'Music Keeps Them Going': Haitians in Brooklyn Keep Tradition Alive

For almost two decades, a group of Haitians and Haitian-Americans in Brooklyn have been keeping an important musical tradition alive. RaRa is Haitian "street music" that has roots in African spiritual traditions. The Brooklyn-based band DjaRara are the most well-known ambassadors of RARA in New York. This week, they came together with renewed purpose and penned a new song about the devastation in their homeland.

There are about 15 members of DjaRara, and every single person lost someone in the earthquake. Lex Barbot has been managing the band for three years.

"We're still in shock," he says. "It's plain and simple. We're still in shock. Every day we get news, its bad news. We get some good news, but a lot of bad news."

On this night, the members of the group are filtering in to a rehearsal space in Crown Heights that doubles as an art gallery during the day. When it’s time to warm up, out come the traditional rara instruments -- a half-dozen metal horns of different sizes called called konet, trumpets fashioned from a hollowed-out bamboo tube with a mouthpiece at one end, cymbals, and of course, the drums.

Members of Haitian band Djarara rehearse on cylindrical bamboo trumpets called banbou or vaksin.

The band leader is called Maestro Joujou. His son’s mother was killed in the quake, and last week he composed a song about the tragedy in just a few days. The Creole title translates to "mercy" -- mercy for Haiti.

"This song is for the children that lost their family -- their mom, their pops," Joujou says. "We just tell them courage. It also is about the people who are missing, who died. Our culture is destroyed. It’s destroyed."

"Our people have been suffering for so long," the song says. "We don’t deserve it/ Still today our blood is shedding/ We are standing strong/ January 12th, 2010, we will never forget."

"When you're hungry what do you do? You sing," says B Max, one of the younger members of the group. He’s been watching the coverage of Haiti on television, and he’s seen people singing rara even among the devastation there.

"You see despair and so forth, but at the same time you see them doing a form of rara.… When you see 100 or 200 people in the street singing, that's a form of rara. There are no instruments, but that’s what they're doing. Music keeps them going. Singing it keeps them going."

Djarara band members warm up before rehearsal in Crown Heights.

The musicians in DjaRara feel a special connection to the town of Leogane in Haiti, about 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince. It was known as the capital of Rara culture and a lot of the best musicians and bands came from Leogane. To get a sense of it, think about the importance of New Orleans to jazz music. After the earthquake, most of the city lies in ruins. Lex Barbot says that the band will do all it can to help.

"We’re looking into how we can donate whatever we can get as far as instruments –- as just a way to participate in keeping the culture alive," he says.

Yves Bien Amie, one of the original founders of Djarara, calls rara music his "therapy" and says he’s hopeful about the future.

"Haiti will get better," Bien Amie says. "We are searching for a better Haiti, when Haitians will be proud again, when the kids will have access to education and many better things. Because my people are very resilient. I know one day Haiti will be the Haiti its supposed to be.