When it comes to Carnival (Kanaval) every February, Port-au-Prince may lay claim to hosting the national celebrations, but Jacmel would argue that its own festivities offer the greatest spectacle. It’s certainly the most visually appealing, and has become so popular that Jacmel now holds Kanaval a week before Port-au-Prince to avoid an unfortunate clash of dates.
Jacmel’s parade is dizzying in its scope and variety. There are plenty of dancers and rara bands along the way, but at the centre of things are the bright papier-mâché creations that are the town’s hallmark. Everything seems to be here, from colourful birds, dragons and giant rum bottles, to figures from the Bible and Haitian history.
(Photo: Two large figures in the Jacmel Carnival, a riotous and seemingly endless parade of bright papier-mâché sculptures and surreal street theatre © Paul Clammer)
Political comment and social messages get thrown into the mix too – the 2012 procession had a giant cholera bacterium accompanied by a bar of soap and tap of clean water, followed soon after by a bobble-headed Minustah soldier with ‘tourist’ disparagingly painted on his blue helmet.
Some of the troupes take a bit of deciphering, particularly those in costumes that don’t rely on papier-mâché. Scariest of all are the Lanset Kod, stern figures stripped to a pair of shorts and covered in a mix of charcoal and cane syrup, often topped off with a pair of horns. The ropes they carry symbolise the struggle against slavery, and they run the length of the crowd threatening to smear onlookers with their bodies.
Port-au-Prince may lay claim to hosting the national celebrations, but Jacmel would argue that its own festivities offer the greatest spectacle.
Other important grotesques are the Chaloskas, who wear parodies of military uniforms and buck teeth, marching up and down to mock Charles Oscar, a notoriously sadistic army officer who terrorised Jacmel in the 1900s. Clacking their wooden wings together are the Mathurin bat-devils, often locked in combat with the Archangel Michael.
Yawe is a giant red cowhide that’s beaten through the streets, possibly a symbolic recreation of a Taíno hunting scene (several other troupes dress as Taíno, too). Somewhere in the crowd, look out for the half-king, half- Santa Claus figure, actually Papa Jwif, the Haitian version of the Wandering Jew of Christian folklore. These strange vaudevillian characters are hugely popular staples of Jacmel Carnival, and give the proceedings a unique and unkempt character.
Carnival in Jacmel takes place two Sundays before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. This usually falls some time in February. This is the busiest tourist weekend in Jacmel’s calendar, so hotel rooms are at an absolute premium. Book as far in advance as possible, but be aware that some hotels only accept bookings for three nights over the weekend, or add an extra surcharge. The procession typically starts around midday in the centre of the old town, and proceeds up Avenue de la Liberté before turning onto Avenue Baranquilla.
Jacmel’s parade is dizzying in its scope and variety. There are plenty of dancers and rara bands along the way, but at the centre of things are the bright papier-mâché creations that are the town’s hallmark.
Temporary viewing platforms are erected the length of this road, and you’ll be asked to pay a few dollars to gain access (the same goes for the houses and businesses along Baranquilla that rent out space on their balconies). The views from above are definitely worth it, and offer a bit of respite from the crush at street level – it’s fun to mix the two. Front porches and side streets offer plenty of food and drink options, as well as the obligatory masks and straw hats.
It takes about three hours for the parade to pass – there are plenty of jams and stoppages as dance troupes do their turn for the crowd, floats try to manoeuvre and the police attempt to keep everything under control. It’s a strange mix of impressive logistics and the most joyful anarchy imaginable. With the parade over, there are plenty of street-level sound systems to entertain the revellers, many large and loud enough to qualify as weapons of mass destruction. Clubs host live music, and the whole thing continues on into the small hours, or as long as you can keep going.
A week later, when Carnival is celebrated nationwide, Jacmel reprises the festivities with a similar, but much smaller, parade. Two great books to get you into the carnival mood are Edwidge Danticat’s pocket-sized travelogue After the Dance, and photographer Leah Gordon’s Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti, with its mesmerising portraits of the many Carnival troupes.