Rara and Politics

Notes from the Field

One Rara band that I often followed in downtown Port-au-Prince started the evening with a religious ritual that activated the spirits and asked them to work on behalf of the band. The band members gathered around a small bonfire outside the Vodou temple that was their base. They knelt over a rope and a rock, using techniques of travay maji (magical work) to “tie up” the other neighborhood Rara bands who were their competitors. As they sang songs to the spirits, the band members one by one bathed their torsos and heads in a special infusion of medicinal leaves. This instructed the spirits to afford them protection against spirits working for other bands, as well as against any physical violence.

After the ceremony, we danced into the streets as the band played a song for Ogou, the lwa (spirit) of militarism and discipline. The song was a common one, straight out of the Port-au-Prince Vodou repertoire and easily recognizable. We were having a good time, moving quickly, and I felt the exhilaration of taking over the streets of the capital with sound and bodies in motion. Dancing a lively twostep down the middle of the street, I felt that we owned the air itself. The bamboo horns electrified the black night of the unlit city with sparks of sound. The band was moving through one of the most central, most crowded areas of the city, an area that was a stronghold of support for President Aristide, who had been ousted in the coup d’etat. “Ogou Badagri, what are you doing?” roared the crowd’s song.

Then several things happened at once. The tune changed abruptly: “Marie, where did you go? I have nowhere to put my big dick.” All of a sudden the Rara band was singing a betiz song, a vulgar ditty out of last month’s Carnival. Phenel, my field assistant, yelled to me, “Liza, Babylon is here,” using the term that the downtown street culture had picked up from the Rastafari movement to signify the military or their atache agents. Sure enough, a military atache stepped from behind a pillar to confront the revelers. As Phenel grabbed me by the shoulders and took us both down to the pavement, the atache open-fired on the entire Rara band with a semiautomatic rifle. Either the protective baths were working, or the atache intended simply to frighten us, because nobody was hit. After a brief panic, the band was up and streaming down a side street away from “Babylon.”

Moments later, everyone paused to rest and drink kleren (cane liquor). “What was that?” I panted to Phenel as we swigged liberally from the liquor bottle that passed our way. The cold heat of the raw, fermented cane helped calm our nerves. As he lit a cigarette, Phenel’s eyes met mine in the brief glow of match-light. “That militaire didn’t like us singing for Ogou,” he replied in a low voice. “Ogou stands for the army, you know, so to them, any song for Ogou could be talking bad about the military. The songleader tried to switch to betiz, but it was too late.” My mind raced with questions, but the music started up again. Despite having a close call with a spray of bullets, the band set off down the narrow streets of Port-au-Prince, merrily singing the vulgar songs of Carnival.

(Excerpted from Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti. University of California Press, 2002, pp. 28-29.)



Rara bands are thought of, in a way, as the military branch of a particular Vodou society or Sanpwel secret society. So besides being carnival bands, they are also armies out on manoevers, and they are competing with other Rara bands that might be in the area. The Rara bands are very hierarchical, and have Presidents, Colonels, Majors, Capitans, and other military ranks. Rara bands probably harken back to eighteenth-century peasant armies, which had marching bands accompany them.

So within and between bands, there are lots of levels of power politics. Then there are also the politics created by insecurity. The conditions in Haiti during the twentieth century have occasioned multiple insecurities resulting from many causes: land erosion, massive migration, unemployment, poverty, famine, dictatorships, coups d’etat, and foreign invasions. It is on a shifting and violent stage that Rara bands leave their home compounds and enter public space.

The political economy of violence in Haiti has been devastating to that country. As an anthropologist, I was in a position to write about everyday life under the repression of the coup, and the cultural changes that accompanied it. Looking at Rara was a way to see beyond the strict politics of coups, sanctions, and troops and considers the religion and expressive politics of the poor: what it was possible to say in public, and how it was possible to say it.

Through their song lyrics, Rara bands make musical points about sexual mores, politics within the local community, and about the national situation. Rara bands operate primarily within local power networks, performing religious work, yet there are times when the Rara festival intersects with state power in the arena of national politics. Rara members can become overtly political actors on the national stage and use their strength in numbers to minimize the risk of broadcasting political opinions they cannot otherwise voice. As stylized performances of the peasant armies of previous eras, Rara both creates popular solidarity and conveys cognitive messages to the dominant classes of the strength and power of the disenfranchised.

Within this expressive politics, the significance and connotations of words and phrases are manipulated in a constant process of change. Meanings and their referents can and do shift quickly and unpredictably. When Rara bands move in large numbers through public thoroughfares singing about current events, they open up a social space for popular expression.

I argue that Rara creates a semiautonomous stage for discourse under conditions of insecurity. Insecurity applies to a range of social relations, from terror to other less dramatic factors such as political coercion, discrimination, or unemployment. In New York, Rara bands speak about the politics of racism, of inter-Caribbean relations, and of the experience of migration. Often enough, in Haiti and New York, Rara bands take to the streets in explicit protests. Their massive numbers of people singing their opinions really do form a powerful force. But until those numbers of people can mobilize on the political stage for an agenda of full political rights, the politics of Rara will remain more in the realm of the expressive, performative, and theatrical.

(Excerpted from Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti. University of California Press, 2002, Chapters 5 and 6.)