Rara!: Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora / Edition 1

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"A startling, stunning, and fascinating book about the blend of music, religion, and politics in Haitian culture. McAlister's mastery of many different ways of knowing makes this study an endless source of insight, intrigue, and inspiration. The book succeeds magnificently as an exploration into Rara rituals and Haitian music, but it also presents original and generative insights into every aspect of Haiti's past, present, and future."-George Lipsitz, author of Dangerous Crossroads
"This is a major contribution to the literature on Vodou, Haiti, popular culture, Caribbean culture and music, transnational immigrant practices, and the corpus of black religions in the Americas. It is an extremely well-written, well researched and argued, and highly readable book."-Lawrence H. Mamiya, co-author of The Black Church in the African American Experience
"This is a smart and thoughtful book by a very talented ethnographer. Anyone interested in Haiti will appreciate the work of Elizabeth McAlister."-Karen Brown, author of Mama Lola:A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn
"A rare in-depth look at an extremely popular, yet often misunderstood phenomenon. With this book and CD, Elizabeth McAlister, an involved observer, makes an incalculable contribution to our musical and cultural literature."-Edwidge Danticat, author of The Farming of Bones:A Novel

Author Biography:Elizabeth McAlister is Assistant Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520228238
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2002
  • Edition description: BOOK & CD
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 277
  • Sales rank: 1,010,406
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth McAlister is AssociateProfessor of Religion at Wesleyan University.

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Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora

By Elizabeth McAlister


Copyright © 2002 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92674-5


Work and Play, Pleasure and Performance

It's my Rara I do to have my pleasure
This year I'm not dancing Rara at anyone's house
It's my Rara I do to have my pleasure
Look at a Rara I started so I can party
Se Rara'm mwen fè pou'm pran plèzi mwen
Ane si la, mwen p'ap danse Rara kay moun
Se Rara'm mwen fè pou'm pran plèzi mwen
Gade yon Rara'm leve pou'm banboche

Rara Inorab Kapab, Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince, 1 April 1993


Midway through Lent in 1992 I was invited to walk with a Rara in the mountains above Petionville. My host, Madame Giselle (a pseudonym), was a highly unlikely Rara participant, a member of Haiti's French-educated "mulatto elite." She had done a very radical thing: she had made friends with the Rara band in the valley behind her house. A large extended family of farmers, the band members lived without plumbing or electricity in small, one- or two-room houses that dotted the valley, and worked hard at cultivating corn, peas, and beets for sale.

Madame Giselle lived in a modern house above the valley, with beautiful landscaped gardens and a picture window looking out over the glade. Although her house was originally built with running water and electricity, she had forgone both in the increasingly difficult time after the Aristide coup. A visual artist herself, she saw her involvement with the Rara as a meditation on the creative process and used Rara as an opportunity to learn a side of Afro-Haitian culture of which she and most of her class were ignorant. In this, Madame Giselle was a unique woman, and the Rara members valued her friendship. She contributed what she could and collected money for the Rara from her friends. In return the Rara extended their friendship and made her the marenn, or godmother, of the band.

"Drive up," said Madame Giselle, "and you will see the Rara on the road. They will be wearing blue and yellow. Tell them that you are my friends, and everything will be fine." Driving up the winding road to Kenskoff, my companion Jacques and I were stopped by one Rara band after another. Groups as small as fifteen members and as large as fifty walked or danced on the road, the women in colorful dresses with matching head scarves, and the men in blue jeans sporting shirts made from the same cloth as the dresses. The groups were led by a few men with whips in their hands and whistles in their mouths who were energetically directing the groups' movement. The men with whips were flanked by other men with drums slung around their shoulders, who were playing fastand furiously. Other men held percussion instruments or machetes. As we slowed the car, the groups surrounded us dancing along slowly. Crowding againstone another, they showed us their gouyad, a dance in which hands are clasped against the backs of heads, chins tilt to the side, knees are bent, and hips roll in circles sensually. The men holding the whips stretched out their arms toward us. It was a scene that could be frightening, I thought, if one were unprepared, or paranoid, or had enemies in the group. Equipped with a small bundle of two-gourde notes, we cheerfully gave one away at each checkpoint, making sure to comment appreciatively abouteach Rara. "Bèl mizik, bèl rad, bèl Rara" (Beautiful music, beautiful clothes, beautiful Rara), we shouted, anxious to let them know we were not their run-of-the-mill bourgeoisie. Satisfied that we were properly respectful, the groups would either insist that we hear a song, or they would wave us through matter-of-factly. Finally, high up the road, we saw Madame Giselle's Rara. They were dressed in yellow and blue, as promised, and held alofta sign that proclaimed the group's name: La Belle Fraîcheur de l'Anglade (The Beautiful Fresh Air of the Glade).

We reached for our gift of a bottle of rum, and when the group stopped us, we shouted that we were friends of Madame Giselle. Smiles broke out all around, and the leader of the group came forward. He looked to be in his forties and had the strong build of a farmer, a pleasant face, and a wide, gap-toothed smile. "I am the General of the army," he said. "My name is Kanep. We've been waiting for you."

Kanep had a whip wrapped around one hand; he took my arm with the other, and we began to walk. The musicians were directly behind us: three drummers, four banbou players, and three tin klewon (trumpet) players. Behind them other men walked and sang, and behind them were about thirty women who wore dresses in different styles made of the same yellow and blue material. Everybody there seemed to be between the ages of six and sixty. As I looked back, I saw Jacques walking along, flanked by two older women who each held one of his arms ceremoniously.

Our role had been transformed: instead of driving through Rara checkpoints, we were now part of a Rara. The road we walked along was a direct route from Port-au-Prince to Kenskoff, the mountain retreat of the very wealthy, and Sunday afternoons such as this one brought a steady stream of Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, and four-wheel-drive jeeps returning to the capital. I noticed the range of reactions on the part of the drivers coming through. Some people were clearly amused, nodding their heads to the music and smiling, handing out a coin or two. Others came through with windows rolled up, air-conditioning on, heads held stiffly, staring straight ahead. If these drivers made the mistake of going too fast, honking, or looking upset, Rara members might pound their fists on the cars in frustration. "The Rara is working," Kanep said, "butt hose drivers don't want to participate." "This is incredible," said Jacques at one point as we danced in place to let a string of cars past. He was a Port-au-Prince doctor. "I know most of these people—that is Dr. Elie, and that is Madame Leopold, people I went to school with, coming down from their weekend houses. But nobody has recognized me here. They don't even see me. They refuse to look at people's faces in this Rara."

After a while the Rara turned off the main road and faced a wide dirt path descending into the valley, the "glade" where the members lived. Kanep placed my arm on that of a young man named Claude and ran to the intersection of the road and the wide path, blowing his whistle. The musicians stood back, playing and singing, while Kanep danced in a small counterclockwise circle in the crossroads. He cracked his whip deftly on the roadway, scattering children who had ventured forward. Using every inch of his body in a stylish, theatrical show, Kanep blew his whistle and ran down the dirt path, holding the wooden handle of his whip up and pointing it forward like a general in battle yelling "charge." The rest of the band tumbled after him, playing and singing, running down the path at top speed as dogs barked and excited children ran alongside. We descended into the glade, an unusually dense, forested section of mountain, whose air was as beautiful and fresh as the Rara's sign had advertised.

After a small break in the music while everyone caught their breath, the drumming started up again, the banbou joined in with a melody line, and a woman's voice sang out. Once her verse was sung, the other women joined in straightforward unison, with one woman singing an octave above the others. The music echoed dramatically across the valley on this sleepy, sunny Sunday afternoon, announcing the coming of the Rara.

I don't walk on the ground, Ay Yey
I don't walk on the ground, help me
Brother Dieuve has a fleet of airplanes
I don't walk on the ground, Ay Yey

Mwen p'ap mache a tè Anye
Mwen p'ap mache a tè Amwe
Kay Frè Dieuvè ki gen yon bann avyon
Mwen p'ap mache a tè Anye

The footing was uneven as we made our way down a dirt road past corn fields, gardens with potatoes and peas, and small houses with goats grazing in the yard. We stopped at one of the small houses, and the drums and banbou players crowded under a thatched awning adjoining the house while the chorus of women stood to the side singing.

House, House, Oh House of Ile, Oh
House, House, Oh House of Ile, Oh
House of Ile, Oh House of Ile, the House, Oh

Kay kay O Kay Ile O
Kay kay O Kay Ile O
Kay Ile O Kay Ile La kay O

The area beneath the thatched awning was the family peristil, or religious dance space, and the song was sung as a religious ochan (salute), reserved for priests and priestesses in Afro-Haitian religion. The music is simple and slow, heavy on the downbeats, where the word kay is sung. Kay means "house" in Kreyòl, and Ile means the same thing in Yoruba. In Kreyòl, this song salutes the "House of Ile," while at the same time it simply states the concept of "the House" in Afro-Haitian and Yoruba religion. In both traditions, "the House" is an overarching concept that refers not only to a dwelling place but also to the people who live within and to their principles and values.

After what seemed like a long while, the priest came out of his house and the ochan broke into a fast and furious banda rhythm. This rhythm features fast slaps and rolls. Banda is the distinctive rhythm and dance of the Gede spirits, the lwa of sex, death, and healing. As soon as the banda started, the kings and queen of the Rara were presented to the priest, and they began to dance.

The role of the kings and queens is similar to the function of the majò jon (baton major) in Rara: to perform short, choreographed dance routines for the amusement and honor of the person being saluted. This year the Rara La Belle Fraîcheur de l'Anglade had chosen three young teenagers to jwe (play) king and queen. Two tall, thin boys of thirteen were the kings. They wore dazzling capes covered in red and gold sequins depicting a phoenix on their backs, with matching sequined knickers. The sun caught bits of the costume so that every movement was accompanied by flashing lights. Straw hats with long fronds dripping down the front obscured their faces and gave them the cool appearance of royalty. They executed a dance known as mazoun, in which the primary movement is a graceful heel-to-toe step like the start of a minuet. They were supposed to be performing in perfect unison, but they did not always succeed and thus were prompted by the older kolonèl (colonels) who were directing the action.

As the young kings danced, the priest's family brought the Rara an enormous gallon jug of kleren, the pure cane liquor that keeps Rara bands fueled with calories for much of their journey. They dispensed it to the kolonèl, and after the kolonèl had drunk, the rest of the crowd took little sips of the liquor.

When the kings finished dancing, it was time for the crowd-pleaser—the queen. This young Rara queen was only thirteen and very shy. A short, round girl, she wore a straw hat and red and white dress with horizontal pleats. She was responsible for seducing a contribution from the priest by dancing banda. With all eyes fastened on her, this shy teenager, looking down, chin tilted to the side, clasped her hands behind her head and began the hip-rolling moves of the dance. Each time the drummers cued her with the distinctive "slap!" at the end of each phrase, she performed the "Yas!"—the pushing backward of the pelvis. The more the drum slapped, the closer she got to the priest, until finally one of the kolonèlpushed her rightagainsthim. At that point the priestpassed her some money, which was quickly handed over to the trezorye (treasurer), who was close at hand, carrying a huge wooden box into which he stuffed the precious contribution. Whirling around in a danced recovery, she struck a pose, and the dance was over.

Seeing that there was no more kleren left and nothing else being offered, the kolonèl turned the group around while the musicians continued to play and the women to sing. Filing out just as they had come in, the troupe walked onward through the glade toward the bright light of the sun. We danced on for the rest of the day and well into the night, and I learned many names, heard many stories, and began to understand the intrigues and melodramas that were being played out between band members and with the spirit world. "Rara gen anpil bagay ladann," Madame Giselle said repeatedly over the course of the next three weeks: "Rara has a lot within."

Folklorist Harold Courlander, devoting a short section to the festival in The Drum and the Hoe, wrote that "The general tone of Rara is nonreligious. The dancing is free from the decorous restraints which characterize most religious ritual, and some early observers of the festival were shocked by what they saw." Gerson Alexis wrote that "Rara is a public gathering whose purpose is the merriment of the rural counties and their surroundings." Verna Gillis remarks that "The Haitian, typically a religious person like the African, says prayers for protection before many kinds of activities. The recitation of prayers before rara, therefore, does not mark the celebration itself as religious."

My own research on Rara suggests that while the "tone" or "ambiance" of Rara parading may seem secular, the festival should more properly be understood as a synthesis of Carnival behavior and religious practice. Specifically, Rara consists of an outer, secular layer of Carnival "play" surrounding a protected, secret inner layer of religious "work." These two values are enacted structurally through performance codes, use of private and public space, gender relations, and social hierarchy. The outer Carnival layer of Rara members and fans is comprised of young people exhibiting their talent at singing and dancing in a boisterous, rebellious atmosphere. The inner core of Rara leaders forms an extensive hierarchy borrowed from Afro-Creole religious societies or the semireligious, semijuridical Bizango societies. They, in turn, are going about the business of performing serious ritual obligations to the lwa.

In order to understand how Rara bands are both "playing" and "working," it will be useful to look at these concepts in the broader context of West Indian culture. In their volume After Africa, Roger Abrahams and John Szwed analyze the ways in which European-American concepts of work and play differ from African-American ones. They argue that in European-American cultures, work tends to be associated with productivity outside the home and constitutes one's identity as an individual. In contrast, play means freedom from work and is the arena where one learns to coordinate with others. While work is carried out in public, playing "remains as private as one can maintain."

For many cultures in the African-American context, the reverse has been true. Work is learned within the home under the direction of the mother, and is "the most important feature of (extended) family living." Work is generally associated with seriousness and cooperation with the family and by extension with the home and with women. In contrast, play is learned outside the home and comes to be "the activity by which Afro-American individuality is asserted and maintained. Thus, playing comes to be associated with public places, as work begins in the home and remains, in the main, as a kind of private (or at least guarded) range of behaviors." For many African-American cultures, work is associated with seriousness and cooperation, with the family, and by extension with the home and with women. Play is associated with the crossroads or the street, with men, and with establishing one's reputation through performance. Abrahams and Szwed caution that "in the Afro-American order of behaviors, 'play' is not distinguished from 'real' or 'work' but from 'respectable behavior.'"

If we look at the Rara in these terms, the carnivalesque aspects of the festival are clearly a form of "play," the singing and dancing an occasion to move away from the home, to perform competitively, and to enhance one's reputation. As Abrahams and Szwed note, "In the anglophonic Afro-American sense of the term,play is not commonly allowed in the house because it is generally used to refer to some of the central practices by which masculine, crossroads, reputation-centered values are enacted. Play in this sense means highly unruly behavior, engaging in noisy verbal dueling." In the Rara bands I observed, the young fanatik who emerged from his house to follow the Rara was enacting this African-American ethos of play. The Rara member participated in order to sing and dance through the countryside and to drink and socialize with the opposite sex. Rara in this sense is considered vakabondaj (vagabondage), dezòd (unruly, or, literally, disorder), and even danje (danger). It is these aspects of Rara, the fete or partying behavior, that creates its overall ambiance, and this has led many observers to dismiss Rara as a "rural carnival."


Excerpted from Rara! by Elizabeth McAlister. Copyright © 2002 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Guide to the Compact Disc Rara!
Introducing Rara 1
1 Work and Play, Pleasure and Performance 25
2 Vulgarity and the Politics of the Small Man 59
3 Mystical Work: Spirits on Parade 85
4 Rara and "the Jew": Premodern Anti-Judaism in Postmodern Haiti 113
5 Rara as Popular Army: Hierarchy, Militarism, and Warfare 135
6 Voices under Domination: Rara and the Politics of Insecurity 159
7 Rara in New York City: Transnational Popular Culture 183
App Chronology of Political Events, 1990-1995, Annotated with Transnational Rara Band Activity 209
Glossary 213
Notes 217
Sources 237
Index 249
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2002


    I recommend this book to anyone interested in culture. McAlister's work bridges many disciplines and provides a fascinating look into the transnational culture of a people. I especially recommend this book to New Yorkers to understand the dimensions of Rara and its manifestations in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

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