Notes from the Field
We arrived at the peristil, which was the Rara headquarters, after dark, around 8:00 in the evening. The musicians were assembling to watch one of the oungan (priest) draw a veve (ritual cornmeal drawing) on the ground in the yard outside the peristil doors. He deftly traced a pattern for the lwa Simbi Makaya, which measured about four feet. A helper held a candle so he could see, while people called back and forth to one another, organizing themselves for the ceremony and making jokes. (You can see this drawing ceremony in the video clip presented here)
After the veve was drawn, they all but obscured it by placing wood on top of it in preparation for a fire. The oungan turned and drew a second veve, this time for Met Kalfou. We could hear the banbou tones blow here and there like an orchestra tuning up. The air was heavy, with rain clouds hanging above us in the sky, the atmosphere of excitement before a storm. The oungan lit the fire and poured liberal amounts of cane liquor on it so that it would flare up. In this way the oungan both invoked (by drawing the veve ) and heated up (by lighting the fire) the mystical powers of Simbi Makaya and Met Kalfou, two of the Petwo-Bizango lwa with whom the band had an angajman, a contract. Next the oungan unwrapped a package at his feet to reveal a small mountain of rock salt. He threw huge handfuls of rock salt in the four cardinal directions and showered the remaining handfuls into the fire, which crackled and popped. Then he poured water and rum libations on the ground. Soon he signaled for the musicians, who assembled next to the fire and began to play for the spirits. (You can see this scene in the video presented here.)
(Excerpted from Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti. University of California Press, 2002, pp. 95-96. )
In my book, I argue that while Rara seems like a country Carnival, the festival consists of an outer, secular layer of Carnival “play,” that surrounds a protected, secret inner layer of religious “work.” Most Rara bands have a lwa (spirit) who serves as its patron in the Afro-Creole religion of Haiti (called Vodou). Often it is the spirit who has asked for the band to be formed, and the Rara is itself a gift to the spirit.
The inner core of Rara leaders is made up of leaders of Vodou societies. They are going about the business of performing serious ritual obligations to the lwa. Rara bands work to “heat up” and activate their instruments, and they perform ceremonies to the spirits. Then, the bands go out to salute important religious sites-graves of ancestors, and trees, rocks, and intersections where other inherited spirits are said to live.
The Rara spirits can sometimes be from the Rada branch, which is historically Dahomean and Yoruba. But most often, they belong to the Petwo branch, which is rooted in the Kongo civilization. The rituals, rhythms, colors, and dances of Rara are close to the Petwo and Kongo rites. The festival is a spiritually “hot” festival, and by necessity takes place mostly outdoors, and not inside the Temple itself. Occasionally, Rara bands will even go to the cemetery to ask permission to capture the spirits of the recently dead-called zombi-and bring them in the Rara to “heat up the band.” You can see this request in the short video clip here. This is a very complicated ritual, and calls for sensitive historical analysis that’s too much to reprint here. See Chapter Three of Rara! for a longer discussion.
(Excerpted from Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora. University of California Press, 2002, p. 31, 85-90. )