Notes from the Field
On a bright summer Sunday in the 1990s, in New York City, hundreds of Haitians have gathered in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for an informal afternoon. A core group of young men is walking down the park road, playing drums and blowing bamboo tubes, and hundreds of people are dancing after them, singing, drinking, and trying to have a good time. On everyone’s mind is the political violence in Haiti. Poor neighborhoods are targeted for brutal beatings, and everyone here has a family member who is missing, hungry, or sick. A song goes up in the crowd: Ogou Badagri, what are you doing? I’m already a warrior, I couldn’t sleep.” Some of the people singing and dancing here are stuck in New York on unplanned extensions of vacation or business trips because a multinational embargo has sealed off Haiti to passenger travel. They are waiting out the situation” as best they can, mingling with people at a sort of gathering they might have seen only years ago in Haiti. Some wear dreadlocks, sport Malcolm X t-shirts, or carry straw djakout bags over their shoulders, peasant style.
What was this festival? Where did it come from? What was it doing here? The dancing crowds numbered in the hundreds. Young Haitian women stood by, wondering how far to get into singing the betiz that were starting to fly. Older ladies wheeled babies in strollers alongside the parade. This event was free, outdoors, and easy to find. I could tell that for them it felt, smelled, and sounded like home.
There was a lot going on – it looked like Carnival, but it also felt like Vodou. Speaking to the people present, I learned that many did not know a great deal about the history of this parade or its relationship to Vodou, but they nevertheless valued it enormously. The musicians were more knowledgeable – they told me it was a mystical festival, a dangerous festival, and, in Haiti, an old festival. This encounter, minutes from my apartment in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, was my first experience of Rara. Before that moment, I had barely heard of the festival. As I began to mill around and get a sense of the scene, I saw that this festival, and the experience of immersing themselves in it in New York, was a precious, emotionally charged celebration for the young men who were its performers. They were throwing themselves into the music and losing themselves, as in a Vodou dance. It seemed like a sense of community solidarity took form in the bodily experience of performing Rara in New York. Seeing all this led me to Haiti to research the present study on the meanings and uses of Rara.
(Excerpted from Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance. University of California Press, 2002, Introduction and Chapter Seven.)
The people who gather each week have extended Haiti’s grassroots popular culture onto their local U.S. terrain. The bands created entirely new lyrics to speak of the New York experience, and these new songs were carried to families and circulated in neighborhoods after the Rara. Today, Rara in New York has come to express a point of view about the Haitian immigrant predicament.
Rara performance, with its roots firmly in Haiti, now has a role in a wider transnational Black Atlantic popular culture. Performance and attendance at Rara festivals takes place as Haitian people move back and forth between home villages in Haiti and points in the United States. A song created in Leogane could be sung in Brooklyn a week later, creating a deterritorialized popular Haitian discourse that allowed traditional knowledge rooted in peasant culture, now inflected with the diaspora experience, to circulate internationally throughout many Haitian social spheres.
A Rara band from Brooklyn plays each year for Saint Jerome’s Feast at the monastery in Graymoor, New York. In New York City, Rara bands have paraded in protest demonstrations, singing songs and voicing political opinion. Rara bands gathered when Aristide was ousted in 1991, and again to sing and protest during demonstrations against the New York police’s brutality in three cases involving African and Haitian men: Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, and Patrick Dorismond. There are debates in the Haitian community about whether Rara-with its boisterous, loud, sometimes joyful performance ethos-belongs in a political protest that’s denouncing something horrible and tragic. Will the TV news cameras make the crowd seem like they are celebrating? Should political demonstrators instead sing Protestant hymns, as in the Civil Rights movement? These questions are still being worked out among Haitians in the various communities in the U.S.
Rara music and performance are in dialogue with the Haitian branches of dance-hall and hip-hop culture (that include Wyclef Jean, Bigga Haitian, King Posse, and Original Rap Stars). But as a particularly Haitian genre that large groups parade in public, Rara occupies a singular space that has unique possibilities for communication and performance.
(Excerpted from Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance. University of California Press, 2002, Chapter Seven.)