The Music and Dance of Rara

Notes from the Field

Recording in the field is always difficult, but for Rara in Haiti there were serious challenges.  First of all, Rara is a moving parade, so equipment has to be easily portable and relatively unobtrusive so as not to intrude on the ritual atmosphere.  Recording while walking for miles, sometimes on uneven mountain paths, is a feat of focus and coordination.  Moreover, electricity is not regularly available for the majority of the population.  All equipment has to be battery operated, and this is most inexpensively done with rechargeable batteries.  One has to keep vigilant track of what battery power is left and where the next possible electrical recharge will be.  Aside from the regular tasks of fieldwork, then, our team had to forge alliances with “big men” who had inverters, generators, or electric power.  Wealthy Vodou societies, hotels and, ironically, supportive Catholic missions, became pit-stops as we walked and danced with the Raras.

Another challenge of recording Rara has to do with its constant movement and its parading form.  While the colonel is in front leading with whistle and whip, the drums, banbou, metal horns and percussion (scrapers, bells, etc.) walk in battalion-like waves, one group after the other, followed by the chorus. Because of this spatial configuration it is almost impossible to capture all of the music being produced in any one moment of performance.  It is particularly hard to record the instruments and chorus in a balanced fashion. In the best moments, I was able to enter inside a Rara and focus the mic on groups of musicians from the inside.  Track four is an example of this sort of recording.  Other good times to record were when Rara bands stand together to warm up before they set off on parade.  But the most realistic way to hear Rara music is from afar, coming closer, and then passing by, one wave at a time, and slowly fading into the distance.

A related challenge about Rara is that one is with a community in their moment, and there is always commotion.  People move around and jostle the mic, just when you perfect your levels and the performance reaches its height, a man in front of you always manages to shout loudly to his friend for a cigarette.  Sifting through the recordings to see what to publish always means rejecting some fabulous performances because of interruptions by one thing or another.

The recordings have had two related uses: firstly, I could play and replay them to make sense of aspects of the festival that I could not notice in the moment.  Working with Haitian colleagues, I transcribed each tape in order to analyze the lyrics and the music.  I was able to have conversations with other Haitian associates about the possible meanings of these songs, and to take them seriously as texts with both historical and contemporary valence.  Secondly, the tapes have been used in teaching.  Mixed down in the recording studio to discrete tracks, I produced several albums—including the one tracks presented here—so that others can better understand the music.

(Excerpted from Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance. University of California Press, 2002.  pp 20-23)



Rara bands can be simple or complex.  On one hand you have a capella  (voice only) charyio-pye or “foot bands.” These bands stomp the feet in a marching rhythm that creates the tempo of the song. (Hear this on track 12). At the other end of the spectrum are the Rara bands in Leogane that achieve national reputations by employing brass musicians from konpa (popular dance) bands.  These bands produce catchy melodies at a high volume that can be heard far away. (Hear this on track 18)

The typical Rara orchestra consists of three drums followed by three or more bamboo instruments called banbou or vaksin, some metal horns called konet, and then several waves of percussion players with small, hand-held instruments, and finally a chorus of singers.  Also there is usually a core group of performers–either majò jon (baton majors), or wa and renn (kings and queens) who dance for contributions.

The drums played in Rara are almost always goatskin drums in the Petwo family.  These drums are strung with cord and tuned by adjusting small pegs in the interlaced cords along the drum body.  The Rara drums must be portable for Rara and must be light enough to carry for miles of walking and playing.  So the manman, segon, and kata of Petwo ceremonial drumming are replaced by a more portable ensemble of manman, kata, and bas.  The first two are single-headed drums, strapped to the body by a cord across the shoulder. A kès (a double-headed goatskin drum played with two sticks) can be used as the kata.  The bas is a hand-held round wooden frame with goatskin stretched across the top and interlacing tuning cords creating a web along the inside of the drum.

The banbou, or vaksin, are the instruments most immediately associated with Rara music. They are hollowed-out bamboo tubes with a mouthpiece fashioned at one end.  Each banbou is cut shorter or longer so as to produce a higher or lower tone:  bas banbou is long and gives a bass sound, and charlemagne banbou is short and is pitched high.  Other tones fall in the middle. Each player takes the instrument and blows a tone and together the group of vaksin players improvise until they find a pleasing, catchy short riff, each player blowing at a certain point to create a melody in a hocketing technique.  To help their timing, the vaksin players beat a kata part on the bamboo with a long stick, making the instrument both melodic and percussive.

For more information, read Chapter 1 of my book on Rara. (Excerpted from Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance. University of California Press, 2002, pp. 45-46.)