Notes from the Field
The role of the kings and queens is similar to the function of the majò jon (baton major) in Rara, and that is to perform short, choreographed dance routines for the amusement and honor of the person being singled out for salute. This year the Rara La Belle Fraicheur de L’Anglade had chosen three young teenagers to “play” (jwe) 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 indeed gave them the cool appearance of royalty. They executed a dance known as mazoun, for which the primary movement involves a graceful heel-toe dance like the start of a minuet. They were supposed to be performing in perfect unison, but they did not always achieve it and were prompted by some of the older kolonèl who were directing the action.
As the young kings were dancing, the priest’s family had come out into the Rara with 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 little sips of the liquor made their way through the crowd.
After the kings were through 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 red and white dress with horizontal pleats, and a straw hat. 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 predictable end of each phrase, she would perform the “Yas!–” pushing backward the pelvis. The more the drum slapped, the closer she got, until finally the kolonèe pushed her right against the body of the priest. At that point he passed her some money, which was quickly handed over to the trezorye the “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 with the musicians still playing and the women still singing. Filing out just as they had come in, the whole troupe walked onward through the glade towards the bright light of the sun. We would dance on for the rest of the day and well into the night. I would come to learn many names, hear many stories, and begin 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 would say over and over throughout the course of the next three weeks: “Rara has a lot within.”
(Excerpted from Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance. University of California Press, 2002, pp 29-30)
Rara season overlaps with Carnival season, and so Rara activity begins on January 6th, known on the Christian calendar as Epiphany. Rara bands usually parade as small carnival bands, and then continue to parade after Carnival, during Lent, until Easter. The “tone,” or “ambiance,” of Rara parading is loud and carnivalesque, and if you don’t know about the hidden, religious core of Rara, you’ll think that Rara is simply a matter of young people exhibiting their talent at singing and dancing in a boisterous, rebellious atmosphere. As in Carnival, Rara is about moving through the streets, and about men establishing (masculine) reputation through public performance. Rara bands stop to perform for noteworthy people, to collect money. In return, the kings and queens dance and sing, and the baton majors juggle batons-and even machetes! Rara costumes are known for their delicate sequin work, which flash and sparkle as the batons twirl. There is a lesser-known costume, too, of colorful streaming cloth hung over knickers and hanging from hats. The competitive music and dancing, the sequins, and the cloth strips are all echoes of festival arts in other parts of the Caribbean. In its orality, performative competition, and masculinity, Rara shares similar characteristics with other Black Atlantic performance traditions like Carnival, Junkanoo, Capoeria, Calypso, Blues, Jazz, New Orleans’ second-line parades and Black Indians’ parades, Reggae, Dance Hall, Hip-Hop and numerous other forms. Unlike many Afro-Creole masculinist forms, however, Rara is explicitly religious.
(Excerpted from chapter one of Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance. University of California Press, 2002.)