Haiti’s Jacmel: A Tale of Two Kanavals

A modified version of my article appears on the State Department blogsite, Dipnote.  Please check out the article: Haiti’s Kanaval: A Diplomatic Dance.

Jacmel Kanaval is… an experience. I’ve been to Carnival on three different islands (Trinidad, Barbados, and Antigua) and Haiti is completely different. On the one hand, it has all the same elements as you’d find at other carnivals: costumes, music, dancing, parades down the main thoroughfare.  At the same time, the entire ordeal is absolutely and completely Haitian… and I love it.

Jacmel Kanaval is distinctly divided into two portions, as different as day and night, and, appropriately, takes place during those respective times. 

During the day, the main street fills itself with paper mache costumes, colorful figures, and even beings painted in solid black brandishing ropes as whips (see the photo above).  Each figure has its importance in Haitian history, voodoo culture, and even current events.  At one moment you might see bright red and black uniforms, their owners adorned with large red lips and fangs.  These are the “Chaloska,” who parade in terrifying remembrance of the 1915 massacre of political prisoners, carried out by then chief of police, Charles Oscar Otienne.  While you’re marvelling at that, you might be caught in a surge of Lance Kod, the aforementioned oiled figures with ropes.  These are slaves, or rather the costumed vestiges thereof. There are dozens of other historical nods throughout the parade.

The parade also embraces events of current concern, most notably cholera.  One particular group consisted of a sick patient on a stretcher, face painted white and constantly throwing up (water). The attendants, continued to shout at the crowd in a call and response manner, demanding to know what was wrong with the patient and how to fix it.  All the while, a giant red and yellow paper mache monster (cholera) danced around the scene.  You couldn’t have paid for a better performance at the Kennedy Center.  Kanaval paid so much attention to historic and current detail, I was actually surprised there were no groups depicting the U-17 controversy.


And then it all drastically changes. Night falls, the colorful costumes and inventive characters disappear and are replaced by big-rig trucks equipped with massive speakers on either side, slowly making their way down the main road. Surrounding these trucks are hundreds, HUNDREDS, of Haitians dancing in celebration.  Dancing is a word I use loosely in this case; looking outside-in, it’s a game of shoving, anger, and constant near-brawls. But, after a while, one notices a pattern, an organized chaos.  The shoving is part of an intricate caterpillar-like dance among young men, who form single-file lines, the ones in the rear pushing the ones in the front.  It’s the job of the one in the front to prevent the whole line from being jolted uncontrollably forward and steady the movement of the entire line.

Those standing still amidst the chaos are trampled. So you dance. When you dance, the crowd finds a way to move with you, around you, for you. Night Kanaval is not a spectator sport. Indeed, there are spectator stands from where one can enjoy the street from a fantastic vantage point, but it’s the difference between playing Nintendo Wii sports and actually playing; one is fun, but pretending, the other is difficult, but rewarding.

At the end of it all, I am relieved that Jacmel Kanaval is unlike Carnival on any other island, because Haiti is unlike any other island. The better of my Kanaval photos are uploaded on my flickr.  If you need more visual description, here’s a video I clipped together of Kanaval scenes.

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