As do so many of the best stories, this one begins with rum sours and good times. A few months ago Samuel Darguin (a close friend, fraternity brother, and a relentless Haitian-American) and I found ourselves in the unique experience of being in a ra-ra band. Perhaps it is because we began the night with rum sours and good times that the experience carried significance, perhaps moreso for myself since this was my first time taking part in such an event.
A ra-ra band is a uniquely Haitian phenomenon, as far as the Caribbean goes, and is an outgrowth of that same uniqueness that bears witness to the Haitian experience. It’s a congregation of people, in the simplest terms, who come together to play music and dance in the street. In all reality it’s so much more. It’s a collection of Haitians who express themselves in a way that takes over streets and stops traffic. They wear colorful costumes and invent musical instruments out of nothing and march down the street, dancing relentlessly. It’s a simultaneous political movement and artistic outburst. During the presidential elections, ra-ra bands took to the streets to protest preliminary results and to support their favored candidate, all at the same time. Haitians in America even took to the streets in ra-ra form to support president Obama’s campaign efforts. Ra-ra bands can form anywhere at anytime for any reason, even without an overt political or social cause as its support.
Sam and I had jumped into one such band. There was no pressing political agenda to be found, no particular social injustice that needed addressing. Instead, dozens of Haitians filled the streets late on a Thursday night simply to express themselves, with homemade vuvuzelas and brightly adorned costumes that shimmered even in the dark. Given this scenario, and the few rum sours from earlier, Sam and I had no choice but to join in the revelry.
We marched for what felt like hours with the band, stomping our feet, flipping our heads back until our eyes gazed at the stars. I placed my ear at the round end of a nearby vuvuzela, attempting to absorb the sound of the ra-ra into my blood stream (these were really good rum sours). In truth, our entire participation maybe lasted 15 minutes. It ended shortly after the group recruited the local voodoo priestess, who then led the charge to some other unknown destination. The hour grew late, and Sam and I had our fun.
Ra-ra bands also take on another form. While some artists spend restless nights perfecting a single brush stroke on a canvas so as to truly capture the painting’s essence, others can’t seem to crank out enough of the same wooden giraffe to meet tourist demand. Whether or not it is tourist demand that fuels this second branch of art or if tourists are merely drawn to it, ra-ra bands hold no exception to the pattern. I spent Easter weekend in the town of Jeremie with some colleagues and, though Jeremie is normally a small, picturesque town with not much in the way of entertainment, we ran into a few ra-ra bands. Apparently Easter weekend is the time ra-ra bands come out to play in Jeremie, but not in the same manner as what Sam and I experienced in Port-au-Prince. While the bright costumes and vuvulezas remained, the ra-ra band seemed less focus on self-expression and more on self-monetization. Every ra-ra band we came across was intent on earning a tip, to the point that each band stood dormant until a group of passersby came into purview. Once we came into sight, though, the trumpets blared and the dancers came to life. Each group systematically transformed into the same energetic group that Sam and I took part in back in Port-au-Prince. However, after a few minutes of performance, each group in Jeremie also systematically demanded a tip. I left the experience a little flustered, not because I begrudged giving artists a tip (though admittedly the first group left me woefully unprepared and themselves equally under-tipped, as seen in the video below), but because I had already seen what a ra-ra group was supposed to be.
In that same vein, I have already seen what Haiti can become. Haitians are defiantly determined. At the same time, an abundance of well-meaning NGOs, missionaries, and expatriate volunteers have left many Haitians the same as the ra-ra bands in Jeremie; brightly dressed and ready to go, but only motivated when foreigners venture nearby with pockets potentially full of cash. The situation is a two-way street. For every international actor that arguably adds to the “standby” mentality personified by Jeremie rara bands there’s another that actively provides resources and opportunities. How does one then determine the impact of these actors as a whole? I suppose one has to stand back and look for the dancing.