it was textbook, cliche haiti: under a canopy of tropical trees and bathed by the light of the full moon, the drums were playing a wild rhythm, the people round us were chanting and dancing, drinking rum and, after a suitable while, giving us the nod that we could also join in.
easter being a spiritual holiday and haiti being a very spiritual country, the past weekend has been marked by a range of rites and activities, mixing local beliefs (more commonly referred to as 'voodoo') and christian influences. one of the most visible manifestations of this melange of spiritual influences are the ra-ra bands.
these are basically bands of about a dozen musicians playing a variety of drums and other percussion instruments as well as horn instruments (such as conch shells, improvised trombones and instruments called vaksen, sort of akin to digeridoos), accompanied by rhythmic chanting. they are preceded by a flag-bearer as well as a choreographer setting the rhythm and followed by a dancing audience who join in or drop out at will.
from roughly the carnival time to easter, the ra-ra bands march through the cities, towns and villages as well as on mountain paths, clearing the paths commonly used by wandering spirits. in addition to their spiritual role, they also have the social function of spreading political messages, news and gossip, and importantly providing communal entertainment.
as per usual, i was told that 'back in the day,' it was all more authentic and spiritual and that nowadays people (especially of course the youth) were just in it for the entertainment value. and not only that, the ra-ra phenomenon is also becoming visibly more commercial, as popular bands are sponsored by for example the transnational bouillon-producer knorr or by the irish-owned cell-phone operator digicell. ach ja, früher war alles besser, in haiti as elsewhere...