Saturday, January 20, 2007

Book Review: Rara!

Rara: Vodou, Power and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora

Elizabeth McAlister

Unviersity of California Press, 2002


by Sara Bruya
(c) 2006

Elizabeth McAlister began her research into the historical roots of Rara after her encounter with a related festival in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY. What she discovered, and what the reader discovers in reverse throughout her book, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora, is that the manifestation of Rara elements in the Haitian immigrant population in NYC is another phenomenon entirely—one that draws on nostalgic elements of immigrants’ home culture to assert a national and ethnic identity in a foreign land.

McAlister explains that “Rara in New York has come to express a point of view about the Haitian immigrant predicament,” (185) and is not a genuine reproduction of Haitian Rara with its religious and contractual obligations to the lwa and relationships with zonbi, which McAlister describes throughout most of the book. Rara has rather been adopted by an emerging razin (roots) movement in the U.S. to forge a particular diasporic identity rooted in the culture of the homeland, with proud reference to traditional African culture. “In the New York setting,” McAlister writes, “Rara gatherings create an in-between world that is not the Haitian countryside but is also not typical of metropolitan New York.” (196) The manifestations of elements of Rara in America display many characterizations of ‘invented tradition:’ “a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.” (196)

It is this “past” that McAlister set out to uncover through several years of research into the practices of Haitian Rara bands in the early 1990s, during very turbulent political times. This short paper will provide an overview of McAlister’s research and an attempt to define and summarize the many functions of the Rara festival performance. In the simplest of terms, Rara is a moving community festival that invites the observer to become a participant. It is a performance of music, singing and dance in which the distinction between audience and performer is blurred. (6) “Rara members come together in a group with the sense that they are bound in a common adventure, a common mission,” McAlister writes. “Part of the mission is for the group to build its spiritual and physical stamina.” (40)

Rara performances serve many other purposes and function on multiple levels at once. On the political level, Rara functions as a subversive tool for political commentary where no other opportunity for dissent exists. On the religious level, Rara rituals fulfill mystical contracts, salute sacred places, and pay tribute to the recently dead. (7) On the local, societal level, Rara “can be seen as a traditionally sanctioned negotiation of power and status between classes… Rara groups align themselves with local notables through a performance of loyalty and homage but at the same time make a monetary demand, asserting the ideal of responsibility on the part of the more powerful.” (52) McAlister asserts that “in a country with low ‘professional’ employment and a low literacy rate, [association with a Rara band] is a major form of social capital.” (34) In addition, Raras serve as a forum for male empowerment, according to McAlister, in a society in which life is organized in terms of gendered spheres where women control the household. (89)

In all of its various forms and levels of meaning, Rara constitutes the religion and expressive politics of the poor. (13) As such, Rara performances, festivals, parades are characterized by the ability to innovate quickly in the style and content of their songs and to move from one to another of these levels of meaning subtly and suddenly in response to ever-changing social and political circumstances. According to McAlister, “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 compounds and enter public space.” (161) Living with such impermanent political structures, financial institutions and unstable social ties, the content, meanings and styles of Rara performances can shift quickly and unpredictably.

Lyrics which critique national politics, for example, can be quickly disguised as a local anecdote through the clever use of metaphor and double entendre. “Voye pwen is a Hatian Kreyol technique used in Vodou, in all levels of politics, and in Rara. It involves speaking about something in metaphor, using great innuendo.” (42) Using this method, Rara bands make musical points about the national situation, sexual mores, and politics within the local community. (43) For example, ‘whores’ can represent undesirable exploiters—politicians, lawyers, thieves, or con-men. A Rara song about whores can be read as a critique of politicians, coup leaders, and corrupt nationalists who would keep the government from majority rule. (67)

In this way, the Rara festival provides an important forum for political commentary, representing a kind of subversive outspokenness in a society in which direct political commentary can be treasonous. (61) However, as McAlister explains, “As large groups of lower class people going down the roads making noise, Raras convey a message of sheer physicality, a reminder that the peasants are in the majority in Haiti. A crowd of hundreds of peasant-class or urban-poor bodies ‘unsupervised’ by the ruling class, Rara is inherently threatening to dominant class sensibilities.” (178)

Another threat to the status quo of the Haitian elite is the use of betiz songs and vulgarity in general in Rara peformance. As McAlister explains, these open a philosophical space for opposition and a rejection of the suffering of the world through laughter. She also wants to link such vulgarity with power, suggesting with M. M. Bakhtin that “…popular displays of vulgarity are parodies that undermine dominant culture by exposing its absurdity.” (78) The use of vulgarity and the suggestion of amoral behavior can be seen as a metaphorical revolt against law and order; an undermining of consensual standards of decency. (64) In particular, “lyrics dealing with women, money and sexuality may reflect a discursive revolt on the part of this disenfranchised, relatively powerless male against the classed and gendered structure of Haitian society.” (67) In addition, such vulgarity in Rara festivals can be viewed as a parody of the Church and a rebellion against the bourgeois Catholic construction of the body, sexuality and decorum.

In line with this “anti-Christian” sentiment is the adoption of the identity of “the Jew” as it has been constructed long ago by medieval Europe. McAlister claims that many of the negative images of Vodou and Rara held by the Haitian elite and the ‘West’ in general are drawn from Europe’s demonization of the Jews. (113) “As figures to be manipulated, demonized, or embraced, the Jews were marked as the original ‘Other’ of Europe, the very first object of projection, marginalization, and demonization of Christendom.” (114) The Rara tradition has internalized and adopted this characterization of itself as anti-Christian, and many Rara members actually believe that their tradition was originally a Jewish one. (126)

On its most fundamental level, McAlister argues, Rara performance and the identity of its members is based in religious ritual. Rara bands are initially formed in one of two ways. A band is formed either by the specific request of a lwa (the band’s guiding deity or spirit) or is reclaimed by a lwa, and is under contract to such spirit for a period of seven years. (35-36) As such, “the Rara leadership has a very serious agenda that consists of attending to the spiritual work of the band…[it deals with] the important matters of fulfilling spiritual contracts, performing rituals for the lwa along the route of the band, waging war on other Raras, and last but not least, collecting money.” (33)

For the spiritual work of the Rara, the cemetery is the most important and central site. It is considered to be the dwelling place of the spirits of the recent dead, “as well as the higher-ranking spirits who ‘own,’ guard, and direct the dead.” (91) Rara rituals focus on the act of capturing zonbi, or the spirits of the recently dead who are subsequently owned by a ‘master’—in this case, the Rara band—and obliged to work. According to McAlister, the figure of the zonbi is an allegory for the condition of slavery and servitude that has characterized the history and present-day life of the majority of Haitians. (103) “This time, it is the descendants of the former slaves who control slavery by themselves enslaving sprits as mystical helpers.” (109) Rara bands visit cemeteries to conduct mystical negotiations and make contracts with these entities in order to infuse the band with magical force. McAlister explains that “this principle of infusing a group with supernatural energy is common to many African-based religions, where practitioners bring spiritual power from outside the boundaries of society to use for their benefit.” (87)

Despite, or in addition to, its religious dimension, “Rara’s symbols and social organization reveal it to be one of the most militarized arenas of popular religious culture.” (139) Rara bands participate in ongoing spiritual and sometimes physical warfare or competition with each other. They set magical traps for other bands, sabotage each other through kidnapping or stealing of instruments or the other band’s flag. The ultimate victory is to stop the music and dancing of the other band and to attract the defeated band’s followers and audience. This can sometimes lead to physical violence and death, but is most often carried out on a mystical level in attempts to spiritually weaken opponents. The bòkò (secret society leaders) or the oungan of each band are responsible for preparing magical powders (poud), toxins and antidotes for inflicting magic on opposing bands and for treating the spiritual or physical wounds received from enemies.

Thus, in addition to performing their own spiritual work, “Rara bands are organized local groups with formal ranks, costumes, and rituals, and they conceive of themselves as armies connected to imaginary states that move through territory, carry out armed maneuvers, and conduct diplomatic relations with other groups in the process of their musical celebrations.” (147-8)

In conclusion, Rara has been characterized as a ritual enactment of life itself and an affirmation of life’s difficulties. In particular, it seems to be a direct response to the oppressive realities experienced by the popular classes. As McAlister writes, “ …the history of oppression in Haiti has produced a sense of alienation and mistrust expressed in Vodou songs through the tension of ‘us against them.’” (171) This “us/them” dynamic is palpable on all levels on which the Rara performance functions in society—whether political, social, or religious—and is even apparent in its more recent manifestations among the NYC immigrant population. McAlister’s survey of the Rara tradition is a very thorough and enlightening introduction to this performative element of Vodou culture and the complex levels of meaning it embodies and expresses.


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