This is an astonishing album with just over 30 minutes of music that’s usually found on the streets and fields of Haiti. The third in Soul Jazz’s exemplary series of Haitian music, Rara was recorded in a Port-au-Prince studio before last January’s devastating earthquake. Its singers, musicians and soloists are named and the music they deliver is a pulsing soundtrack that could be for gatherings, for working or dancing. Improvised instruments – metallic scrapers, drums and vaksen (single-note flutes made from bamboo or plastic tubes) – are raw but effective mobilizers.
Haitian rara is difficult to define. It’s party music with an edge that lines up alongside local politics and affairs. It’s not a ritualistic music – the drumming is not what you’d hear at a vodou ceremony – but the rara processions might pass the same spooked highways.
Rara in Haiti is a collision between the cultural imperative and the readymade. In the music’s winding lines of rhythm, there’s a lineage that stretches back to Africa as much as it snakes into the present tense. Cover photographs (from Leah Gordon’s book Kanaval) of rara musicians, wearing variously horns, wings and masks, complete this strange and rich package.