup within it sending out musicians, drummers, and a chorus of women called queens. Musicians play drums, sing, and sound bamboo horns and tin trumpets.  These horns—vaksin—create the distinctive sound of the Rara.  Each player plays one note, in a technique called hocketing, and together the band comes up with a melody. [ The vaksin are made of bamboo that is cut to particular lengths in order to achieve particular tones. A short bamboo produces a very high tone and a long bamboo produces a very low tone. Each instrument player plays one note. So, if I’m playing “higher note” and you’re playing “lower note,” we get in a circle with a bunch of other musicians and we figure out a particular rhythm to a melody. Then we start walking through the countryside, collecting money from people that we entertain, and it’s wonderful fun.

Sadly, this year’s Rara celebration has been eclipsed by grief and mourning in the aftermath of January’s devastating earthquakes. But some musicians who would have played the carnival, such as the band Kreyol La, have taken the time to instead record their own songs relating to the disaster and are now seeing radio airplay and popular adoption of their contributions around Port-au-Prince.


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