Feb 26, 2020

Jacmel: Haiti’s Carnival Capital

February is the height of Carnival season. Taking place just after the new year and just before the Lenten season, Carnival, or Kanaval in Haitian Creole, is a vibrant cultural festival steeped in tradition. Though many Haitian cities from Port-au-Prince to Aux Cayes celebrate Kanaval, there is one community that deserves special mention.



Nestled just southeast of the beautiful Bassin Bleu lies Jacmel, the “city of lights”. From the detailed mosaics lining the city walls to the impressive papier-mâché parades, it’s no wonder this vibrant community is considered the arts capital of Haiti. It once served as a center for Haitian coffee trade, until a terrible fire in 1896 destroyed many of the mansions and factories in the area. These historic buildings were then rebuilt with new cast-iron balconies and pillars shipped from France, resulting in an ornate redesign which later influenced many homes in New Orleans. These beautiful wrought-iron buildings have remained nearly untouched in Jacmel and many now serve as artisan shops in the city’s famous “Iron Market” or “Marché en Fer”. This marketplace for handcrafted goods and art is especially popular during carnival season.



Jacmel is a city of firsts. It was the first town in the Caribbean to have electricity, the first to have a telephone and the first Haitian city to celebrate Kanaval in a uniquely creative way.



Jacmel’s Kanaval began in the 1920’s as a cultural celebration full of the color and creativity the city was known for. It was a time when anyone, regardless of social class could come together and be wholly themselves without fear of censorship. In 1950, papier-mâché masquerades became an important part of the festivities. Made by skilled artisans with techniques passed down through generations, the stunning papier-mâché masks of Jacmel are incredibly unique. With styles ranging from depictions of historical Haitian figures to vibrant animals these intricate masks are worn as part of elaborate parade costumes and during Kanaval events like the “Cocktail Poétique”- an event celebrating Haitian history as told through “living poetry”.




While the visual artistry of it’s masquerades and the verbal artistry of it’s poets would be impressive enough, Jacmel is also known for it’s musical artistry. Which leads us to another festive staple of Kanaval- the Rara band.



Rara bands are parading groups of performers consisting of a chorus, drums, bamboo instruments, percussion. As Rara music is at it’s core, religious, the drums used in the carnival bands are usually the same goatskin drums used in Haitian vodou. The beat and rhythm of each band as they march is unique, as are their colorful handmade sequin costumes.



Jacmel’s Kanaval celebrations are still going strong today. Though the 2010 earthquake was devastating, the city has persevered and continues to rebuild, as it’s done before. The citizens of Jacmel are a creative, passionate people of indomitable spirit and the city remains a popular cultural center. This thriving artistic community is unlike any other and is well worth a visit the next time you find yourself in Haiti during Kanaval season.


Here is a little carnival vocabulary to put you in the mood:


English Haitian Creole Translation
Carnival Kanaval




Mask Mask
Parade Parad
Float Cha
Song groups Bann


Marching-band Bann-a-pye
Masquerade party Bal maske
Music Mizik
To dance Danse
Queen Rèn
King Wa
Costumes Degizman
Feathers Plim
Wig Perik
Make-up Makiyaj
Carnival shoving match Bay gagann
First official carnival day (Sunday before Ash Wednesday) Dimanch gra
Second official carnival day (Monday before Ash Wednesday) Lendi gra
Third official carnival day (Fat Tuesday) Madi  gra

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