Sunday, March 17, 2013


rara depicted in Haitian cut metal artwork

Four o'clock in the morning. 
What. Is. That???
A huge group of people in the street making lots of noise and drumming.

If it were in a university town, I'd label it "drunken fraternity boys out way too late" and go back to sleep.
If it were France, I'd assume they'd just won the World Cup.
In Haiti?
Not a clue.

Multitudes of possibilities, good, bad, and indifferent, pass through my mind as I climb out of bed and peer through the slats of the Venitian-blind-type crank windows to try to make out what might be going on.  A party?  A vaudou ceremony with drums such as once woke me up in the night in Darbonne? a demonstration or protest of some kind? I can't make out a word they're saying.  Inside the house, not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse, so I know it can't be a dire emergency.  I vaguely wonder why the dogs have lost interest; they usually bark and try to get through the fence at anything or anyone that happens to pass by, but they are nowhere in sight. 

We still have power, so there is enough light on the street to make out a little bit.  Lots and lots of people making lots of noise, standing just down the street; the drumming has mostly stopped.  Someone has a very bright light of some sort. It's warm light, definitely not LED, but I think it's too bright for a torch. Hard to tell through the greenery. 
 They start down the street, drumming again.  A rough horn of some sort joins in with a four note sequence, over and over.  I think, is that a conch shell? and then decide I've driven past the Neg Mawon statue too many times. 

an old picture of the Neg Mawon statue downtown
It's still there, even if the palace isn't.  I'm sure I have a recent photo of my own somewhere...

They move on past our house and down the street.  Quiet returns.  I still have no more idea than I did. 

In the morning at conference, I inquire. The Sisters laugh.  It was a rara, they tell me.  A rara? I guess I do remember hearing the word before and associating it with music and perhaps Karnaval, but I hadn't attached it to this.  Yes, that's it, only it's not Mardi Gras - it's throughout Lent.  I remember when... And there is some discussion of local variations and folklore.  And why, I said, were the dogs quieter than usual? Oh, they said, it's cultural. It's in their blood.  We all laugh. 

So... a rara.   I went to my trusty friend, Wikipedia. (Of course it's accurate. It's on the internet, isn't it?)

Originating in Haïti, rara is a form of festival music used for street processions, typically during Easter Week. The music centers on a set of cylindrical bamboo trumpets called vaksen (which may also be made of metal pipes), but also features drums, maracas, güiras or güiros (a percussion instrument), and metal bells, as well as sometimes also cylindrical metal trumpets which are made from recycled metal, often coffee cans. The vaksen-s perform repeating patterns in hocket and often strike their instruments rhythmically with a stick while blowing into them.
Well, that does sound like what I heard. 

And then it goes on to explain that it's more than just a simple band making music at 4AM.
The songs are always performed in Haitian Kreyòl and typically celebrate the African ancestry of the Afro-Haïtian masses. Vodou is often implemented through the procession.
Hm. Maybe I wasn't so incredibly far off.  Drums in the night, after all.

Politics, too.  But then, that's not surprising here.
Rara in Haiti is often used for political purposes, with candidates commissioning songs praising them and their campaigns. Rara lyrics also often address difficult issues, such as political oppression or poverty. Consequently, rara groups and other musicians have been banned from performing and even forced into exile—most notably, folk singer Manno Charlemagne who later returned to Haïti and was elected mayor of Port-au-Prince in the 1990s.

Rara performances are often performed while marching, and are often accompanied by twirlers employing metal batons. Performances generally begin on Ash Wednesday and culminate at Easter Weekend.

"The Rara festival most likely developed during the period of colonial slavery, when enslaved Africans and Afro-Creoles in the colony of Saint-Domingue were said to parade with drums and instruments on Easter Sunday. There is also some evidence that troupes of maroons marched with drummers, horns, and singers, similarly to Rara."[1]

OK, we even have a mention of the maroons - Neg Mawon statue, tip of the hat to you.

Then I found this interesting page:
I'm not going to try to translate it for you, but it gets into the historical (colonial slavery) and religious (vaudou) aspects.  I don't know how much of it applies to last night, but in any case, it's a reminder that the past always makes its way into the present.  I'll include some of this below (at the end)  for those of you who read French.

Better article yet:
It goes into the different kinds of music, points out that publicity and electronics are killing the traditional form of the rara, and talks about its denunciation by some Christian groups.

Finally I got wise.  Here is something very like what I heard last night at 4AM, though it didn't look like this.

And another longer one for those of you who are interested:

They didn't come down our street at all last year, so I think the chances of my being awoken two nights in a row are somewhat slim; tonight I plan to sleep well.

Le Rara

« Ils sont reconnaissables à leurs cornets en zinc et à leurs vaccines, trompes de bambou de différentes tailles à la fois soufflées et frappées, et dont le son se répercute du sol au cerveau en écho de manière hallucinatoire. Le chevauchement décalé des voix du chœur et du soliste ajouté aux vaccines et aux rythmes syncopés entretient cet effet de mirage. Ces polyphonies décadentes qui plairaient a un Steve Reich africain, s’animent autour de personnages organisés en « société ». » Emmanuelle Honorin

Ce sont des troupes de paysans qui parcourent les campagnes à l’époque du carnaval jusqu’aux fêtes de Pâques. Le plus souvent, ce spectacle insolite est dirigé par un « maître-rara » il s’agit d’un prêtre vaudou dans la plupart des cas. Ces manifestations rara sont en quelque sorte le seul visage officiel des sociétés secrètes vaudou.

Il s’agit donc aussi d’une occasion unique de pouvoir voir ces sociétés au grand jour.   and two pages later...   Un chant pour travailleurs
Présent lors du carnaval, le rara est aussi et surtout une partie du « konbit » dont parle Charles Najman dans notre interview, à savoir le système d’entraide entre paysans qui prit la relève de l’exploitation esclavagiste de la terre.

La musique participant à la motivation des paysans par sa magie propre les unifie dans l’effort, tout en esthétisant leur passé obsédant. Le rara au son oppressant et lancinant n’est pas seulement fait pour divertir, c’est aussi un témoignage vivant du terrible passé haïtien. La musique a comme effet de faire glisser le spectateur et la société vaudou dans une sorte de vertige envoûtant. C’est une musique pour libérer la mémoire, pour expier la souffrance originelle des ancêtres.

L’utilisation du « fouet Zombi », destiné à chasser les mauvais esprits (référence directe à l’esclavage) et la « danse des chaînes aux pieds » sont autant de manières de revivre un passé toujours présent.

Les cris de désespoir, les pleurs et autres lamentations surviennent lorsque la musique devient vraiment frénétique et chaotique, allant jusqu’à provoquer des spasmes dans l’auditoire.


  1. You mean you were already asleep at 4 am????

  2. Unfortunately, Kim, there were no carrot cake mixes to be had.