Thursday, April 2, 2015

Book & Article Excerpts Of African & Haitian Rara Sources Of Baton Twirling & Other Twirling Performances

Edited by Azizi Powell

Latest revision: August 30, 2018

This pancocojams post provides six excerpts from book chapters or online articles about the influence of the Kongo (Central African) culture and/or West African cultures and Haitian Rara celebrations on baton twirling and other twirling performances.

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, cultural, entertainment and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
This post was originally published in with the title "African Sources Of Baton Twirling & Other Twirling Performances".

This revised post included no videos.

These excerpts are presented in no particular order. The excerpts are numbered for referencing purposes only.

Excerpt #1
From Africanisms in American Culture edited by Dr. Joseph E. Halloway pp. 12-13
"Robert Farris Thompson's essay (chapter 10) contributes to our understanding of Africanisms found in African American aesthetics, revealing that the majority of African retentions in African American folk art are Bantu in origin. Thompson shows that the impact of the Kongo on African American culture contributed to the foundation of black American aesthetics and musical culture in the New World. The Kongo influence contributed to the rise of the national music of Brazil (the samba) and to one of the most sophisticated music forms in the United States (jazz).

Thompson demonstrates that Kongo influences are widespread.

...The African Haitian ritual dancing based on a dance form found in northern Kongo was adopted by the baton-twirling "major jonc" called rara. Its members twirl batons and strike a Kongo pose when confronting a rival group. it is hypothesized that in Mississippi. where many Kongo slaves resided, such groups had a major impact. Mississippi has become a world baton-twirling center".

Excerpt #2
From publisher Asar, 27 January 2012
"The book Africanisms in American Culture edited by Dr. Joseph E. Halloway documents some of the Africanisms that have survived in the Americas during and after the enslavement period. A good number of the surviving Africanisms that have survived are in the form of poses...

The most dramatic incursion of a Kongo gesture in Haiti is the reemergent biika mambu stance. This stance is frequently called telama lwimbanganga in Northern Kongo. This pose is identifiable as the left hand on the hip and the right hand forward. This became the drum majorette pose that gave way to baton twirling in the United States.

In Kongo, placing the left hand on the hip is believed to press down all evil, while the extended right hand acts to “vibrate” the future in a positive manner. Important women used this pose at dawn to “vibrate positively” the future of town warriors. Advocates used its power to block or end a lawsuit (Halloway 2005: 298). One will notice that this is the pose for the famous Supremes song, “Stop in the name of love.”

.... The telema stance has to do with power and mediating force (power grasped and evil contained).

Excerpt #3
From Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation, Volume 2 , edited by Thomas A. Green, Joseph R. Svinth, pp 45-46
"On Haiti the Rara parade is a pre-Lenten (Carnival) event. It features competing groups of singers and musicians playing homemade instruments. The content is typical of Carnival in general and the Caribbean varieties in particular. Each Rara band is led by a major jonc, also major jonk, majo jonk. The major jonc carries a baton known as a jonc. The jonc is 100 to 137 centimeters (39 to 54 inches) in length and is brandished and twirled much as a drum major twirls his baton in a military or collegiate marching band.

Like the musical instruments carried by the bandsmen, the jonc is supernaturally strengthened. In Haiti, the practice of supernaturally strengthening fighting sticks (mayombo), thereby giving the owners both protection and ability to defeat opponents has been documented as early as the eighteenth century (Debien 1972). The major jonc’s skill at twirling is believed to be related to his magical and fighting skills. Thus he is that figure that folklorist Roger Abrahams (1983, xvi), labeled “the man of action, the physical adept one”. Major jonc are in fact accomplished stick- fighters. Practical use of this talent may be tested, too, because when one of the bands encounters another, the conversation can move from verbal or musical duels to actual fighting.

According to Haitian folk history, the baton work that is acquired by Africans from the indigenous Tainos who used the stick as both a weapon and a dance prop. Nonetheless, the most convincing contemporary analysis of baton twirling both by major joncs and baton –twirlers in North American athletic events traces it to northern Kongo sources. (Thompson 2005, 298-299)

In some parts of Haiti, village competitions of wrestling (pinge’) were also held in connection with Rara. (Courlander 1985, 108)

The Haitian expression of African spirituality is Vodun(also Vodu and Vodou), whence comes the English word voodoo . The word comes from the Fon vodu (“spirit”). Vodun incorporates religious traditions from West and Central Africa...

Like Lucumi, Vodun has a warrior deity derived from the Yoruba orisha Ogun, who in Haiti is known as Ogou. As elsewhere, Ogou fights with a machete or sword. The devotee who is “ridden” (possessed by) Ogou the lwa during a Vodun rite takes up the machete dedicated to Ogou and performs an aggressive dance filled with chopping and stabbing movements, as in Lucumi, and also punches, kicks, grunts, and growls. (Daniel, 2005, 163). "

Excerpt #4
"In Haiti, rara is a kind of marching band festivity open to the public and observed mostly during the Christian Easter season. It is connected to Nago Egougoun society practices and to Kongo military tradition. Among the Nago people, the word rara means eulogy. An essential part of rara involves a walk to the cemetery, mazi, or lakou to pay respect and to eulogize former members of the rara. After paying respect to the Ancestors, the rara is viewed as having been fortified (chaje).

Nago tradition runs deep in rara and can be seen in the manner that the rara members dress. They often cover their entire bodies just as it has traditionally been done in Egougoun celebrations. Men can wear dresses and skirts because in Nago Egougoun celebrations, women were not allowed to participate but they could be represented by men. ...the clothing and hip movements of the baton twirlers is reminiscent of female role play in Egougoun, called Gougoun in Haiti. Today in Pestel Haiti, there is a kind of rara in which its male members always dress in female clothing.

In raras, like in Egougoun celebrations, one member carries a whip to ceremonially maintain order in the rara. In Haiti the whip used is the fwèt kach, a slave whip. It is cracked repeatedly in the air where it is said to be whipping zombies, a reminder of the suffering of our fore-parents who were once enslaved on the island."...

Excerpt #5
From "Rara as a Form Of Carnival"; Analysis - image of Rara in New York
"Rara season overlaps with Carnival season, and so Rara activity begins on January 6th, known on the Christian calendar as Epiphany. Rara bands usually parade as small carnival bands, and then continue to parade after Carnival, during Lent, until Easter. The "tone," or "ambiance," of Rara parading is loud and carnivalesque, and if you don't know about the hidden, religious core of Rara, you'll think that Rara is simply a matter of young people exhibiting their talent at singing and dancing in a boisterous, rebellious atmosphere. As in Carnival, Rara is about moving through the streets, and about men establishing (masculine) reputation through public performance. Rara bands stop to perform for noteworthy people, to collect money. In return, the kings and queens dance and sing, and the baton majors juggle batons-and even machetes! Rara costumes are known for their delicate sequin work, which flash and sparkle as the batons twirl. There is a lesser-known costume, too, of colorful streaming cloth hung over knickers and hanging from hats.

The competitive music and dancing, the sequins, and the cloth strips are all echoes of festival arts in other parts of the Caribbean. In its orality, performative competition, and masculinity, Rara shares similar characteristics with other Black Atlantic performance traditions like Carnival, Junkanoo, Capoeria, Calypso, Blues, Jazz, New Orleans' second-line parades and Black Indians' parades, Reggae, Dance Hall, Hip-Hop and numerous other forms. Unlike many Afro-Creole masculinist forms, however, Rara is explicitly religious.

(Excerpted from chapter one of Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance. University of California Press, 2002.)
This passage is reformatted by me to enhance its readability. Italics were added by me to highlight those words.

Example #6
From,3152804&hl=en [description of a competition of 200 drum majors and drum majorettes from six states, featuring Major C. W. Boothe from Chicago]; Milwaukee Journal August 7, 1946
“Boothe, a professional baton twirler and teacher for 55 years, has seen twirling grow from a minstrel show novelty to a natural enthusiasm shared by youth and adults...

Little Charlie Boothe was only 6 when he saw his first baton twirling. It was in Hannibal, Mo. A Negro performer in a minstrel show did the twirling and it so enchanted young Charlie that the boy followed him about town as long as the show stayed. When he left he began practicing the tricks in his back yard.

A year later he had mastered that performer’s comparatively simple routine and added many tricks of his own.

The lad practicing in his back yard didn’t know then-but his research has since taught him- that twirling began in Siam where spears where tossed and twirled in ceremonial dances. A recent news photograph showed natives of the Belgian Congo twirling small tree trunks. The familiar ball at the end of the baton was a bit of root. The baton familiar to American audiences was a British mace...”
The sentence that in one year a seven year old White boy surpassed a Black adult performer in the art and skill of baton twirling strikes me as a conclusion that was heavily influenced by racism. I believe the statement that "twirling began in Siam" also owes a lot to the racist attitude that credit for any accomplishment should be assigned to any race before acknowledging Black people.

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