The Crotchet and the Quaver

a tumblr dedicated to soca, calypso, mento, junkanoo, rara, spouge, etc.

Big Head Win & the Rara: Arcade Fire and Carnival culture appropriation

UPDATE: Earlier today (though I only learned of it after I made this post) Arcade Fire posted their entire new album to YouTube. What visual accompanies this 85 minute, double-LP-length audio? Why, it’s almost all of the film Black Orpheus. (The original film is 100 min, so it’s not immediately clear if they edited a portion out or just sped the movie up.) 

Black Orpheus is set during carnival in Rio de Janeiro, making this the least subtle of Arcade Fire’s carnival appropriations so far. Let’s take a complete visual representation of carnival culture, toss out the musicone of the best soundtracks of all timeand replace it with Arcade Fire. It’s carnival culture as visual prop in the purest form. 


When I tuned in to see the Arcade Fire performing new songs on the season premiere of SNL this season, I had two thoughts. First: have the Arcade Fire entered their Remain in Light period? Second, is that a soca beat I hear?

My musically dense ears were a bit off, but not by far. It turns out the band is going for a bit of a rara-cum-dancehall thing on some of their new album (Reflektor), at least with this song “Here Comes the Night Time.” Here’s Win Butler himself talking to Rolling Stone:

Going to Carnival for the first time and seeing rara music, which is a kind of street music with all of these horns and African percussion […] It really kind of makes you feel like a hack being in a rock band, having musical experiences like that […] 

The most Haitian song on the whole record is “Here Comes the Night time,” which is kind of a rara beat, but it’s like kind of a hybrid of Haitian rara and Jamaican influence. We spent some time in Jamaica, but it sounds like a Cure song at the end of the day, kind of a mashup. I mean, it’s not like our band trying to play Haitian music.

I’m glad we’re not getting the Arcade Fire version of Graceland by way of Port-au-Prince. Just the same, the Caribbean beat of “Here Comes the Night Time” is unmistakable. What might not be as immediately clear are the more subtle elements of Carnival culture that Arcade Fire seem to be adding to their current configuration. 

Check out these marvelous suits that the guys in the band have been wearing on promo performances for the new album:


The Butler Brothers are good ol’ Texas boys, so my gut tells me these are stark 21st century updates on the classic Nudie suit:


But given all the talk about Haiti and carnival surrounding the release of Reflektor, these costumes—with their stark neon colors on white fabric—started to remind me of parade walkers getting splashed with paint on an early morning trip to jouvert:




If I can extend this discussion further south beyond just the Caribbean to encompass carnival culture in Brazil: another important visual element of recent performances have been the giant heads, which clearly descend from cabezudos—giant-heads in Spanish—or Bonecos de Olinda as they’re known in Brazil. Here are the Arcade Fire’s cabezudo stand-ins on Colbert:


And here’s a Brazilian craftsman working on his bonecos:


Am I clutching at straws here, or is this a conversation worth having? Is it at all possible that Arcade Fire (a humanitarian band) has actually found an appropriate way to appropriate (sic)? Are they paying respectful homage to cultures they love without co-opting and exploiting them?

My biggest problem with this cross-cultural experiment is how Butler & co. treat Caribbean music purely as a folk form—something you can check out on your next vacation in Haiti—instead of respecting it as a vibrant popular music scene deserving of support. To bring back the Graceland comparison—and putting questions of appropriation aside for a moment—Ladysmith Black Mambazo went from local South African choral group to headliner of international tours after appearing on Paul Simon’s 1986 album.

Who is Arcade Fire’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo? In that same Rolling Stone interview, Win Butler reminisces:

There was a band I felt like changed me musically [in Haiti], just really opened me up to this huge, vast amount of culture and influence I hadn’t been exposed to before, which was really life-changing.

What was the name of that band? The artists he mentions in that interview are Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, the Cure, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, New Order and the B-52’s—not exactly the sorts of bands that could use a good plug in Rolling Stone. If Haiti, Jamaica, and the rest of the carnival world had such a profound effect on Arcade Fire, why not return the favor to some Caribbean music acts? Aren’t we bored with David Bowie? Why not get a rara band to play on the record?

I want to see Arcade Fire play selektor and release a rara mixtape. Honestly, it’s less that I want them to prove something and more that Haitian music is so hard to find in the US. Arcade Fire could change that!