I wasn’t planning on posting about Haiti again so soon, but I referred to the Haitian rara processionals last week and thought you might like to know a little more about it. It’s quite interesting. As always, full documentation available on request.
The culture of the impoverished dark-skinned Haitian majority has thrived, and in its own way has carved out a rich cultural niche which has blended African, European, and native elements. This has produced a society with syncretic religious and musical traditions from the Carnival rara songs to the hip and trendy nouvel jenerayson. These many different musical styles have given them an outlet of political expression which would not likely be otherwise possible.
Perhaps no musical style has emboldened and influenced this poor majority of Haiti more than rara. Rara music is a diverse palette of rhythms and lyrics passed down through generations. The rara festival kicks off after lent when the Carnival season in other Caribbean countries is coming to an end. The rara processionals consist of competing groups of musicians who parade around incessantly, drawing in active participants who gladly join the fray. This time of year gives the urban poor an extremely important outlet for social criticism. McAlister refers to rara as a type of “performative orality” which is a complex combination of “verbal wordsmithing, displays of masculinity, and competitive performances of dance and music, all growing out of a religious core” (7). The organic and grassroots nature of rara cultivates a commonality amongst the poor majority of Haiti. They may not have political or economic clout, but they have a cultural force in the rara festival which enables them in their own way to remember their tragic past while cultivating hope that someday social justice may be achieved.
Certain communal aspects of rara make it a powerful force which gives people a sense of belonging even while each musical group goes to great lengths to best the local rara competition. During the colonial time period when African slaves were used as plantation labor, there would be little opportunity for expressiveness and creativity, so music was one area in which slaves could express themselves; this in turn helped make music one of the most dynamic aspect of Caribbean culture (Manuel). The many slave communities brought together individuals from various African regions and ethnic groups which then enabled the various music styles and backgrounds to blend together in a unique syncretic way. One of the characteristics of African music is the way it incorporates collective participation in such a way that the performers and audience seem to blend together (Manuel). The rara festival is a unique example of this African feature. McAlister writes of the rara processional that the “distinction between audience and performer is erased as soon as it is constructed” (6). The audience does not passively watch a performance; they actively join in the dance and sing the songs and become part of the event themselves. This communal approach to music is a powerful societal force which binds together the poor majority in a glorious strand of Haitian identity – one in which makes society’s elite uncomfortable to say the least. This is perhaps where rara music makes its biggest impact; it has become a method of social criticism even when social criticism isn’t allowed.
The elite of Haitian society have long dismissed rara as a vulgar rural Carnival (Manuel), perpetuated by low-class, uneducated poor. But in rara, the masses have a powerful voice of creativity which can target social ills and address abuses in ways which would not be possible through more traditional means of redress. McAlister acknowledges rara on one hand to be a nod to Haiti’s tragic past while at the same time being a means for current political and societal issues to rise to the surface. Behind the cryptic language and religious rituals, the tragic past of the indigenous Taino people is laid bare (McAlister).