Intertwining Voodoo and Catholicism in Celebration

Rara Festivals of Haiti

Map of Country

Figure 1:  Political Map of Haiti source:



Exploration of the rara festivals in Haiti reveals the great significance these celebrations hold to the people. African slaves brought Voodoo beliefs to Haiti in colonial times and these beliefs evolved with Catholicism and gave birth to rara festivals. Dressed in costumes and playing homemade instruments, Haitians parade the streets during the week preceding Easter. The voodoo motive of the rara festivals is to promote the strength of the spirit Iwa. These celebrations can be interpreted as revitalization movements and as a liminal phase in encouraging social change. Rara festivals most important purpose is to give the Haitian people strength ands unity within their nation.


Additional Image 1   Additional Image 2

Figure 2:Male Rara Dancer

Figure 3:Rara Parade


Humans struggle with daily routines and challenges, how do they survive and continue with their lives? Some people find strength when there is a sense of unity amongst a group and a knowledge that there are brighter days ahead. Haitians find strength and unity in Rara Festivals. Rara festivals and parades in Haiti are colorful celebrations that include Voodoo beliefs and are aligned with Catholic holidays. The week before Good Friday Rara bands begin to fill the streets with their dance, music and colorful costumes. Using drums, cymbals, horns and other homemade instruments Haitians recognize Iwa, their protective voodoo spirit, while also anticipating the coming of Christ. These activities centered around the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, have become a national tradition. When the Spanish came to the island of Hispaniola, two cultures mixed helping to create the Rara celebrations. These rara celebrations give Haitians encouragement and religious identity amidst the often political turmoil, economic struggles and natural disasters of their nation.


Context of Haiti

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an island in the Caribbean Sea. Haiti, about the size of the state of Maryland, includes rugged mountains, coastal plains, river valleys and a large plateau in the east-central region (U.S. State Department 2004). Because of Haiti's proximity to the Equator it has a warm climate that is semi-arid in some places while humid in others, especially near the coast. The capital, Port-au-Prince is nestled back in the middle of the Gulf of Gonave.

The island of Hispaniola was first occupied by the Spanish and was used “as a launching point from which to explore the rest of the Western hemisphere” (U.S. State Department 2004). Later French buccaneers used the western portion of the island to establish themselves in the Caribbean Sea and gain control, which they did successfully. The French became powerful enough that the Spanish ceded the western portion of Hispaniola to the French in 1697 (U.S. State Department 2004). This French occupation explains the current use of the Creole and French language in Haiti. African slaves were then brought to the island to help establish sugarcane and coffee plantations. After a slave revolt and local forces defeating Napoleon Bonaparte's troops, independence was won in 1804 and the area was renamed Haiti. Over the years Haiti has suffered many political upheavals and economic struggles. In recent years the UN and other groups have tried to step in and restore order without much luck.


Origins of Rara Festivals


African slaves were first brought across the Atlantic to Hispaniola in 1503 (Hurbon 1995) with many traditions, religious practices and beliefs. Voodoo, which gives great meaning to the rara marches, originated amongst the Fon, Yoruba and Ewe tribes of Africa in the Gulf of Benin (Hurbon 1995). These beliefs were practiced differently in the New World. The mixing of Voodoo and Catholicism was mostly due to the “Black Codes” enforced by Louis XIV in 1685 (Hurbon 1995). No religious practice other than Catholicism was allowed in Haiti. Therefore Haitian slaves, “surrounded their African beliefs with the protective covering of the adoration of saints, the sacraments, the processions and all the great liturgical holidays,” (Hurbon 1995: 35). Now it can be understood why the rara festivals that celebrate the strength of Iwa follow the Christian season of Lent. Slaves began holding rara festivals to create a common identity among themselves and help them survive the harsh conditions of work on the plantations.



Every weekend during the season of Lent and the week leading up to Good Friday many streets of Haiti are filled with rara bands. Most activity occurs in rural areas and then culminates towards more urban areas, such as Port-Au-Prince. Rara festivals place importance on its instruments, costumes and dances, they use “key symbolic figures or objects which represent the message and motive of the occasion” (Dorson 1982: 55). Members of the group are dressed in brightly colored costumes which are sometimes heavily sequined or have ribbons attached. The extravagance of the costumes symbolizes the wealth and power of the group, see Figure 2. In Haiti instruments are homemade, which is common to the Caribbean, “Trinidadians re-create their music from tin cans and oil drums” (Dorson 1982: 55). The musical instruments are crucial to the parades and the variety of sounds and harmonies created from the homemade instruments is surprising. Drums play an important role in the marches and there are three main families. The Dahomey and Rada drums are made from cow-skin and band members beat them with sticks, a bow or just their hands. The Petwo drums are made from goat-skin and are played with the hands only (Earthy Family 2004). Horns are often made from old oil tins or any other pieces of metal that can be salvaged, see Figure 4. Bass notes can be produced by blowing into long bamboo tubes with leather mouthpieces attached (Bout 2004). To add to the instruments band members sing and dance. “The dancers follow strict ritual codes, telling them where and when to dance,” (Earthy Family 2004) they follow a leader and move around in complex patterns. Sometimes there is a “zombi” amongst the group. “The zombi concept... is a belief derived from an African concept of death” (Ackermann 1991: 467). Rara celebrations are centered around the Lent season which traces the killing of Jesus. It can then be seen how the ideas of death and zombis tie in with the festivals. The zombi is said to be an ancestor which possesses a rara dancer and the zombi dances in a manner which stands out from the group. The performances of the rara bands utilize instruments, costumes and dance to show the strength, wealth and unity of the group.




Figure 4: Rara Instruments

Rara bands use homemade instruments such as these horns made from what ever materials they can find.




Prognosis for [Rara Festivals]

Along with strengthened unity and morale, there are other aspects of the rara festivals that are beginning to affect the people. Whether the effects of globalization are positive or not is a controversial issue. Rara festivals are certainly gaining popularity, and not just within the country. These festivals have become a tourist attraction and point of interest for those visiting Haiti. Globalization can be seen in the changes in the music. Foula Vodule is one of Haiti's most popular rara bands and they are now taking there music beyond the streets. They released an album in 1999 and began infusing elements of jazz and rock and roll into their music (Haiti Support 2004). Not only are visitors encouraging globalization the Haitian government is also promoting it. “Haitian leaders expressed strong interest in cultural exchanges with...the United States and identified cultural festivals or similar events as an especially desirable means of reclaiming Haiti's popular image in the United States” (Report of Trans African Forum 1998). It can be seen how the Haitians may be altering there traditional festivals to appeal to different crowds. So while interest in the festivals is growing, the hope is that the traditional Voodoo and African roots from which they are derived will stay intact.



Every year during the Christian season of Lent Haitians fill the streets dancing, costumed and playing music. The rara festivals of Haiti give the people a chance to celebrate their Voodoo beliefs in combination with the resurrection of Christ. Their experiences create stronger bonds and promote unity among the people in tough times. These positive effects of the rara festivals are facilitated through their revitalizing nature, the communitas fostered and social change that can occur. From slavery to economic turmoil the Haitians have found strength in the rara festivals of their island.


Internet References Cited

  • Bout, Mambo Racine Sans.

    2004   “Rara Festivals in the Artibonite Valley .” 14 Sept. 2004. http://

    This website was created by a voodoo priest named Mambo Racine Sans Bout in Haiti and serves as the informative website for the organization, “Roots without End.”

  • Earthy Family.

    2004   “Festivals of Haiti .” 14 Sept. 2004.

    Earthy Family is a website aimed to educate people of all ages on multiple cultural subjects.

  • Haiti Support

    2004   14 November 2004.

    Haiti Support is an organization which offers information, advice and opinions on current issues in Haiti and this website is their homepage.

  • Report of Trans African Forum

    1998   “Report of Trans African Fact-Finding Delegation, July 28-31, 1998.” 14 November 2004. /haiti.

  • U.S. State Department. Bureau of Public Affairs.

    2004   “Country Information- Haiti .” 14 Sept. 2004.

    This website is organized by the United States government and offers reliable information on different countries and political issues to the general public.


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

  • Ackerman, Hans-W. and Gauthier, Jeanine.

    1991   “The Ways and Nature of the Zombie.” Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 104, No. 414. Autumn 1991: 466-494.

  • Averill, Gage.

    1994   “Anraje to Angaje: Carnival Politics and Music in Haiti .” Ethnomusicology . . Vol. 38, No. 2. Spring/Summer 1994: 217-247.

  • Desmangles, Laura G.

    1992    The Faces of the Gods. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill .

  • Dorson, Richard M.

    1982    Material Components in Celebration.

  • Hurbon, Laennec.

    1995    Voodoo Search for the Spirit. New York : Abrams.

  • Turner, Victor and Edith.

    1982    Religious Celebrations .


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