The Haitian bateyes that surround La Romana and San Pedro hold exuberant Semana Santa festivities during the Christian Holy Week, which is also the most important Voodoo celebration of the year. The various satellite bateyes surrounding a sugar mill each have their own religious brotherhoods, headed by a medium known as a houngan (male) or a mambo (female). Each worships a patron deity and has its own gagá band – called rara in Haiti – which plays a repertoire of religious and Carnival songs in a processional orchestra of one-note trumpets and bamboo tubes that are blown and beaten in a cacophonous procession that can play all night long. On Ash Wednesday, the groups carry their senior officers on their shoulders in chairs, accompanied by gagá. This is just a warm-up to Good Friday when, just before dawn, four shrouded dancers parade into the perestil, where religious services are performed. The houngan “breathes life” into them one at a time, and they throw off their shrouds and lead the gagá bands in a parade around their batey, playing, singing and dancing to songs with lascivious lyrics, in keeping with the festival’s theme of regeneration and fertility. On Saturday and Easter Sunday they head out onto the road towards the sugar mill. Upon encountering another group along the way, a competitive jam session begins, which can, in cases, lead to fisticuffs. Though anyone is welcome to attend Semana Santa, if you look like you have money the gagá bands will repeatedly play for you, seeking money and rum in return; you’re best off bringing plenty of small bills for tips to the band, and arriving in a small group.
To familiarize yourself with the music of Semana Santa, you should purchase two things: the Smithsonian Folkways CD Caribbean Revels: Haitian Rara and Dominican Gagá, which features live recordings from Semana Santa festivals across the island, and Rara! Vodou, Power and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora by Elizabeth McAlister, a terrific book with companion CD on the music and the culture that surrounds it.