Kreyol Chronicles: Rara in Haiti

Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Christopher L. Mitchell

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Easter time in Haiti is all about Rara. Throughout the country, bann a pye (bands on foot) take to the streets, beating petwo drums, chanting, and blowing cylindrical horns known as vaksin (or vaccine), creating a dissonant and deeply spiritual polytonal din.

Rara processions begin each year at Lent, on the first Sunday night after Ash Wednesday. They generally occur every Sunday night thereafter until Easter weekend, building each week towards their ultimate climax. On Easter Sunday, many of these bands will converge at Carrefour de Fort, before dancing on to Léogâne, a town widely considered the mecca of rara.

Rara bands exist in various shapes and sizes. They can be highly formal in their costume and attire, completely informal, or a mixture of both. Along with those carrying instruments, you might encounter groups of women dressed in matching wedding gowns, and baton twirlers demonstrating dances that can be traced directly to Africa. A symbol of home for many Haitian abroad, Rara has been transported to the Haitian expat communities in Miami’s Little Haiti and Brooklyn, where processions are held year round.

Every other year since 2009, LargeUp photographer Christopher L. Mitchell has made the journey from Jacmel, in Haiti’s south, to Souvenance, in the North, for the Easter-time , documenting the rara bands he encounters along the way with his camera.

“I will be driving and see a rara on the road, and I’ll get out and stop and take pictures,” Christopher says. “I am running with the band, drinking with them. I just jump in, and I’m in the rara.”

Souvenance on Easter Sunday is the site of Haiti’s largest and most sacred vodou pilgrimage, or lakou, the ultimate destination for many of the rara bands seen on the roads. “Souvenance is like Woodstock — it’s a place and a pilgrimage,” Christopher explains. “You get the music, drumming, people walking around and parlaying and eating, and praying by the trees. It’s like a festival without sponsors.”

Many of these photos here were taken in and around Gonaïves, a town of great cultural significance in Haiti and the birthplace of the Haitian revolution, on the way to Souvenance. Others were shot in Souvenance, just outside of the pilgrimage: “While you are in [the pilgrimage], the raras pass by, and I go out and shoot the bands passing by.”

Collectively, these photos, shot on film between 2009 and 2013, paint a colorful portrait of one of Haiti’s great traditions, in their true element.

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