By Bobb Rousseau

Rara is a world heritage that took root in Iraq and then spread to Palestine, Africa and America. In Haiti, several cities celebrate it from the first Thursday following Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday.

Haitian rara festival
Haitian rara festival. Credit: Patrice Douge

It is a living cultural phenomenon that conserves oral traditions, expressions, performing arts, social practices and rituals of diverse categories of indigenous people that were cast out, chased out and mistreated because of their dark skin and cultural origin. It exhibits religious knowledge and agricultural practices. It honors nature, the universe and traditional crafts.

According to biblical lore, after an enraged Noah put his hand on the shoulder of Canaan, son of Cam, Canaan’s skin changed to a dark color. The rara began as a coping mechanism Blacks used to overcome the humiliation endured from their grandfather Noah, who cursed them and chased them out of the ark while prophesying they would be the lowest slaves in the world.

With rudimentary instruments they received by bartering along the way, such as bamboos, drums, cones, banjos, and many more, they gathered behind Canaan, who was holding a whip to guide them throughout the journey that began in Mesopotamia, Iraq to finish in Jericho, formerly Canaan and today Palestine. The New Backs, shoulder to shoulder, sang and danced to downplay their suffering. They claimed to have carried their loads on their feet.

Throughout their voyage, they took breaks at the front of large markets or in the courts of kings to whom they give respects or greetings in exchange for instruments or food. Thus, they (the Blacks) were the first troubadours of the feudal system.

In Jericho, they were engaged as slaves to fulfill Noah’s prophecy. They continued to let off steam in the evenings with their instruments. During the holiday season, they traveled with their families to visit, eat, socialize and dance with other members who lent their services to other patrons. The rara had become an unmissable cultural outlet that united the slaves in Jericho as they organized it everywhere they were to offer their services.

On Moses’s orders, they were driven out of Jericho, which at that time adopted the name Canaan (unrelated to Canaan, the first black slave, son of Cam and grandson of Noah) by the Israelis who claimed to have been the descendants of Abraham and Isaac. According to Moses, Canaan was the land that God had promised their father, and for that, the Israelis should go and claim their inheritance by any means necessary. The Israelis marched on Jericho and destroyed the walls the slaves erected there to protect the city. Finding no respite from the Israeli atrocity, the slaves fled to West Africa, leaving everything behind, even much of their musical instruments.

Chasing the natural, it returns fast galloping. During their transitional time in West Africa, the rara, which in Jericho was used as an entertainment vehicle, was going to be used again for the same reason it was used during the painful journey to Palestine — as a mechanism of adaptation and acceptance.

In West Africa, the rara lost its scope, strength, and flavor as slaves were scattered there across several countries, and many of them were unable to contract with African nobles or traders. It was through the ebony trade commonly known as the Black Triangular Trade, more precisely the arrival of slaves in America, that rara resurfaced in the Caribbean. It emerged strongest in Haiti, which seems to be the only country to retain the rara’s integrity and culture in all its purest form.

The rara is several centuries old. It was Iraqi, then Palestinian, then African, then Dominican, and finally Haitian, integrating the most critical Haitian culture’s backbone. Nevertheless, it was transported from continent to continent by a single class of men, the first Black slaves of whom an angry Noah was the architect and collateral damage-Canaan, the ancestor.

Due to its geographical and historical layout, the rara should not be confined within a single nation’s borders for it existed in some form in any part of the world on which a slave was traded. The Haitian media and the Ministry of Culture must support the works of local rara structures, Haitian sociologists, anthropologists and scholars, religious and political leaders, and intellectual elite currently urging UNESCO to add the Haitian rara to the world’s intangible cultural heritage list. 

Bobb Rousseau

Bobb Rousseau holds a Ph.D. in Administration and Public Policy with specializations in Public Law and Managing Local Government. Dr. Rousseau firmly believes that the Haitian diaspora in the United States is at a prime stage to build an attractive political force that can shift U.S. immigration, diplomacy, and humanitarian aid to Haiti and to advance the Haitian agenda around the world.

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