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Rara is a musical style developed in Haiti, which is most frequently used for parades and marches. It is especially common to see it used during the week of Lent, and throughout the weeks leading up to Easter. Old rara, from a thematic standpoint, celebrates the culture of the Haitians, their connection to Africa, and the Haitian Voodoo beliefs. Modern forms may be composed to address social and political issues. Sometimes political candidates hire rara composers to write songs for them to use in marches during their campaigns.
Early rara dates back to the many African dances and music performed in Africa. When slaves were brought to Haiti, these forms, coming from several different tribes, blended over the next few generations to produce rara. The music is uniquely celebratory, and makes use of numerous percussion instruments, played in energetic fashion.
Drums, maracas, and scrapers are all typical instruments used in this musical style. Simply trumpets usually made from recycled cans may also be used. In modern rara, brass and reed instruments are common, and any percussive instrument like bells or shakers of any type may form a part of the music. Singers sing in Haitian Creole or Kreyol, keeping the music firmly tied to its origins. Modern rara is very popular on Haitian radio and may mix in funk or blues to give the music a contemporary feel.
The political instability in Haiti has sometimes led to the style being banned, especially because its lyrics can be openly critical of social problems or of government leaders. Attempts to ban it have probably only made it more popular. Instead, rara may “go underground,” until a political regime that allows the music comes into power.
In fact, some rara musicians have become political leaders. Manno Charlemagne was one such musician, whose participation in the musical style resulted in his exile from Haiti. When rara again became more accepted in the 1990s, Charlemagne returned to Haiti and became mayor of Port-au-Prince.
You don’t have to travel to Haiti to hear rara. Any area, especially urban areas with large numbers of Haitian immigrants in the US, will likely have a radio station that plays this music. In the US, fans may play their favorite rara tunes year-round, not just merely around Lent and the Easter holidays. If you’re interested in more on the history and evolution of the style, Elizabeth McAlister wrote one of the best books on the topic. Her book, Rara: Voudou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora is considered not only entertaining, but also one of the best scholarly works on the subject.
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