In Haiti, as in many other Caribbean nations, the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday are filled with celebrations, culminating in Carnival (Kanaval in Haitian Creole), which begins the Saturday before Ash Wednesday.

Haiti’s version of carnival season always starts in January, known as Pre-Kanaval.  Carnival celebrations end on Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. The last two days of Carnival are public holidays.

The first Mardi Gras celebrations in Europe were a carnivalesque-opportunity for people to indulge themselves, celebrate, and even subvert authority in a permissible way, as part of the party. Mardi Gras enabled people to enjoy the pleasures of life before the beginning of Lent.  The Catholic festival was imported to Haiti and elsewhere in the Americas during European settlement. In Haiti, carnival is also heavily influenced by local customs, such as Vodoureligious rituals, and Haitian music.

Carnival is celebrated with musicbands and parades. Parades have floats, sometimes with children participating in the celebrations. The floats typically have sound systems set up on trucks to play music to the crowds. Food stands selling barbecued treats, sweets, and rum and klarin (Haitian moonshine) are a popular part of celebrations. There are also comedy plays put on by the carnival participants, often satirizing political topics. Revelers wear masks and costumes, as they do at other carnival celebrations in the Caribbean, North America, and Central and South America. The parades make their way through the streets of all other major cities. The primary national Carnival celebration rotates among Haiti’s four largest cities – Port au Prince, Cap Haitien, Les Cayes and Gonaives.

Music is central to Haiti’s carnival. Musicians perform zouk, Haitian rapkompa, and mizik rasin. The carnival is the largest annual event where bands can gain more public exposure; these provide the opportunity for the bands to perform at large concerts.  All the major bands issue videos in the Pre-Kanaval season, promoting the Carnival celebrations and their own new songs, written specifically for Carnival. They usually included pointed commentary on the political and social issues facing the country that year.

Many folks from Sassier will walk six or seven miles to enjoy the Carnival celebrations in Jeremie, the capital of the Grand Anse province.  The excitement, noise and energy of the Jeremie celebrations are quite different from the quiet life in rural Sassier.

Pre-Kanaval celebrations are already in progress in Haiti, leading up to the Kanaval, which runs from February 14 to 17 this year.  See below to view some pictures from a recent Carnival celebration in the Haitian city of Jacmel.  You can click here to view the whole album.