Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora
By Elizabeth McAlister
University of California Press 2002
I cannot count how many times well-intentioned strangers, upon learning of my work in Haiti, have related some bit of information they possess about “the people” or “the country,” only to leave me with the task of deconstructing their misunderstanding. But even though I base my explanations on ethnographic fieldwork, I must remember that I could miss or misrepresent something or someone. For a similar reason, the first ethnography on this topic, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora, by Elizabeth McAlister, provides an excellent primer, but is not definitive.
Rara is traditionally thought of as a Lenten season band or music of the popular classes whose public performance includes marching. McAlister divides her book into chapters that deal with somewhat disparate elements of rara. Contrary to descriptions that characterize rara as secular, she astutely recognizes the religious aspects of the performance. Issues rarely discussed in other literature, such as the demonized figure of “the Jew” in rara and homosexuality, receive a fair treatment in her text. The militarism which permeates the rara band and its performance, suggests McAlister, derives from the proud remembrance of the Haitian Revolution and the constant spirit of battle in everyday life for the popular classes.
McAlister carefully argues that the rara songs utilize “the only two forms of speech that are not repressed in the public arena,” namely those involving Vodou and sexual vulgarity. The last sections of the book are specific descriptions that show “how grassroots popular culture [was] produced under conditions of political insecurity” during the 1991-1994 coup d’état and how “members of the Haitian community are choosing values of community, resistance, nationalist and ethnic pride, and racial solidarity in the performative mode of song, dance, and celebration.”
Throughout the work, McAlister includes episodes from the field with analysis, lyrics, interviews, and testimonies. She uses the tools of this post-postmodern era whereby an author establishes credibility through experiential, interpretive, dialogic, or polyphonic writing. Beyond this text, McAlister’s other publications demonstrate her extensive knowledge of Haitian culture. And nowhere is there an assertion without supporting “evidence.” Yet even though her credentials yield a powerful account of rara, the representation needs critical analysis.
A common cry of the past decade has involved the crisis of representation in ethnography. Rather than focus on the people, though, I turn my attention to the language. To her credit, McAlister includes the original Kreyòl sources; however, I found several mistakes, including those in her discussion of the creation of a noun plural. In addition, her use of the apostrophe, dashes, and umlauts, despite her use of the official orthography put forth by the Institut Pédagogique National, is still contested among Haitianists.
Other concerns include McAlister’s lack of development for some claims and insufficient coverage. For example, McAlister’s discussion of how betiz (speech using sexual innuendos and vulgarity) in rara songs can offset themes of sexism shows more the ability of males to control content of the songs by verbally dissecting a woman’s vagina rather than their appreciation for its beauty and intricacy. Furthermore, the associations she makes between rara/rasin and rara/vodou, however well-informed, might lead to connections between the two pairs that members of the mouvman rasin (roots movement) in Haiti would at least feel compelled to correct, if not totally break. Finally, McAlister leaves many stones unturned related to rara.
Despite these flaws, this book is an excellent primer for several reasons. First, the accompanying recordings add documentary value. Secondly, McAlister’s weaving of history, musicology, cultural politics, religious studies, and anthropology creates a work that reflects the complexity of human existence. Third, by placing rara—and by extension Haiti—within a Caribbean, African American, Latin American, and Transatlantic context, she provides the fluid landscape necessary for understanding this activity. Readers should appreciate the quality of such a cornerstone of literature on Haiti.
Kiran Jayaram is a professor of anthropology at the University of Florida.