Rara is Haitian festival music played with drums, maracas, and bamboo trumpets, which are known as vaksen. Until recently, the music was always played by men. That changed when Dieuvella Etienne bucked tradition and formed the group that is now called Symbi Roots, the all-female rara troupe that has taken up residency in South Florida over the past couple of months.
Etienne was introduced to the music by her mother. "She pushed me and introduced me to the music," she explains. "I then went to the National School of Art in Haiti. They didn't teach me the traditional music, but they did teach me how to read music. I had to find teachers on my own because you won't learn rara in music school."
In 2005, Etienne was the only woman in a theater group in Port-au-Prince. She soon found herself longing not to be the only female on the stage. "I decided to take initiative to bring a group of women," she says. "Even though it was not my first idea to make music, there were very talented girls. I felt I had no choice."
So she decided to break a taboo and start an all-women rara group. They began as Rara Fanm (simply meaning "Rara of Women") and in 2014 changed the name to Symbi Roots. As is to be anticipated when trying to break into a boys' club, there was a lot of pushback, but not always from whom you'd expect.
"It was very difficult at the beginning," she says. "Yes, some men didn't like it. A lot of them think women shouldn't play rara because it means they are acting like men. The women who were Christian gave us the hardest time because they said rara has to do with voodoo, that we were worshipping the Devil. I had to explain it was part of our culture."
Over the years, as Symbi Roots have displayed their excellence, they have come to be accepted and even celebrated. "It has gotten easier. Because of the press, people have learned to accept us and our style."
With one foot in the old, traditional music of Haiti and another in the modern world of hip-hop, Symbi Roots is, fittingly, finally playing in America after having already toured in Europe and Africa. This past April, the Rhythm Foundation brought the group to Miami to headline the TransAtlantic Festival, and its members have stayed for the past month, teaching workshops at Florida International University and putting on a concert for the students at Benjamin Franklin K-8 Center.
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The group will play a concert May 28 at the Little Haiti Book Festival. "Miami has been so beautiful," Etienne enthuses. "The Haitians here make us feel very welcome. The diverse community has been wonderful."
Symbi Roots have found enough of an audience in South Florida that they're already planning a return date in November. "First we try to show people our culture and our instruments. Then they will discover a type of rara that is completely original."
Etienne's manager, Amelia Ingrid Llera, translated for this story.
6 p.m. Saturday May 27, at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, 212 NE 59th Ter., Miami; miamibookfair.com. Admission is free.