All-Female Rara Bands: Haitian Women Break Musical Barriers

Blending music and Voodoo, rara bands have long been a fixture of Haiti's Carnaval. But now all-female troupes are bringing new looks and new sounds to the formerly male-only tradition.

Read this story in

Publication Date

All-Female Rara Bands: Haitian Women Break Musical Barriers

Oxane Sylvestre, GPJ Haiti

Members of Voudoula, a local all-female rara band, play drums and bamboo trumpets during the February Carnaval celebration in Pétion-Ville, a suburb south of the Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital.

Publication Date

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Swaying their hips to an acoustic rhythm, pushing past parked cars and crowds of people, a passel of women in multicolored gowns parade down a busy street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. They drum and shout, beads of sweat dripping from their foreheads. Passers-by join the joyful procession, dancing and cheering on the musicians.

Carnaval, a three-day nationwide celebration, is coming to an end in Port-au-Prince, but this all-female band and other bands will continue keeping alive the traditional style of music and dance known as rara.

“We all learned how to play various instruments,” says 36-year-old Gyna Sylliona, a gong player and leader of the group. She has been a member of the local rara band Voudoula since 2005. Each year, her band performs toward the end of Carnaval, typically in February and just before Lent, a 40-day period of repentance, fasting and self-reflection observed by Christians.

This style of music and dance, which emerged during Haiti’s colonial era, is traditionally led and performed by male religious leaders, but it is increasingly becoming a form of entertainment for a broader public and a source of livelihood for women across the country.

expand image
expand slideshow

Oxane Sylvestre, GPJ Haiti

Members of a local band pose after performing a traditional style of music and dance called rara, during the February Carnaval celebration in Pétion-Ville, Haiti.

While Haiti adopted Christianity under colonial rule, traditional religions such as Voodoo, known in Haiti as Vodou, are still common among most Haitians. An estimated 80 percent of the population practices Catholicism, but Voodoo, filled with practices that honor ancestral spirits, is still prevalent and is sometimes fused with other religious beliefs.

Rara music and dance, traditionally led by male Voodoo priests called “houngans,” embodies elements of the traditional belief system, says Peterson Gradasse Toussaint, a Voodoo priest in Port-au-Prince. Band members channel spirits, or “lwa,” before and during their performances, he says.

“Rara has become a sacred tradition in Haiti and is passed down from generation to generation,” he says.

Despite its long-standing history, the style of music and dance has evolved. Modern rara bands use a variety of instruments such as guitars, but for years performers have also used key instruments including the vaksen, a traditional bamboo trumpet, and large frame drums made with goat skin. 

This year’s Carnaval celebration, which started on February 11, brought together a typically diverse crowd.

“Carnaval moments bring to mind not only our wonderful Haitian culture, but also our history,” says 25-year-old Delva Ricardo, who lives in the city and attends the celebration each year. Though the best-attended rara performances take place at the end of Carnaval, band members make a living from performing throughout the year.

Rara has become a sacred tradition in Haiti and is passed down from generation to generation.

For Sylliona, becoming a rara band member was something that she had wanted to do since she was 16.

“Since joining a rara band back in 2005, I’ve had the feeling of living in a world which I had long yearned for, and my dream has finally come true,” she says. While Sylliona did not disclose her earnings because of confidentiality agreements, she says she makes enough money to take care of herself, thanks to performances among Voodoo followers in various towns.

Barbara Dja also belongs to an all-female, 21-member rara band called No Limit Rara Famn, who are based in Pétion-Ville, a suburb south of the capital. Dja, who is new to the band, says she performed in this year’s Carnaval celebration. To perform during Carnaval, band members typically practice for three to four months in advance, but Dja says she was able to perform in this year’s celebration, even though she was new to the band.

“One month has now passed since I joined a women’s rara band and took part in rehearsals,” she says. “My passion and determination are the secrets behind my success.”

Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.