The late August day has just begun to cool as the sun sets over Prospect Park Lake. Some two hundred people—Haitian immigrants, their children, a few scattered “friends” of Haiti—many seated on a circle of logs near the lake, enjoy the shelter of the trees and the gentle breeze that strokes the water. Along one edge of the circle a familiar “house” band made up of drums, percussion, and zinc horns blasts a Vodou (sacred Afro-Haitian) tune. Several onlookers spot an older man with cornrows in shorts and tank top. “Pè Yves! Kot DJA-Rara?” (“Father Yves! Where’s DJARara?”) He beams back at them. “Talè, y ap vini” (“In a moment, they’re coming”). A buzz travels through the circle. DJA-Rara is on its way.
The video documentary The Other Side of the Water: The Journey of a Haitian Rara Band in Brooklyn, directed by Jeremy Robins and co-produced by Robins with Magali Damas, contributes a fresh new chapter to the history of rara, an Afro-Haitian public performance practice. The work of ethnomusicologist Gage Averill (1991) and scholar of religion Elizabeth McAlister (2002) brought international attention to rara around the turn of the twenty-first century and expanded on the French-language literature of Haitian scholars from the mid-twentieth century. While McAlister’s book includes a chapter on rara in New York City, the [End Page 152] documentary homes in directly on the band DJA-Rara—easily the most popular of the several bands the movement in Brooklyn has spawned—telling its narrative through the voices of the band members. The producers, young videographers seduced by the sound and the spirit of the scene in Prospect Park and one of them Haitian born, set out to interpret the Haitian American experience “through a hidden New York landscape of vodou temples, underground economies, violent politics, and ground-shaking music” (http://www.othersideofthewater.org/synopsis.asp). Toward this goal, they mix archival footage and verité narratives.
The videographers structure these materials in loosely chronological fashion and simultaneously around portraits of key band members, in particular, Pè Yves (Yves Bien-Aimé), who formally founded the band in 1996 as DJA-Rara: Lòt Bò Dlo (or DJA-Rara: The Other Side of the Water, the subtitle an expression that locates the diaspora). Speaking from the present (the period of the recording, 2003 to 2008), the characters flash back over the seeds of what Yves calls a “movement” and their germination in Prospect Park in the early 1990s, linking along the way with political and social crises and developments of import to the Haitian immigrant community. When the subjects recall the inauguration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president of Haiti in 1991, for example, Brooklyn rara as an expressive dimension of the hope and pride that Aristide’s presidency inspired in the diaspora becomes clear. When a coup toppled Aristide in September of the same year, rara bands joined their compatriots in protest at the United Nations, defying the opinions of some community leaders that rara, a product of Haiti’s poor with ties to Vodou, was not the proper way of representing their nation. Rara as a contested music, and a contested mark of Haitian identity, becomes thematic.
The documentary does a fine job of teasing out the dynamics of transnational culture. Along the course of DJA-Rara’s trajectory in Brooklyn a desire for change unsettles the band. The timing could not have been more appropriate for the entrance of Joujou (Jonus Jean) from Haiti. A veteran of the highly popular Port-au-Prince-based RAM (Richard A. Morse), Joujou connected immediately with DJA-Rara and proceeded to overhaul the sound—much to the delight of the younger members and audience. The band’s consequent transition to a more polished sound that catered to new audience preferences in Haiti provides an opportunity to reflect on homeland-diaspora relations as well as on generational shifts.