In Haiti, rara is a kind of marching band celebration 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).
Commonly each rara group perform annually for 7 consecutive years in honor of a distant Ancestor, called a Lwa. The 7 year period is obligatory and is called angajman. Since crossroads are symbolic of the intersection of our world with that of the Ancestors, members of rara groups perform special dances at each crossroad along their route.
Nago tradition runs deep in rara and can be seen in the manner that rara members dress. They often cover their entire bodies just like it was 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. In the attached video, the clothing and hip movements of the baton twirlers is reminiscent of female role playing in Egougoun, called Gougoun in Haiti. Today in Pestel Haiti, there is a kind of rara in which male members always dress in female clothing.
In rara, as in Egougoun celebrations, one member carries a whip to ceremonially maintain order in the rara. In Haiti, the whip 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.
In Haiti, rara maintains its African roots but the time of the celebration got to be determined by Christian tradition. Rara is celebrated during Easter because many European Christian colonists and subsequent Haitian Christian rulers would only accept celebrations that marked the death of only one ancestor - Jesus Christ. Since Christ is remembered as a good person, marking the death of such a person was not offensive to Africans and to their descendants and so Easter became the date for the final rara celebration. Rara season extends from Carnival to Easter. Its long duration is similar to Egougoun celebrations which lasted for several weeks.
Rara is not unique to Haiti. It used to take place all over the Americas, wherever there were people of African descent. Often the names given to these celebrations were derived from various kinds of Nago Egougoun celebrations. In the English speaking Caribbean, rara was called Junkanou. That name is likely derived from a Nago Egougoun celebration called Jandoukou. In the United States, rara gave rise to the marching band music of Louisiana which later fused with African American spirituals to become Jazz. The traditional instruments used in Jazz and in the marching bands of Louisiana are related to those used in rara. These instruments include horns and various percussive instruments. In Africa, horns of large animals were used as instruments but lacking those animals in Haiti, horns were fabricated from metal sheets. The drum used in rara is the Kongo drum called congas. Owning to African influence, the congas drum is an essential component of the rhythm section of popular music throughout the Americas. When U.S. southerners moved to the north, US rara celebrations became block parties. For a long time, one manner in which people danced in block parties was called the Kongo Grind.
Another Kongo element of rara is its military structure. Nearly 50% of the people in Haiti at the time of the Haitian Revolution were from the Kongo. Many of these people were Kongolese war veterans who used to rehearse their technique in hand to hand combat with music accompaniment. The military tactics and structures used at the time of the Haitian Revolution came directly from these African army veterans, particularly those from the Kongo.
In Haiti, military activity is reported to have been coordinated between distant groups by the blowing of a conch shell. In the Kongo, elaborated whistles were used for this purpose. Today in rara, when the whistle is blown, the people in the rara change dancing steps in a ceremonial replay of change in military tactics. The whistle is often carried by the Majò Jon (Major of the baton) who twirls a baton or a machete in an artistic display of his mastery of instruments of war. It is indeed because rara has a military structure that the song above refers to the rara as an army division. Its members carry such titles as Wa, Rèn, Kòmandan, Aryè Gad, Majò Jon, Pòt Drapo meaning King, Queen, Commander, Rear Guard, Major of the baton, and Flag Bearer.
Rara organizations represent some of the oldest institutions in Haiti. One rara in Leogane is older than 150 years. Yoland Gilles who is 84 years old, informed us that Rara Lavalas in Pestel, Haiti predates his birth. Rara is rooted in the history of the country and is filled with religious and military lore from that history.