Jeremy Robins directed the film "The Other Side of the Water, the journey of a Haitian rara band in Brooklyn." The film highlights Djarara, a band that will perform in the Madison World Music Festival. The film will be screened twice during the festival.
please see the schedule on the festival's website.
We interviewed Robins about the band, the music and the film.
When and why did you decide to make your film?
I decided to make a documentary on the rara band DJA-Rara towards the end of 2003. Long ago I had some friends who turned me on to Haiti’s music and history, and years later I happened to work on another project with Magi Damas, who’s a Haitian-American filmmaker.
I’d been reading a book on this bizarre style of music called rara, and the last chapter mentioned a movement of rara bands in New York in the early 90’s. I asked Magi about it one night, and she took me right then and there to meet the only band that had continued from that original scene. We arrived in this scrap yard in a grimy stretch of Brooklyn, and found the band practicing. It was hard to say what hooked me - it had something to do with the unearthly sounds that came out of the horns, or the complete juxtaposition of junkyard and the rhythms of this 14-piece symphonic band. Or the fact that these young dudes, who were dressed like any other thugged-out hip-hop kid in NYC, were clearly so identified with this ancient folk music. Whatever it was, we didn’t look back, and seven years later we have a documentary.
Did you have surprises when shooting it? Learn new things?
Many surprises. I’d studied sociology in college, and when I moved to NYC after finishing school I was really struck by all the intense subcultures, and those moments where you’re walking around and maybe peek into an open door or back yard or basement and glimpse something that you know is SO important to those involved, with rules, and rituals and hierarchies, and layers of meaning. But then the door shuts and that whole world goes back to being invisible to the outside. I initially saw this project as an exercise in diving into one of those subcultures and seeing how far and how deep it goes.
What really surprised me was that it went WAY further than I expected: I couldn’t believe how deep the music was, how the journey of this scrappy unknown band really linked directly to the history of Haiti and the history of New York. I knew that ‘mainstream’ histories of cities have blind spots, but I couldn’t believe how much got missed.
What is Rara music? What place does it hold in Haitian culture?
Raras have been described as everything from “vodou armies” to “underdog carnivals.” As we show in our film, practically everyone has a different explanation of what rara is and where it comes from. In short, rara is an acoustic processional music from Haiti. Its distinct sound comes from the pressed metal “kone” horns (traced to West Africa) that are each tuned to a single note. Multiple players then “hocket” the horns to create melodies.
Rara holds many meanings in the Haitian countryside – at times raras are performing spiritual work for a vodou society. At times they’re delivering news through the hills in their song lyrics. At times they’re just a rowdy, carinval band singing lewd lyrics, and other times those same lewd lyrics are coded messages about the political situation.
In addition to the musicians, there are set roles: Colonels, Kings, Queens, Majors, sometimes Zombies. Each piece has its own complex history drawing from Medieval European Catholicism, Napoleonic military structures, African ritual, and some times the native Arawak Indian rites. Raras who traditionally perform during Lent season have been known to head out, walking for days or even weeks, and covering up to a hundred miles through the Haitian countryside.
What should audience members expect when they come to see Djarara?
What’s amazing about DJA-Rara is that they play a music that’s so complex, nuanced, and deeply rooted to Haiti, and yet the music grips you with such an infectious joy. Haitian drumming is considered by many to have the most complex patterns of any traditional music on earth, and rara itself is such a bewildering mixture of vodou practices and social rituals tied to the Haitian countryside. And yet it's basically impossible to march behind a rara band without a big fat smile on your face. It somehow all makes sense when they play, and the layers of meaning start to seep into whoever’s listening