Haitian Music: Rara
Haiti has a very interesting history of culture and religion. Currently, while Roman Catholicism is the official religion, Voodoo can be considered the national religion; about half of all Haitians practice it. This culture and religious history – and current practice – is essential in understanding one of the most important genres of music in Haiti; Rara. One of the most important aspects of Voodoo is the summoning of the Lwa, or spirits. This is done in a service and drumming is an essential part of this service because it provides music. Dancing is also a very important part of the service. These services involve nearly everyone through either the drumming or the dancing.
There are two different types of drumming rhythm patterns that are used depending on which sect of Voodoo one is involved with; Rada and Petwo.
Rada is the most common sect of Voodoo; it constitutes 95% of all practiced Voodoo. This is the Voodoo of the relatively peaceful lwa, like the family spirits.
Petwo is the type of Voodoo that westerners tend to think of; it is the Voodoo that involves pin dolls and black magic. In contrast to Rada, it is the Voodoo of the angry, mean and nasty lwa. During a Petwo service, dangerous things occur such as the procurement of sexual orgies and death curses.
The now Haitian people were once African slaves under the rule of the French. The Catholic Church wanted to abolish Voodoo, so when the French were occupying the island, up until 1804, Voodoo was forbidden. They would, however, allow occasional dance parties that were, unbeknownst to them, Voodoo services.
The African slaves revolted in 1804 and in doing so, they threw the Catholics out of the country by killing the ones who tried to stay. So, the Catholic Church left Haiti and did not return until 1860.
During the 56 years when the Catholic Church was not in the country, Voodoo amalgamated with Catholicism; most lwa were also known as Catholic saints – the snake lwa, Dumballah, is St. Patrick and the earth mother, Erzulie, is the Virgin Mary. Through this process, it came about that the Haitians feel that there is nothing wrong with practicing Voodoo alongside Christianity.
From 1860 to the late 1940s, the Catholics came back and fought against Voodoo. The worst of this Holy War was in 1942-43. In the early 1950s, the Catholic hierarchy decided to change their tactics. They decided that instead of fighting against Voodoo, they ought to work alongside them. Nowadays the Haitian Catholic Church incorporates some of the drum patterns and melodies from Voodoo. Thanks to this co-operation, there has been relative peace ever since.
The Protestant Church, on the other hand, did not start sending people as missionaries until the 1970s. The Protestant Church has a very different viewpoint; they see Voodoo as devil worship. Despite their contrast to the most common religion in Haiti, they still own 7 of 11 radio stations, and conversions to to Protestant Christianity. It is believed that about 15% of Haitians who identify with Christianity are Protestant.
So, how does Rara fit into this rich cultural and religious history? Rara is a season of what appears to be young people parading very loudly through the streets in an effort to show off their musical ability; it is more than that. As part of the Catholic/Voodoo amalgamation, Rara began to begin on Epiphany in the church calendar, and runs through until Easter. It is about men establishing a masculine reputation through performance while parading down the streets in a boisterous manner. It is also a way to collect money; they stop for “noteworthy” people and perform for money – much like buskers in North America. The performances include the wa and renn dancing and singing, the baton majors juggling batons, or possibly even machetes.
The costumes are known for the flash and sparkle they give when the batons twirl due to the amount of sequins and colors involved in...
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