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The Other Side of the Water: The Journey of a Haitian Rara Band in Brooklyn

2010
Distributed by Third World Newsreel, 545 Eighth Avenue, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018; 212-947-9277
Produced by Magali Damas
Directed by Jeremy Robins
DVD, color, 52 min.
High School - General Adult
Rara Festival, Folk music, Haiti, Haitians and Haitian Americans, Brooklyn, New York


Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 8/8/2011

The Other Side of the Water: The Journey of a Haitian Rara Band in Brooklyn documents the lives of Haitian immigrants living in New York City (primarily Brooklyn), a band of Haitian American musicians called DJA-Rara, and the music they are devoted to, rara.

Rara is both a form of folk music and a public music event originating in Haiti as a means for expressing cultural identity during the occupation by the United States (1915-1934). The music is highly improvised and features community singing, homemade single note horns (bamboo and metal), and percussion (all manner of homemade or commercially manufactured drums, cymbals, shakers, guiros, bells, and resonate scraps of metal). While the music shares some aspects of its traditions with carnival or New Orleans’ second line, there is little in western culture that sounds like rara thanks to the use of the single note horns. Dance is central to the events, and it is not uncommon for attendees to dress as Haitian peasants. Performances occur as part of a ritual, for celebration or mourning, as a gesture of protest, or, as seen in New York, simply to connect Haitian American immigrants to the country they left behind. Rara first appeared in New York during the early 1980s.

Pé Yves founded the band DJA-Rara in 1996 and served as its director during the documentary’s filming. The full name for the band is actually DJA-Rara Lot Bo Dlo; the last three words (in Haitian Kreyol) translating to “the other side of the water.” Furthermore, according to the band’s MySpace page, DJA stands for “Dance Joy our Ancestors.” The sentiment of these phrases adjoining the word “rara” are consistent with Yves’s sentiment, “The wind blew us here,” when referring to the Haitian community and rara culture growing in Brooklyn.

It appears that all of the DJA-Rara members are immigrants to the United States, with each arriving at different times in their lives. One drummer, Max, came as a small child and is the most assimilated into conventional American culture, but still feels a strong bond to Haiti. Other members came as adults, leaving family members behind – a source of concern and stress through all of Haiti’s political unrest. Several band members work low paying jobs in the service industry or in manual labor. In the film, the band does not seem to serve as a source of income, but more as personal outlet and a commitment to their community.

Yves does encourage DJA-Rara to become a more professional band. He insists on regular rehearsals (some occurring in a restaurant’s store room) and that the members diminish the presence of alcohol during performances. As a result, many long-time friends and members are lost as the band evolves. This ambition yields formal performance bookings for parties, street festivals, and appearances in university ethnomusicology seminars. It is not evident if the band distributes the earnings among members, or if it is saved for other objectives. It is clear, however, that the band wishes to record their music for an independent release and this project is in progress by the film’s end.

The film effectively demonstrates the disparate opinions held of rara by the Haitian community. Christian Haitians suspect the music is connected to Satanism or vodou practices through “secret ceremonies.” Community leaders feel the public performances are too chaotic. A small group of elitist wealthy Haitians deem the music a poor representation of their country. Yet, all DJA-Rara members interviewed for this film speak passionately and proudly of their heritage and the music’s role in preserving a connection to it.

The documentary is assembled from interviews, historic footage of Haiti, excerpts of newscast from the 1980s and 1990s, and live rehearsal and performance footage. Unfortunately, all of the performance footage is incomplete, and viewers never experience how a song is started, fully developed, or finished. Many instruments are shown close-up allowing for study and inspection of their construction and techniques. While the DVD does not offer subtitles as a feature, they are provided for any foreign language or English spoken with a thick accent.

Made just prior to the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, the film mentions in its closing moments through screen text that DJA-Rara lost many friends and family members to the catastrophe. Apparently, the band performed dozens of benefit concerts, though no footage is included in the film.

The documentary is compact at 52 minutes, but provides a comprehensive examination of rara and DJA-Rara. Socio-economic considerations for contemporary Haitian Americans receives some attention, but solely as it relates to those connected to rara. The Other Side of the Water is essential for any university library supporting an ethnomusicology program or African American studies, but also belongs in any public library serving a Haitian American community.