Dieuvela Etienne lifts one hand and the other, then lets them fall onto the head of her drum.
She and her drum are the heartbeat of Symbi Roots, an all-women Haitian rara band making their United States debut in Miami for Haitian Heritage Month.
Seated next to Etienne, four women blow into koné, a traditional Haitian horn paired with vaskin, a wind and percussion instrument. The sound is loud – rambunctious even. Rara has been an exaltation of Haitian culture since the small island country claimed its independence from France in 1804.
Etienne flashes a contagious smile as she taps her drum.
It wasn’t always like this. In 2005, when Symbi Roots was formed, the group was met with friction for daring to pick up instruments played exclusively by Haitian men. None of their detractors were smiling, Etienne said. They were angry to see women breaking from tradition.
“There were a lot people when we started who saw it as an abomination and [felt] what we were doing wasn’t feminine,” Etienne said in Kreyol. “In our country, it was a revolution.”
On a Tuesday evening, the band prepared for several performances, including a concert for the Little Haiti Book Festival on Sunday at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex. Vodou priestess Amelia Ingrid Llera hosted the women in her Miramar home.
She, too, knows how one’s passion can be isolating. Haitian vodou has quietly endured a bad reputation in the United States. While regarded as a significant part of Haitian culture, vodou has become so villainized that many in the U.S. won’t admit their participation.
“People would only talk to me behind closed doors,” Llera said of being vodou practitioner. “When I am out in society, people who are seeking my help would be ashamed of talking to me. That affects you – the ignorance and the shame that people carry.”
Llera will join Symbi Roots on the stage at the Little Haiti Book Festival for a vodou ceremony. The two performances will be a stirring exhibit of Haiti’s nuances regarding gender roles.
For example, for the past 12 years the members of Symbi Roots have demanded their place as women in rara. Today, fans of the genre said there are as many as a dozen women participants.
But vodou, in contrast, has for a long time been one of the few sectors of Haitian culture that is fully inclusive for women. It makes Llera’s experience with the religion different than Symbi Root’s struggle for acceptance.
“This is the only way of life where everyone is equal. A man can be priest and woman can be priestess. There are no gender issues,” Llera said. “In rara you find the men who are stronger carrying the drums going from town to town. Because of the masculine strength, they feel like they are the only ones to play. But things are changing, at least it’s a fight to equality.”
MJ Fievre, one of the book fair’s organizers, said the display of the “strong and fierce” Haitian women of vodou and rara was a very deliberate choice. She predicted that their performances at the Little Haiti Book Festival will encourage people to explore gender roles in Haitian society.
Another goal? To dispel negative stereotypes associated with Haitians and their culture.
“One of the things I’m really hoping as a Haitian myself, is some of the cliches and some of the taboos about Haiti will be taken by the collar and thrown out,” she said.
Jan Mapou, the owner of a Haitian bookstore and founder of the Little Haiti Book Festival, said that the art of rara and vodou will be paired with panels discussing identity and culture in Haiti. The Little Haiti Book Festival will also invite dialogue about issues abroad, namely the perceived infringement by developers on Little Haiti and the Temporary Protected Status program, the six-month extension of which has caused concern among immigration advocates and the nearly 60,000 Haitians they represent.
That is a lot to unpack in a two-day book festival, but Mapou explains Haitian traditions go beyond the page: “In the culture you don’t just find literature and books. You have arts, crafts, music and food.”
IF YOU GO
When: Saturday, May 27 and Sunday, May 28
Where: Little Haiti Cultural Complex 212 NE 59th Terrace, Miami 33137
More: Online at miamibookfair.com
The Little Haiti Book Festival is a partnership between the Miami Book Fair and Sosyete Koukouy, a Kreyol literacy organization.