Friday, August 31, 2018

Information About Haitian Rara Processions & Haitian Vodou

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides information about and videos of Haitian Rara with particular attention to twirling batons or canes during Rara processions. 

This post also includes information about Haitian vodou, an excerpt from the Wikipedia page about Haitian rara, and an excerpt from a university paper by Howard Culbertson about a Haitian rara parade that he observed in 1988.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to all those who are featured in these videos and all publishers of these videos on YouTube.

Click for the pancocojams post entitled "Book & Article Excerpts Of African & Haitian Rara Sources Of Baton Twirling & Other Twirling Performances".

PANCOCOJAMS EDITOR'S COMMENT [revised September 6, 2018]
My interest in this subject was recently whetted by reading several comments in discussion threads for historically (predominately) Black Greek letter organizations [BGLO} that stepping, the custom of carrying canes (or staffs) and cane tapping/cane twirling during step performances came from African cultures.

My position is that African cultures weren't the direct source for BGLO stepping with or without carrying canes. That is to say, I don't believe that stepping was created as a result of historically Black Greek letter fraternities and sororities learning about or being taught one or more forms of African dance such as South African gumboot dancing. Stepping is a performance art that has evolved over time and continues to change within different organizations and different chapters and regions of those organizations.

For instance, what is now called stepping has changed since I first pledged a historically Black Greek letter organization in 1967 (Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Gamma Zeta chapter). I don't recall ever using the term "stepping" or hearing that term used, but I do recall doing a dance routine in a vertical line and/or a horizontal line while singing adapted R&B songs that praised that organization.

That said, I believe that certain African dance forms -such as South African gumboot dancing- may have eventually influenced the performance BGLO stepping, but that performance style was probably influenced more by American military drills and Black drum major parade stances. It's obvious that some elements of certain African dance forms are quite similar to stepping, but I think that this can be attributed to the similar aesthetic preferences of Africans and of African Americans and other people in the African Diaspora.

More specifically, while it's true that a number of African ethnic groups have traditional dances that are performed with men and women holding sticks*, I believe that customs of tapping and/or twirling canes that are part of the stepping routines of certain historically Black Greek letter organizations [particularly Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., and Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.] can be more directly attributed to Haitian rara cane twirling customs, New Orleans (and other) African American parade traditions, and heavily African American influenced soft shoe and/or tap dancing with a cane performances.

*Some examples of African ethnic groups who have dances holding sticks are South Africans' Xhosa, Zulu, and Mpondo.
I hold this opinion in spite of comments from some members of some BGLO organizations that stepping and/or strolling came from African cultures, and that stepping and/or strolling came from Africans who became members of their organizations.

Click a pancocojams post entitled Was South African Gumboot Dancing REALLY The Main Source Of The Movements For Historically Black Greek Letter Fraternity & Sorority Stepping?

Also, click for the pancocojams post "Similarities & Differences Between South African Gumboot Dance Performances & Performances Of Black [African American] Fraternity & Sorority Step Teams"

Haitian Vodou[1][2][3] (/ˈvoʊduː/, French: [vodu], also written as Vaudou /ˈvoʊduː/;[4][5] known commonly as Voodoo[6][7] /ˈvuːduː/, sometimes as Vodun[8][9] /ˈvoʊduː/, Vodoun[8][10] /ˈvoʊduːn/, Vodu[6] /ˈvoʊduː/, or Vaudoux[6] /ˈvoʊduː/) is a syncretic[11] religion practiced chiefly in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. Practitioners are called "vodouists" (French: vodouisants [voduizɑ̃]) or "servants of the spirits" (Haitian Creole: sèvitè).[12]

Vodouists believe in a distant and unknowable Supreme Creator, Bondye (derived from the French term Bon Dieu, meaning "good God"). According to Vodouists, Bondye does not intercede in human affairs, and thus they direct their worship toward spirits subservient to Bondye, called loa.[13] Every loa is responsible for a particular aspect of life, with the dynamic and changing personalities of each loa reflecting the many possibilities inherent to the aspects of life over which they preside.[14] To navigate daily life, vodouists cultivate personal relationships with the loa through the presentation of offerings, the creation of personal altars and devotional objects, and participation in elaborate ceremonies of music, dance, and spirit possession.[15]

Vodou originated in Benin Republic and developed in the French colonial empire in the 18th century among West African peoples who were enslaved, when African religious practice was actively suppressed, and enslaved Africans were forced to convert to Christianity.[16][17] Religious practices of contemporary Vodou are descended from, and closely related to, West African Vodun as practiced by the Fon and Ewe. Vodou also incorporates elements and symbolism from other African peoples including the Yoruba and Kongo; as well as Taíno religious beliefs, Roman Catholicism, and European spirituality including mysticism and other influences.[18]

In Haiti, some Roman Catholics combine their faith with aspects of Vodou. This practice is denounced as diabolical by virtually all Haitian Protestants.[19]"...

"Rara is a form of festival music that originated in Haiti, that is used for street processions, typically during Easter Week. The music centers on a set of cylindrical bamboo trumpets called vaccine, but also features drums, maracas, güiras or güiros (a percussion instrument), and metal bells, as well as sometimes also cylindrical metal trumpets which are made from recycled metal, often coffee cans. The vaccine perform repeating patterns in hocket and often strike their instruments rhythmically with a stick while blowing into them. In the modern day, standard trumpets and saxophones may also be used. The genre though predominantly Afro-based has some Taino Amerindian elements to it such as the use of güiros and maracas.

The songs are always performed in Haitian Creole and typically celebrate the African ancestry of the Afro-Haitian masses.


Rara performances are often performed while marching and are often accompanied by twirlers employing metal batons. Performances generally begin on Ash Wednesday and culminate at Easter Weekend."...

..." It was about 9 a.m. Sunday morning, March 6, 1988. I was on the edge of Haiti's National Highway No. 1 just south of the port city of Gonaives.
I was watching a rara band, an all-night dancing parade which slowly move through villages and towns in southern and central Haiti from Mardi Gras to Easter (that is, the entire Lenten season). Some elements of these parades resemble the giant Mardi Gras celebrations of New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro and Haiti's capital city of Port-au-Prince. It is, in fact, referred to as the Carnival (or the French phrase Mardi Gras which we use in English) parade of the rural Haitian peasant.

This particular rara which I was observing closeup had stopped to circle repeatedly in front of a cluster of houses in the Trou Sable suburb of Gonaives. Although participants in these parades will put on elaborate costumes (elaborate at least for a rural peasant living on a subsistence income), most of the 50-plus participants in this particular rara were dressed in normal clothing. The leader of the group appeared to be a man with a long whip. He also had a whistle of the type used by traffic policemen and sports referees. He occasionally tried to crack the whip (with limited success) and blew the whistle in short blasts in time with a rhythmic beat coming from the small "orchestra." I was later told that the whip was used to disperse unfriendly spirits, including those who might have been purposely left by other, rival rara groups.

Eight to ten members of the group were musicians carrying bamboo tubes, drums and homemade horns or trumpets. The bamboo tubes were two to three feet long, perhaps three inches in diameter and were used to produce a low-pitched, fog-horn type sound. The drums were homemade, hollowed-out logs with animal, skin covers held taut with pegs. The horns were made from sheet metal and resembled funnels with extended necks. These musicians were grouped together in front of the slowly moving group. They beat the drums and blew on their horns and bamboo tubes in a monotonous (to me at least) rhythmic beat. During the time that I observed the group there was no singing or chanting. Most of the group shuffled along with the beat while a few went into writhing dances as they circled and circled, kicking up dust. When they eventually went off down the road toward Gonaives, they marched along in the same manner and a speed of perhaps not more than one mile per hour.

The rara groups are definitely tied to voodoo. The parades are almost always organized by a voodoo priest/shaman. There is a definite structure to each group which will hold several parades during the Lenten season. In addition to the voodoo priest, there will be an orchestra leader, traffic control people, and even a treasurer. Getting into therara band orchestra requires an audition.

In the group that I observed there was no sign of spirit possessions or other phenomena associated with voodoo. In fact, I was told that possession experiences are discouraged during rara parades.

I was told that the rara groups often sing songs which have more to do with local gossip than with religious themes. Often the group will be asked by someone to make up a song ridiculing that person's enemy. In return, the person making the request is expected to give money to the rara group. An adulterous wife or husband will sometimes be the object of a song.

Christians do not participate in the rara bands. Nor do these bands normally stop in front of Christians' homes. In some areas they are even respectful of church congregations, keeping noise to a minimum as they pass in front of their buildings. In other areas they seem to delight in disturbing church services.

Although the parades may occur anytime, most are organized beginning Saturday evening and run to early Sunday morning. The particular group I observed was undoubtedly in its last few minutes of life. Each rara group is supposed to return to its departure point before disbanding."...

Example #1: Example #1: Rara de Leogane (extrait)
embedding disabled upon request

jfchalut, Published on Jan 5, 2011

Chaque année durant la Semaine sainte, Léogane devient le siège d'une compétition pour déterminer le meilleur rara de la région. Ce film relate le parcours mystique des différents raras depuis le Vendredi Saint jusqu'au Lundi de Pâques (Sainte Colette), Le houngan Louisant Ferdinand nous explique la place du Vodou dans le rara, le rôle des participants et l'esprit de compétition qui les anime.
Google translate from French to English:
"Every year during Holy Week, Leogane becomes the seat of a competition to determine the best rara of the region. This film tells the mystical journey of different raras from Good Friday to Easter Monday (Saint Colette), The houngan Louisant Ferdinand explains the place of the Vodou in the rara, the role of the participants and the spirit of competition that animates."
"houngan" = vodou priest

This is an excerpt of 30 minute video Rara de Leogane []. Like the longer video, the beginning scene shows a major jonc twirling a baton.
Like numerous African cultures, Haiti also has a martial arts tradition of stick fighting. Click for a video of Haitian stick fighting.

Example #2: July 2, 2018 *

Group K-dja Ginen Alisma, Published on Jul 3, 2018
* This is the video's title. My description of the video is "Haitian women dancing with long canes as part of voodoo ceremony."

If you know any information about this dance, please share it in the comment section below. Thanks.

Click for a pancocojams post on "Stand Battle & The Changing Meaning of "majorettes" Among African Americans.

Also, click For Part I of this series, click for Part I of a three part series on Cane (Kane) Performances in Historically Black Greek Letter Organizations.

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