Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Carnival is dead. Long live Kanaval."


For all of its pumping music, beautiful dancing women, advertising, free t-shirts and fantastic paper mache artistry, Jacmel's Kanaval is intrinsically political.

The characters and costume partially betray their roots in medieval European carnival, but the Jacmellian masquerades are also a fusion of clandestine Vodou, ancestral memory, political satire and personal relevation. The lives of the indigenous Taino Indians, the slaves' revolt and more recently state corruption are all played out using drama and costume on Jacmel's streets... [Haitian culture] is a vibrant, living avatar for not only Haitian history, but for all our histories. - Leah Gordon
Smeared from head to toe with a vile concoction of cane syrup and powdered charcoal, they dart at the crowd, snarling like wild, rabid animals... They swing long hemp whips through the air in whistling arcs. Adorned with Beelzebub's horns, these demonic metaphors for the experience of slavery... are the [lanse kòd], the "rope-throwers" - Richard Fleming
These are the chaloska, "thick-lipped snaggletoothed personifications of dictatorship and torture," named after brutal military commander Charles Oscar, whose significance during kanaval changes each year according to popular perception of Haiti's political situation and its central players.
The form these characters will take each year; the emergence of new actors, and the messages they will spread might seem sublteties lost in the apparent chaos of the streets, but the political history of Haiti is always inscribed in its Carnivals... The masked theatre of Jacmel's kanaval is an annual opportunity to discuss the country's latest political skullduggery, its economic woes and environmental catastrophes, and the many military incursions it has suffered. - Fleming
Endyen, or Indians, represent the island's indigenous inhabitants, the Taino, exterminated by Spanish colonists at the beginning of this island's recorded history.
The Zel Mathurin (Wings of Mathurin), are winged devils that act out the battle between good and evil (pictured here with 3 paste, or pastors). They terrify children as caricatures of the demons that fight with the archangel St. Micheal (in blue).

Other revolving characters that make up the cast of Jacmel's kanaval are the lwa (vodou spirits), the ancestors, zombis, Yahweh (a savage beast that lives in the woods and gets whipped as he makes his way through the kanaval parade), trannies (traditionally to mock effeminate French colonial lords), prophets and saints, birds, animals and fantastical creatures of the imagination, traditional dancers, the comedic Jwif Eran (Wandering Jew), the members of a courtroom (judge, jury, prosecutor and defense and accused), the heroes of the Haitian revolution, caricatures and parodies of poverty, illness (this year, cholera), imperialism and current social issues, and last but not least... making their debut in 2011, heads advertising the local driving school:
 Death by cholera
 "Down with Violence"
 According to the artist, these masks juxtapose misery with peace
Foreign imperialism

There have been many times [2010 notwithstanding] that the future of Jacmel's Carnival has appeared unstable, but it continues to struggle and survive.... Carnival is dead, long live Kanaval. 

Kanaval is not dead. -Gordon

All italicized quotes in this post are from Leah Gordon's book of photography and oral history, Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti

5 comments:

nerkert said...

Wow - I learned a lot. Thanks for photos and text. Love you!

Rebecca said...

fantastic. thankful to see the kanaval streets plen.

laura said...

How amazingly expressive. Such sorrow, such beauty--such life.

caleb said...

great pics throughout, thanks for sharing and updating

Mambo Pat said...

Ben, I am a teacher and would like to use one of your photos in a presentation I am doing. Can you contact me please? Mesi anpil!
Pat Scheu
patscheu@harvestmoon.biz

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