Sunday, August 14, 2011

“The Other Side Of The Water: The Journey Of A Haitian Rara Band in Brooklyn” (Third World Newsreel)

The phenomenon known as “rara” is a highly localized one native to the country of Haiti (aside from a bit of spillover into the Dominican Republic, where it is known as “gaga”.) It is intimately connected to the Haitian spirit religion known as vodun (or “voodoo”). Voodoo as practiced in Haiti is very much unlike the sort of madcap, stick-pins-in-dolls silliness seen in Hollywood movies over the past 70 years, the first thing Americans think of when they hear the term “voodoo”. Even given that statement, rara is not so much a religious ritual (though it certainly has aspects of one), as it is a Carnival-like procession, with music, dancing, and a variety of carryings-on, combined with ceremonies at graveyards and crossroads. It is an event that takes place on a virtually daily/nightly basis along both the rural and urban thoroughfares of Haiti during Lent, escalating in the days leading up to Easter. It has a reputation for being loud, disruptive, and, er, impolite, but its religious and cultural connections have made it a vital part of Haitian identity, much to the dismay of many Haitians.

This fascinating documentary allows us a glimpse into a new setting for this old event (which is thought to date back to the Colonial era), the Haitian community in Brooklyn, NY. The Haitian-American community is one of the “hidden” ethnic treasures in the US, perhaps because many of the members of this community have done little to assimilate into American culture, while others have tried to blend in totally. The latter have become invisible, while the former tend to think of themselves as being Haitians in exile, living here only temporarily, having come to escape political oppression and poverty, even long before the earthquake of 2010. Many manifestations of Haitian culture (such as konpa music) survive in the US, even though hardly anyone outside the Haitian-American community is aware of their existence.

But this film focuses on the specific example of rara, which is not even accepted by many Haitian-Americans. It is particularly despised, even feared, by those who profess themselves to be Christians, and are convinced that any phenomenon associated with voodoo is Satanic and therefore unsafe for the community. (It should be pointed out that Satan per se, in the Judeo-Christian sense, is not a major focus of voodoo, one of many misconceptions that pervade the religion, even among Haitian non-followers.) This has made it especially difficult for the film’s main figure, Pe Yves, to establish and subsequently maintain the longest-running rara band in the United States, DJA-Rara.

The film follows the band’s history from its formation in the early 1990’s to the present, through a series of interviews with Pe Yves, as well as present and former members of the band, family members, supporters and detractors. There are also rehearsal and performance footage, short video clips of Haitian bands, radio appearances in which Pe Yves openly discusses the negative stereotypes people have of the music, and expert opinion on both cultural and Haitian political matters. Parts of the film are in the Kreyol language, with subtitles, but the rest is in English. We see rara used as an energetic source of fun at times, but it is also shown to be used as an outlet for protest. In both cases, DJA-Rara intends it to be a force of unity among the Haitian population of Brooklyn, though it doesn’t always turn out that way.

The music of Rara is very strong rhythmically, but traditionally has been comparatively simple melodically. The primary melodic instruments are bamboo “vaksin” horns and a cylindrical metal trumpet called the “konet”. (The spellings of both instruments varies, since Kreyol has traditionally been a spoken language more than a written one.) Each of these instruments plays only one note. If you want to construct a melody which has, say, two notes, you need two horns pitched differently. For a three-note melody, you need three horns, each of which plays a different pitch. This works fine for religious purposes and if your primary purpose is to make noisy entertainment while marching/dancing through the streets. But in more recent times, saxophones and trumpets have been added to the parade. Or - if you want to restrict your rara band to traditional Haitian instruments - one can add more one-note bamboo or metal horns, each with its own pitch, in order to play a full scale.

This latter concept originated in Haiti, but has been adopted by DJA-Rara, which led to pressures within the band itself, as Pe Yves felt the need to downplay the musicians’ rowdy, celebratory enthusiasms and to professionalize and modernize the band’s approach, as detailed in the film. Subsequently, DJA-Rara became the first American rara band to record a CD, in 2008. The band celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2010. However, what would normally have been cause for jubilation was greatly tempered when everyone in the band lost friends and family members in the earthquake.

We see rara music used outside of its strictly voodoo context, to entertain children at a Christmas party, to cheer on a soccer team, playing at a street fair, and for a very appreciative ethnomusicology class at Amherst College. And, in what I find to be one of the most encouraging scenes near the end of the film, we hear from one little girl who is already thinking of the day when the band members get older, and it will be up to her and her generation to take over for them, and keep the music alive. Pe Yves and DJA-Rara may have struggled through those first 20 years, but it would appear they have laid the groundwork for the continunace of the rara tradition in the United States.

Thge film is 52 minutes long. More info, as well as a few clips from the film, may be found at Third World Newsreel is at

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