Rara ap soti! (The rara is going out!) Recent adventures in sound recording, Part One.

My last trip to Haiti represented the fulfillment of a long-term dream. At least, I hoped that it would. Ever since spending several hours back in 1996 marching from Kenscoff to Furcy while recording a band of drumming, singing, bamboo-didgeridoo playing musicians named Foula I have wanted to make a dedicated trip there to immerse myself in the phenomenon known as Rara. What I then interpreted as music was raw and percussive and unstoppable. The experience of hiking up a mountain surrounded by the constant performance of musicians and singers, under Caribbean heat, resulted in an almost spiritual loss of the self; after some time the marching and the driving beat had no beginning, and no anticipated end, and in my participation in this ever-growing parade I began to feel as if I were a small part of a giant organism, not an individual, but an interchangeable ant in an ant-army. To march with that crew was to viscerally experience Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power to feel both the implicit terror and the enabling thrill of communal action. It was a strange experience, not only to lose one's self in a mass of humanity, but to welcome that loss. Just before Easter, thanks to the persistent encouragement and support of a good friend and fellow Haitiphile, I packed up my sound equipment and flew down to Port au Prince. There was no guarantee, however, that I would be able to locate and obtain the permission to record an raras. My time was short, and pre-production had been minimal.

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.

Faith of Job art supply. Also, have faith, the rara will go out....

Nonetheless, Raras do not have websites where they advertise their sortees, and I was rather nervous as to whether or not the trip would pay off. Then, shortly after I collapsed in my hotel bed on Tuesday night, I heard a rara moving through the streets of Jacmel. Although exhaustion overwhelmed me, as well as the fact that I had not yet unpacked and prepared my gear, it seemed a good omen.

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.

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