The Haitian rara group shuffle-dancing around the area where I was standing had obviously been up all night. One of them was carrying a Coleman lantern they had used during their all-night of marching through and around their semi-rural neighborhood. It was about 9 a.m. Sunday morning. I was on the edge of Haiti's National Highway No. 1 just south of the port city of Gonaives.
I was watching a rara band, one of the all-night dancing parades that slowly move through villages and towns in southern and central Haiti from Mardi Gras to Easter. Some elements of these parades resemble the giant Mardi Gras celebrations of New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, and Haiti's capital city of Port-au-Prince. It has been referred to as the Carnival (or the French phrase Mardi Gras that we use in English) parade of the rural Haitian peasant, even though the parades repeatedly take place all through the season that Christians call "Lent."
This particular rara that I was observing up close (almost too close!) had stopped to circle repeatedly in front of a cluster of houses in the Trou Sable suburb of Gonaives. Although participants in these parades will put on elaborate and colorful costumes (elaborate at least for a rural peasant living on a subsistence income), most of the 50-plus participants in this particular rara wore normal clothing. The leader of the group appeared to be a man with a long whip. He also had a whistle of the type used by traffic policemen and sports referees. He occasionally tried to crack the whip (with limited success) and blew the whistle in short blasts in time with a rhythmic beat coming from the small "orchestra." I was later told that the whip was used to disperse unfriendly spirits, including those who might have been purposely left by other rival rara groups.
Eight to ten members of the group were musicians carrying bamboo tubes, drums, and homemade horns or trumpets. The bamboo tubes were two to three feet long, perhaps three inches in diameter, and were used to produce a low-pitched, fog-horn type-sound. The drums were homemade, hollowed-out logs with animal skin covers held taut with pegs. The horns were made from sheet metal and resembled funnels with extended necks. These musicians were grouped together in front of the slowly moving group. They beat the drums and blew on their horns and bamboo tubes in a monotonous (to me, at least) rhythmic beat. During the time that I observed the group, there was no singing or chanting. Most of the group shuffled along with the beat while a few went into writhing dances as they circled and circled, kicking up dust. When they eventually went off down the road toward Gonaives, they marched along in the same manner and at a speed of probably no more than one mile per hour.
The group seemed quite happy. These rara parades are, in fact, considered to be a type of celebration according to my informants, who included Remy Cherenfant, Anel Masseus, Hector Gabriel, and Jean Ilfrid (all of them pastors of Haitian Nazarene churches). The group did not seem threatened by me, nor were they menacing in any way toward me. When a friend with me asked to take some pictures, they did not object.
When the group headed up the highway, they had no police escort. So, they provided their own traffic control. Automobile and truck drivers good-naturedly worked their way past the group, which at times blocked both lanes of the highway. Some members of the group helped to gently shove dancers out of the paths of vehicles. A fellow in the rear of the procession also worked at keeping the group bunched up as much as possible.
The rara groups are definitely tied to voodoo. The parades are almost always organized by a voodoo priest/shaman. Each group has a definite structure that will hold several parades during the Lenten season. In addition to the voodoo priest, there will be an orchestra leader, traffic control people, and even a treasurer. Getting into the rara band orchestra requires an audition.
In the group that I observed, there was no sign of spirit possessions or other phenomena associated with voodoo. In fact, I was told that possession experiences are discouraged during rara parades.
I was told that the rara groups often sing songs that have more to do with local gossip than with religious themes. Often, someone will ask the group to make up a song ridiculing that person's enemy. In return, the person making the request is expected to give money to the rara group. An adulterous wife or husband will sometimes be the object of a song.
Christians do not participate in the rara bands. Nor do these bands normally stop in front of Christians' homes. In some areas, they even respect church congregations, keeping noise to a minimum as they pass in front of their buildings where services are being held. In other areas, they seem to delight in disturbing church services.
Although the parades may occur at any time, most are organized from Saturday evening to early Sunday morning. The particular group I observed was undoubtedly in its last few minutes of life. Each rara group is supposed to return to its departure point before disbanding.
Reflecting on that experience and subsequent conversations with my informants, I can see several elements of the rara band which find their parallels in Haitian Christian churches. These would include the writing of original songs by church musical groups, a strong functioning lay structure in the local church, the use of rhythmic music accompanied by hand clapping, and the use of homemade musical instruments.
In the literature I have read on Haitian voodoo, I did not run across descriptions of rara bands. Though they appear to have far more voodoo elements in them than Christian elements and seem to be organized by voodoo priests, does this omission mean they are actually viewed by scholars as a Lenten season activity? It would be interesting to ask leading authorities on voodoo why rara bands weren't mentioned in descriptions I encountered of that religion.
-- Howard Culbertson,
Written for an assignment in Fuller Seminary's doctoral-level course in "Phenomenology and Institutions of Folk Religions"