The first photograph I made, taken out the car window shortly after pulling out of the airport in Port au Prince. I find that within hours in Haiti I become inured to these sorts of scenes, and no longer think them photo-worthy.
Although we outsiders use "rara" generally to refer to the genre of music, a rara is much more than that. Properly speaking, it is a kind of ambulatory vodou ceremony, with an important ritual significance, and dedicated tasks it must accomplish. To come upon one making its way through the Haitian countryside is a truly special and spectacular occurrence. The musicians are lead by flagbearers, and by two queens, also holding banners. Sometimes a gloomy figure, shrouded in black, goes before them with a broom, sweeping away any evil powders and poisons that competing raras might have scattered earlier to trip them up. The crowd is controlled by a kind of majordomo, cracking a whip and often wearing a skirt made from dozens of brightly colored silk scarves hanging from his belt. The percussion can be heard at a great distance; one can wander through the fields following the sound of the drums until the parade is located. A rara is, all at once, joyful, militaristic, focussed, chaotically disorganized, musical and cacophonic, voluntary and obligatory, serene and warlike.
Waiting for the rara. Traditionally, rara instrumention is composed of two drums, and five "bamboo" of varying lengths, and, therefore, pitches. Today these are usually made from lengths of PVC tubing, actual bamboo having become scarce, along with the knowledge of how to craft instruments out of it.
Although similar pedestrian groups with similar instrumentation start going out shortly after Christmas (usually beginning on the dia de los Reyes), the street revels of the pre-Carnival period are essentially festive, and it is incorrect to refer to them, as I often have, as raras. These are Bann a Pye, literally "foot-bands," with none of the exigencies of vodou invested in them. One might think of them as secular while raras are religious. Rara is strictly a Lenten phenomenon, either a thumb in the eye of the slave-master and his forty days of austerity or their syncretic expression.
For all your Jacmel lodging needs.
Without tremendous forethought I had settled on Jacmel as a great place to begin this project, and on the Tuesday before Easter I drove across the mountains of Haiti's southern claw and installed myself there at the sublime Hotel Florita. Raras go out everywhere the length and breadth of Haiti, and even in Haitian enclaves in the Dominican Republic.* Leogane, about halfway between Port au Prince is Jacmel, is considered a particular stronghold, but I had heard that its annual rara festival had become rather commercialized. The Artibonite valley (Latibonit) is generally considered to be a stronghold of vodou, and I might try to spend a future rara season there. But in Jacmel I have friends. In the late 1990s I lived there for two months, working on Charles Najman's film Les Illuminations de Madame Nerval. The town is also traditionally considered to be Haiti's artistic and literary capital, and it is the home of the Ciné Institute, the film school where I have twice gone to teach sound recording. I had already discussed the possibility of recording local raras with a former student of mine, Bayard Jean Bernard, and he had sent some encouraging reports of the season's activity.
My room at the Florita, in which I lounged underneath the mosquito net listening to raras pass by in the streets of Jacmel.
On Wednesday, I got together with Bayard. "I'm ready," I said. "What can we line up for this evening?" He made a few phone calls. He shook his head. "It sounds like everyone went out last night," he said, "I'm not sure what else will happen before Friday...."
Bayard gives me the bad news.
*I am unsure whether rara persists within the Haitian communities of Cuba, but it seems likely, as vodou is widely practiced in them.