During a trip to Haiti a few years ago, I traveled off the beaten path and visited the southeastern port city of Jacmel, where Kanaval—the Haitian Creole name for Carnival—is celebrated the week before the National Carnival in Port-au-Prince.
Unlike festivities centered around méringues, as Carnival tunes are called in the French-speaking nation, Jacmel offers a more homespun experience. From boys caked in black soot to the sound of rara—the Vodou rhythms that are a mainstay of Carnival celebrations in Haiti—to musicians beating drums or blowing trumpets made from recycled metal and bamboo horns, each rhythm tells its own story as it sends you dancing. I was awestruck by the wild artistry that floods the town’s narrow streets. There were frighteningly beautiful interpretations of the devil, large mythical animals, and grotesque-looking masks made from papier-mâché.
For some, Carnival season, especially Mardi Gras in New Orleans, means body-baring excess, bead throwing, and a raucous free-for-all where debauchery and excessive drinking are encouraged. But in parts of the Caribbean, Carnival—known as Carnaval in Brazil—is more than the revelry that has turned such festivities into a glittery tourist draw. It’s an artistic space, a public bullhorn, an unapologetic expression of cultural identity and empowerment by descendants of enslaved Africans. Forbidden from worshipping their deities or participating in the 18th-century pre-Lenten masquerade balls of their French and British masters, slaves merged African traditions and folklore with colonial rituals to create their own fete.