Monday, 11 January 2016


Seeing eclectic singer-songwriter Carlton Rara in concert is like watching a chef who picks familiar ingredients from all over the world to create an original, unusual-tasting brew.

Carlton Rara (Photo: SGT)
Born in Lourdes, France, to a Haitian mother and French father, Rara grew up listening to American and Caribbean music, and he mixes genres from one song to the next, moving from jazz to blues to reggae. Fans never quite know what to expect at his concerts, and the same is true of his recorded music.

His third album, Raw Sides (2015), starts with the jazzy “A woman is watching me” and takes listeners to Haiti along the way with the traditional “Papa Danbala”. Although he seems at his most authentic when singing Caribbean-influenced songs, Rara dislikes being categorized and thinks an artist should be free to produce whatever he or she feels.

In an interview with SWAN, after a concert in Paris, he spoke about his music.

SWAN: How did you start singing?
Carlton Rara: I started singing when I was about 12, listening to Michael Jackson's songs. There was like some sort of magic and madness about this man, we all wanted to sing his way. Singing is a very intimate way to express feelings, and the MJ experience pushed me to sing out and dance in front of an audience as a street performer.

Rara in concert (Photo: Ina Boulange)
SWAN: Can you tell us more about your background, how you got to this space?
CR: I spent a lot of my time when I was a young boy in a theatre where my dad used to work. There we could attend shows of all kinds: music, drama plays, comedies, dancing, and art performances. We could see many international artists (people like Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Keith Jarret, Carolyn Carlson, Mercedes Sosa, Lucky Peterson, Israel Galvan, Django Edwards and so on). To me it was just like daydreaming and that was my first school of entertainment. Then as I started playing percussion, first as a self-taught musician, I picked up many things from various musicians. Then the Haitian traditional music started to be a great source of inspiration too. Singing came naturally as I started to compose my first tunes.

SWAN: Your songs about Haiti are beautiful and evocative of history, of place. What is the inspiration for them?
CR:  Haiti is a country with a very strong identity and cultural background. The African roots are deep and strong but that is a land that was first inhabited by native Indians and then has been mixed up with influences from all around the world over the ages. You can find all themes about people's life and experiences throughout history in the voodoo rites and music, about their relations with nature and spirits but also about conflicts, pain and suffering. Haiti is also a place where very particular human things have happened in history. Haitians have to accept that their identity is complex and that they have to reconcile with themselves in a way.

The cover of Raw Sides (Photo: SGT)
SWAN: You perform such a wide range of music – do you have a preference in genre?
CR: I have no preferences. Each song comes out with its energy and style, you just have to feel it and get into it as deeply as you can. Whatever the genre, I try to remain 100 percent Carlton Rara. People remain free to see me the way they want to, to sort me out according to their cultural background, to what they think they know or feel,  there is actually nothing I can do about it, that is not my responsibility.

SWAN: How would you define yourself as a performer?
CR: I am Carlton Rara as you are who you are – as unique as we can be in the universe. Defining myself would be too much and not enough at the same time. Thinking of it, I would say "universal" but as I said this definition could fit anyone.

SWAN: Are there particular stories behind the songs on the new album? 
CR: There is this a capella song "Left Alone" that deals with the idea that humanity is quite the same everywhere on earth, people live the same things, suffer the same. It is obvious that humans everywhere are much more alike than different from one another. "Why Worry" is just a love song. "Wvayaj" is about all the changes we go through within a lifetime, meaning that life is like a route on which we have to walk our way.

SWAN: How do you see your music evolving?
CR: My music remains a free space where I am trying to be as close as what I feel like, free as I try to be. I sing in Creole and English, I can play blues, I can be jazz, I can be pop, I can be soul, I do spoken words and act too, the sky is not even the limit. I am now working on a new album full of suprises that will be in a hip hop jazz and blues fusion groovy funky soul mood, believe it or not.

SWAN: When are the next concerts?
CR: I am now working on preparing my album, no shows on the schedule for the moment...I will be back on the Raw Sides Tour next spring and summer. We will see on the road.