French-Haitian Singer-Songwriter-Percussionist Carlton Rara On Music, Identity and His Creative Process

His chimney-smoke voice belts out passionate songs with so much emotion that you’d swear that behind the microphone he’s being tortured by powerful, invisible hands.

Carlton Rara is heavily influenced by Caribbean literature. He’s done shows centered around the work of Martinique bard Aime Cesaire and FrankEtienne, a Haitian-born writer. Born in France to a Haitian mother and a French father, the singer is emotionally attached to Haiti.

His lyrics and melodies makes one think that his life has been one heartbreak after another. But, at the same time, they are full of optimism, and the hope that—one day—the bitterness and melancholy will melt into some semblance of happiness.

So, you were born of a Haitian mother and a French father. What was that like?

I both speak and write Creole. My parents got married in New York and came back to settle in France.

Growing up what was your perception of your dual identity?

Actually, I have only one identity even if my origin is dual. I have often used a metaphor [in] talking about that issue, saying that if you mix different colors like yellow and blue for instance, you can expect to get some sort of green and that green you get is an absolutely new and unique color. It is not a remnant of yellow or blue. It’s just green—with a specific relationship to the world. It may be or may be not linked with the elements that composed it.

And how were you perceived by your peers and society?

As far as perception is concerned…in fact, I guess the thing was not about how my peers or society would see me, but how I would perceive them, or the feeling I could have of it. It seems to be easier for a community to recognize similarities or differences with an individual than for an individual to identify what he shares or does not share with a community. Anyway, you often feel misunderstood.

How did you come up with the stage name Carlton Rara?

Rara is a strong and beautiful tradition in Haiti. These marching bands are just amazing. It was just a way to pay tribute to the magic it inspired in me. My real first name is Carl. Carl Rara did not sound that good to my ears. Then there was just one step to take to change Carl in Carlton.

Was being a musical artist always a dream of yours?

I have been attending artistic shows since I was a young boy. Being an artist is the most natural way of being to me.

Did you formally study music?

No, I did not study music formally, but you must be taught or be influenced somehow…you must go to the school of somebody or something. Go take something from the hand of someone who has been there before you.

You’ve created shows around pieces of literature, notably by the writers Franketienne and Aime Cesaire. Who introduced you to the work of these writers?

My brother—Guy Viarre—is a writer—or should I say was as he passed away 10 years ago. I have always been connected to the force of words and poetic energy. Literature takes an active part in changing the world, we should never stand too far or too long away from a book. Caribbean literature is just incredibly rich.

So sorry to hear about your brother’s passing…Taj Mahal, the blues musician is someone you’ve indicated in past interviews who has been very influential where your music is concerned.

Taj is just an amazingly talented and strong artist.

What do you like most about him?

Besides the fact he’s mastered several instruments in a very unique way, he can also sing. His true brilliance emerges in his ability to be an inventive—and most of all—a free individual.

You also have asserted that Michael Jackson, Dizzy Gillepsie are also influences. What it is about those artists that drew you to their music?

Dizzy deeply contributed to make jazz music evolve in a very sane and modern way. He progressively introduced extra jazz music to his compositions and was one of the most creative composers in the history of jazz. As for Mikey, I am part of the generation that grew up with his grooves. I have lived obsessively with his music, moves, and image on my mind for decades. Michael Jackson achieved something universal out of personal creation, a new language that speaks to our heart, our body, our mind and our soul at the same time and throughout the ages. He is probably the artist that influenced me most.

What can you tell us about your first solo album Peyi Bleu…the songs on the album, recording it. Well..essentially everything!

Peyi Blue was basically made by instinct, driven by the necessity to create something to support and promote live acts. Putting things on a recorded format was not something I was used to. I guess it’s an album whose sound probably matches the way I experienced music then…It was produced with very humble means—which granted it with as many defects as qualities. It was a way to have something to begin with.

When you were working on Home, the follow-up, were you anxious about how it was going to be received?

When recording Home, I was not thinking pretty much of how the album would be received—that can give you an idea of how unconscious and thoughtless I can be. The only thing I realized when it was done was that Peyi Blue was an unexpected success. There was a real risk to get people disappointed by bringing something they could judge [as being] worse.

What was your creative process like as you were creating Home?

I don’t like describing my songs. In fact, I don’t know how to, as playing music to me, is all about emotions and feelings and about things I am not able to explain. Home reflects the mood I was in when I composed it…it brought something more than what I originally came up with when I did Peyi Blue. We produced it in a more formal way. Some of the tunes had been composed even years before my first album. I try to cultivate my own style, my own inventions. You can find in Home much more than the restrictive presentation of the critic media report. I have been much more presented as a musician of Haitian origin than as just a musician. People may find Haiti as a real fascinating and eerie place for some reason. This is an ethnicizing way to look at the world. I am at peace with what I am, no need to be even proud of it. I am just what I am. I was already touring with the musicians that worked on the project. A while after you finish working on a album, you start being full of regrets on how you did things, but you just have to accept that you put an end to the work and that even your regrets are parts of an enriching experience.

I was listening to this song you recorded called “Dlo Koule”. Listening to it, I thought you were going to burst in tears in a nanosecond. I really did. How do you manage to bring so much emotion in your vocal performances?

We did a single take to record “Dlo Koule”, we did not even think about trying to take one more…it’s a sad song talking about a sad story and I felt myself then as sad as the song is…but sadness and sorrow that often drive people to tears are also some sort of purification as natural spring water can be. So, I don’t need to bring emotion, emotion emerges by itself when it is time.

Is there an artist, or should I say are there artists and bands, who you consider your dream collaborators?

Many…I trust life to make people’s roads cross…

When was the last time you went to Haiti?

December 2012 for touring.

You’ve recorded albums, you’ve toured, you’ve been at festivals, and many stages. Thus far, what would you say has been the most memorable moment in your musical career?

My strongest memory of a live performance is when I played in Martinique before 500 hundred fifteen-year-old girls at a Christian school. They went quite crazy during the show and were rather hysterical after. People from the West Indies are fond of music.

Obviously, the music business has its pleasures and its pains. Keeping that in mind, what advice would you give to someone who’s contemplating a career as a singer-songwriter and performer?

Be yourself. Don’t forget to be free and to cultivate your freedom as the most precious thing you can have. Don’t forget to be inventive or re-inventive. Working is the least thing you can do. Try your best. But you have to know that keys of success are not only in your hands—you have to be lucky—but luck can be a science too.

What sort of steps do you take to care for your voice, as well as for your well-being. One imagines that the music business is rather demanding on not just one’s vocals but on ones’s body.

I really have to improve in the are of caring for my voice. And being fit. But, I go jogging twice a week without forgetting to put a scarf round my neck. [Laughter]

What’s next for you?

A life to live…many musical projects, drama, cinema…and even more surprising, a third album.

[Photo Credit: Color photo—Olivier Schindler. Black and white photo Nicolas Le Lièvre. All others provided by subject. Album cover via subject’s website. ]

Learn the latest about Carlton Rara’s music! Be sure to visit his page on Facebook by . Visit the artist’s website by . You can purchase his music on iTunes by .

Last Updated on November 10, 2023 by kreyolicious

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