Monday, June 16, 2008

Production Background 1: How did this documentary come about? or “Who's that moun blan fou who is always at the rara?”

Most directors’ first documentary, like unplanned pregnancies, results from a mixture of extreme excitement, naiveté, a possibly too many drinks.

My involvement in this film starts way back in 2003 when I was talking with a distant relative name Verna Gillis at a family gathering in a Greek restaurant on the upper west side. Verna’s actually a legendary ethnomusicologist who’s traveled the world documenting folk music for Smithsonian Folkways. She later was a manager for world music artists (Selif Keita and Yosou N’Dour among others), but by ‘03 she had retired. I had recently been transitioning from teaching high school kids to documentary work, and was asking her if she knew interesting story ideas. She lit up, saying she’d just come out of retirement to produce an album with a young Haitian musician with a fascinating back-story, and ask me to document the making of this album. Emboldened by my third glass of syrupy Greek wine, I though to myself “this could be a feature!”

In short, I dove in and started doing a ton of research. I had been interested in Haitian politics and a friend had turned me on to some Racine music in school, and the more I researched the more hooked I was getting. Soon into the process I connected with Magali – who had just moved back to Brooklyn from Haiti, and was a friend of the same musician, and we decided to work together on the project. To make a long story short, just as we were both really getting into the idea of documenting this album, the whole album project fell apart and got scrapped, and the musician moved back to Paris. Ouch.

By then I was on a roll, and fixated on the topic, and Magi and I spent the next night brainstorming about other angles to take. One thing always stuck in my head: Verna once mentioned that of all the musics she’d ever recorded across the globe, the most amazing thing she’d ever heard was a this walking music in the mountains of Haiti called Rara. I’d recently read a book on rara by the Wesleyan professor Liza McAlister that included a chapter on a small movement of rara in New York in the early 1990’s. I asked Magi if she’d ever heard of rara in New York and she replied “Yeah! There’s only one left – they’re my boys DJA-Rara. They’re rehearsing tonight. Lets go!”

(Scrapyard on Pacific Ave where I first met the rara band)

A few hours later we were on a grimy stretch of Pacific Ave in Crown Heights, passing auto-body shops and junkyards. We ducked into the last scrapyard on the block to find a circle of young guys unpacking hand-strung drums and these huge tin horns.

Its hard to describe the “Ah-Ha!” moment that hit me then. 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 10-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, Magi and I may have had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but we haven’t looked back since.

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