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

Elizabeth McAlister
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 277
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Rara is a vibrant annual street festival in Haiti, when followers of the Afro-Creole religion called Vodou march loudly into public space to take an active role in politics. Working deftly with highly original ethnographic material, Elizabeth McAlister shows how Rara bands harness the power of Vodou spirits and the recently dead to broadcast coded points of view with historical, gendered, and transnational dimensions.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92674-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustartions
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Guide to the Compact Disc Rara!
    (pp. xv-xix)
  6. Introducing Rara
    (pp. 1-23)

    Rara is the yearly festival in Haiti that, even more than Carnival, belongs to the so-called peasant classes and the urban poor. Beginning the moment Carnival ends, on the eve of Lent, and building for six weeks until Easter Week, Rara processions walk for miles through local territory, attracting fans and singing new and old songs. Bands stop traffic for hours to play music and perform rituals for Afro-Haitian deities at crossroads, bridges, and cemeteries. They are conducting the spiritual work that becomes necessary when the angels and saints, along with Jesus, disappear into the underworld on Good Friday. The...

  7. 1 Work and Play, Pleasure and Performance
    (pp. 25-57)

    Folklorist Harold Courlander, devoting a short section to the festival inThe Drum and the Hoe,wrote that “The general tone of Rara is nonreligious. The dancing is free from the decorous restraints which characterize most religious ritual, and some early observers of the festival were shocked by what they saw.”4Gerson Alexis wrote that “Rara is a public gathering whose purpose is the merriment of the rural counties and their surroundings.”5Verna Gillis remarks that “The Haitian, typically a religious person like the African, says prayers for protection before many kinds of activities. The recitation of prayers before rara,...

  8. 2 Vulgarity and the Politics of the Small Man
    (pp. 59-83)

    Part of Rara’s creativity as a form of West Indian “play” involves the bravado of sexual innuendo. Rara bands will usually launch Vodou prayer songs during their morning outings, but somewhere around mid-afternoon the cane liquor flows freely, and songs take on an irreverent vulgarity. The humor of innuendo not only is found in Rara lyrics but is firmly established in Haitian culture as a form of Kreyòl speech calledbetiz.Despite its wide usage by all classes in Haiti, Kreyòl sexual innuendo andbetizhave never been taken seriously as a category to be studied. I want to move...

  9. 3 Mystical Work: Spirits on Parade
    (pp. 85-111)

    Although the carnivalesque “play” values of Rara are important, Rara also can be a serious religious act required of committed members. Rara festivals are concerned with carrying out spirit work that is considered a matter of life and death within the community. There is a great deal of evidence that Rara is religious and that it comprises the Lenten season’s spiritual activities. During these six weeks,ounfò(religious houses) suspend ritual activity until after Easter, diverting their energies into Rara bands. As you will see from my descriptions of religious rituals later in this chapter, Rara can be understood as one...

  10. 4 Rara and “the Jew”: Premodern Anti-Judaism in Postmodern Haiti
    (pp. 113-133)

    So far I have talked about Rara bands’ engagement with the religious work demanded by the Afro-Creole spirits. But there is another level of mythology at work during Easter’s Holy Week in Haiti. Local dramas reenact the Christian ritual cycle of death and resurrection, and people play the roles of Jesus, Judas, and “the Jews.” During these dramatic rituals, it is evident that Haitian culture is heir to the anti-Judaism of medieval European popular thought. But it is not a clear-cut case of anti-Judaism (or anti–Semitism). Present-day Vodou practitioners manipulate inherited, demonized images of “the Jew” in both alarming...

  11. 5 Rara as Popular Army: Hierarchy, Militarism, and Warfare
    (pp. 135-157)

    This chapter examines the social organization of Rara bands in historical context, viewing them as a type of militarized traditional peasant organization that has frequently marched across the pages of Haitian history. These groups were (and are) traditional forms of popular organizing that political activists, especially liberation theology advocates, tapped in the recent efforts to gain political enfranchisement.² As selforganized peasant groups, they can be viewed as the prepolitical forerunners of the contemporary grassroots popular organizations that make up the democratic peasant movement.

    Rara hierarchy and organization reveal how the cultural practices of the Haitian popular classes display and draw...

  12. 6 Voices under Domination: Rara and the Politics of Insecurity
    (pp. 159-181)

    The first half of the 1990s, during which this study was undertaken, marked a politically volatile and hitherto unprecedented period in Haitian history. The Rara festival, with its large gatherings ofpèp-la(common people), interacted energetically with these historical events. The year 1990 saw the U.S.-sponsored, “first democratic elections” in Haiti. Elected by 67 percent of the vote, Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government marked the broadest involvement of the Haitian populace in the political process since the revolution of 1804. Ending six military juntas that had controlled Haiti since Jean-Claude Duvalier’s fall frompower, the elections ushered in a new period of hope...

  13. 7 Rara in New York City Transnational Popular Culture
    (pp. 183-208)

    Though there has been a significant Haitian population in New York for the last thirty years, an organized Rara had never been celebrated before 1990.¹ There had been moments of spontaneous Rara performance during political confrontations. Bursts of Rara singing and music erupted in Miami and New York at demonstrations against the Duvalier regime in the early 1980s and also during strikes involving Haitian labor groups. But the summer of 1990 saw something new: a full-blown Rara every Sunday, the same people returning each week to socialize, dance, and augment the singing. Only five years later, in 1995, four separate...

  14. Appendix: Chronology of Political Events, 1990–1995, ANNOTATED WITH TRANSNATIONAL RARA BAND ACTIVITY
    (pp. 209-212)
  15. Glossary
    (pp. 213-216)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 217-236)
  17. Sources
    (pp. 237-248)
  18. Index
    (pp. 249-259)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 260-260)