Kanaval / Philippe Charlier

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As in all Carnivals, Kanaval of Jacmel (Haiti) is above all a celebration of the transcendence of oneself: during a few hours or days, during alcoholic and collective rejoicings, one is “oneself like another” (to the expression of Paul Ricoeur) or “I am another” (Arthur Rimbaud). This counter-power is the opportunity not to rediscover its animality, but to be able to express externally its passions, its frustrations, its anguishes, but also its fascinations. No one has any judgment, no one sets limits (public order knows a relative laxity…), but on the contrary, everyone (actors and spectators) celebrates the power of life, the victory of the sun on the darkness, divine forces over those of evil. The universal carnival season (end of winter, early spring) is not chosen at random: it corresponds to the exit of the cycle of withdrawal into oneself (cold, wind, long nights, symbolism of the small death ) and at the entrance to the opening (heat, sunshine, lengthening of days, symbolism of rebirth).

The characteristic of Jacmel’s Kanaval is the celebration of the magico-religious and legendary voodoo background, erected as a mortar of the Haitian population. It is not uncommon to meet political figures (local and international, in the form of mannequins size-nature or super-natural grimés for the occasion), since one can take advantage to kindly settle accounts and mock those which oppress and divert public goods… but many more are the fantastic creatures from the voodoo bestiary, the beneficial and sometimes evil entities that emerge from the stories to sleep standing told by hounganbokor and mambo (voodoo priests and priestess). It is an opportunity for the population to rediscover and rehabilitate in a festive way this full-fledged religion that is being undermined daily by the advances of American evangelical churches (Pentecostals, Mormons, Adventists, etc.).
During these few days, even the most fervent Christians return to the sources of their centuries-old traditions (even if the Virgin Mary, Christ and an almighty God… with white skin (!) watch over them in a corner or in the form of a pendant around their neck). Thus, mysterious characters like zombies (figuration of the non-dead, or individuals voluntarily placed by some secret societies of voodoo in a state of “social death”), the loas (these various declensions of the voodoo divinities, beginning with Baron Samedi the King of Hell in the costume of an elegant hunter, or Dame Brigitte his wife, or even Erzulie a true parry of the Virgin but black), giant frogs coming out of the ocean, angels of Satan (zel matirins).
Some bokors (those voodoo sorcerers who do good and evil, since it is said of them that they serve the loas with both hands, including the cursed left) parade to show the prestige of their infernal science: they are recognizable to the ashes of the deceased, which they apply to their faces and hands, to their sunglasses, which they wear permanently (so that one does not know where their potential gaze is), and skull, criss-crossed femurs, or mini-coffin that they have fixed over their heads (as a warning to anyone who wants to hold the devil by throwing them a coup de poudre).
One of the characteristics of the carnival is the absence of hierarchy: only the one head surpassing the others, the king or the queen (renn) of the carnival are elected or designated among the poorest (but also the most beautiful): a temporary social reversal.
Street fights – friendly – are organized, the gagann. They only interest men, torso-naked, in a sort of improvised arena in the middle of the road. One makes bets, one shouts, one drinks, one invectives, one insults (sometimes), one supports his champion: beyond that, it is a demonstration of strength, a celebration of manhood, animality (everything is limited, constructed, even if relatively spontaneous).
Another characteristic of Kanaval is music: a certain musical style is essential during these days of rejoicing and surpassing oneself: the rara, which recalls the rhythms of the voodoo songs and prayers (with its cymbal procession, horn of bambou (vaksens), trumpet, percussion, etc. Voodoo priests and priestesses parade alongside the rara groups, and this parade becomes a manifesto in favor of the perenniality and cultural and daily importance of voodoo, a way of not forgetting the roots, of celebrating them in the framework of a popular jubilation, of renewing with gaiety with what makes the magico-religious and historical unity of the Haitian community. To make a good conscience (and cultivate the benevolence of the loas) by placing a small note or some pieces in the pocket of the instrumentalists or members of the parade…
Some have donned military costumes: the opportunity to symbolically recall the fact that voodoo is a religion, but also a power used by many politicians and historical figures to establish their power supernaturally (for example with by the beginning of the modern history of Haiti during the Revolution of Independence… but up to the time of the Duvaliers and perhaps even still).
The players of rara are not mere musicians: the spectators consider that these players have passed a magic contract with the loas, and that it would happen to them if they stopped net this celebration festive and musical of the gods: this commitment lasts 7 years (magic and sacred figure in this religion).
The ecclesiastical authorities still do not look favorably at such celebrations; they are not fooled, and well aware of the obscene nature of certain dances (celebrating life, rebirth, fertility, revival of the senses and sexuality), the melody of voodoo prayers revisited, the lyrics of relatively subversive songs, etc. it is an opportunity to convey messages, including mocking the corruption of some (eg against the newly elected mayor of Port-au-Prince in 1998).
Nothing stops the Kanaval: it is a force that lives, it is a necessary celebration, it is a safety valve allowing many Haitians to exteriorize all the energy they carry in them, to lift their inhibitions, to forget their frustrations (sometimes profound, especially economic), to reveal themselves as in themselves. Even after the dramatic earthquake of 2010, a procession was made (although reduced), but it was out of the question not to send this message to the gods of the celebration of life (in this case survival).

This meeting is the occasion for a new beginning, forgetfulness of debts, for a ritual upgrading that concerns the quasi-exhaustiveness of the community, in the same way as in any carnival. There is a clear notion of regeneration, of social confusion, of “erotic licentiousness” (does not one observe a peak of birthrate 9 months after the Kanaval?), in the words of Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane. The latter spoke of a “regression of the cosmos in chaos”. In the absence of cosmos (which would give a universal dimension that the inhabitants of Jacmel do not necessarily have at the moment of this celebration), it is perhaps more of a dissolution of the existences of the daily life. Each one literally forgets himself in this travesty, becomes another, sometimes even death itself (or beings carrying death) to make fun of it, and, beyond, to repel it. It is the apotropaic vision of the carnival (Frazer JG, The Golden Bough): that which makes this feast a way of rejecting the evil eye, bad spells, bad environmental or supernatural influences. When the figure of the carnival king is burnt at the end of the celebration, it is as much the authority symbolically assassinated as the world before: this ritual death (sometimes violent: fire, water), synonymous with a rebirth. That of the men, accompanied by the gods who did not abandon them and celebrated with them. Because they are certain that behind some masks, the gods loas come to party with humans.


(note: the picture is taken from this book)

Philippe Charlier, MD, PhD, LittD, is a forensic practitioner and anthropologist. He works on representations of the human bodies, and rituals related to diseases and death. He loves words, and more.

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