Every year, right after Christmas, bands in Haiti – popular and unpopular – across genres begin releasing their Kanaval song or mereng in time for Carnival celebration. Every year, we end up with a litany of Haitian songs with lyrics that document the sentiments around whatever political or social events Haiti had just lived through. Sentiments of a longing for a better life, better schools, better hospitals, better roads. What we end up with is a living musical historical archive of the scandals, natural disasters, and viral jokes that have marked our lives year after year. For months leading up to the lenten season, Haitians sing and dance in the streets to the tune of these archives. In 1999, Haitians sang and danced along with the group Chande saying, Washington pou mizè pèp sa pase, tonè boule m pèp la p ap janm bliye! – “Washington, the misery this people has seen, we swear to God, the people will never forget,”
Hurricane season has never been kind to Haiti, and with the effects of climate change its impact only worsens year after year. In September of 1998, Hurricane Georges brought devastating floods that left thousands of Haitians homeless and hundreds dead. The Kanaval season that followed chronicled Haiti’s grief, the efforts to rebuild, and the hope and life that persisted anyway, Menm si Jòj te pase, Channmas p ap janm kraze. Ayiti kanpe pi rèd nan Kanval. “Even though George passed, Champs de Mars will never be destroyed. Haiti continues to stand in Kanaval”. I’ll never forget these lyrics from a popular Kanaval in 1999 by the group, Zion Babies, a passing nod to the tragedy we had recently faced in the middle of an otherwise joyous tune. To many, these songs are a sign of the famous “Haitian resilience,” and this line certainly demonstrates that. Others, however, find holding such a large celebration after any tragedy is inappropriate, and that our leaders continue to use Kanaval as a bandaid in exchange for all the other things it owes its people that it neglects to. Famed singer, Emeline Michel, sang once in a song, “tomorrow the street bands will come by, and we’ll forget our grumbling bellies.” But when is Haiti ever not in the midst of a tragedy? The result of years of failed local leadership and foreign interference means that there is always a reason to stop and mourn, but Haitians have found a way to survive anyway, and so long as that is the case, so does Kanaval.
But sometimes, not even Kanaval can persist. There are years where not even the catharsis that Kanaval provides can do anything for our troubles, and we have to hold off on the dancing for a year. The earthquake in January of 2010 happened just as Haitians were revving up for the year’s carnival festivities. Songs were being released and fandoms of the various famous groups were bolstering their bag of jokes and insults to hurl at each other, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit and killed about 300,000 Haitians. There was no way the celebrations could be held while Haitians everywhere flailed to try to piece their lives back together. Last year, in 2020 violent protests by a group of police protesting lack of paid wages burned down all the stands that were being built in preparation of Kanaval, forcing the festivities to be canceled.
This past February, despite Covid-19 and many unanswered questions around how exactly the virus is impacting Haiti, Kanaval was held in the city of Port-de-Paix, the hometown of Jovenel Moise. While lovers of Carnival in other places like New Orleans, Brazil, Trinidad & Tobago were grieving canceled festivities because of the pandemic, in Haiti, photos of throngs of people dancing and reveling under a huge sign by the ministry of health warning “Corona Virus is still here…be careful!” were hitting the internet. This image is fitting as it reflects the complaints of organizers, leaders of different sectors of the civil society, and countless citizens that this government has failed to prioritize the well being of its people. In the last weeks since February 7th, a new kind of carnival has emerged in the form of massive protests against the Moise government.
The rara street bands, found at Kanaval, maintain the rhythm of the chanting crowds, floats with blaring speakers roll slowly with the crowd blasting songs, oftentimes remixes of popular songs with rewritten words reminding what people are marching against: dilapidated government funds, violence, and impunity. And the crowd marches and sings along, archiving the special political climate that Haiti is currently undergoing, just as Kanaval is meant to.
This essay was written by Nathalie Cerin for WXPN’S Kanaval: Haitian Rhythms & the Music of New Orleans, which has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.