In Haïti, once the Christmas and New Year festivities are over, it immediately signals that the pre-Carnival season is imminent. You have to understand that for Haitians, Carnival is probably the biggest celebration of the year. For many here, Carnival is greatly anticipated and it is truly a time where people of all walks of life mingle together and share a common experience with great joy.
It is often said that if a government does not finance a carnival, it could cause its downfall. In fact, in all of my years living on this island, there has only been one year when there was no carnival. It was the year of the devastating 2010 earthquake which had rocked the country just the month before the beginning of Lent. The great loss of life and the chaos which ensued obviously made it impossible to even fathom the idea of any form of celebration that year.
Every Sunday in January and February there are street parties all over the country. As people are still just getting over the new year hype, the attendance may be timid at first, but by the third Sunday of January, Pétionville and Delmas are almost closed down in certain areas to showcase the competing bands with their dizzying meringues. As the sun sets over the city, people of all ages come out in droves to dance and socialize.
A rara band plays in the street in a pre-carnival night
For the citizens of this densely populated Caribbean nation, the hours dancing and carousing in the streets is not only a social pastime, but is also an elixir for the trials and tribulations of daily life. These free parties and entertainment are a moment to indulge and forget the problems and issues of daily life. It is also a time when street vendors sell more food and drinks, as the surge in activity always creates eager customers.
The music blares from the giant speakers and the audience gyrates to the cadence of the DJ playing the new sounds of this years carnival entries. In another location, a Rara band draws crowds on foot as they blow their mystical and rhythmic horns or cornè. Masterful drummers beat goat skin drums, producing a tantalizing rhythmic. Racine music, the sound so synonymous with Haïti. The strong rhythms enforce a well synchronized and intoxicating beat. The parades meander around neighborhoods for hours, gathering more and more followers as they play. Hoards of frenzied people can be seen dancing and enjoying the moment until the early morning hours.
On the official long carnival weekend, Sunday kicks off the start of the festivities. This year, the main parades will be held in Port au Prince. Since the earthquake, the government had decided to move the major venue from the capital to various provinces each year due to the devastation of the capital downtown area. The stands have been built all around the Champs de Mars which will house the viewing stands of the major sponsors of the event. For entry into any of these, it is usually by invitation or by purchasing a ticket. As the stands are elevated, they allow better viewing of the parade floats and bands as they traverse the viewing area. This is by no means the only way to participate, on the street level are thousands of people all there for the festivities.
I must admit that I am not a carnival fanatic. I have been to a few in the early years when I first came to Haïti, but I prefer to watch the highlights on TV. The sheer number of people in the streets and getting from one point to another is a feat in itself. You can literally get swept away in a sea of human bodies. In fact there will be at least a million people in the streets.
Typical carnival foods are griot ( fried pork pieces) and banane pèsé
as well as fritay which is essentially fried appetizers like accra and marinade.
Banana fritters or beignets de figue are also synonymous with this period. The theme is fried, fried, fried, but still, everything is delicious. Lots of fresco ( shaved ice) with tropical sweet flavors are also big sellers. There will also be an enormous amount of alcohol consumed.
As the Lent period and one associated with a time of fasting and abstinence, the days prior to Lent are often ones which the excesses are seen as acceptable here. If you celebrate carnival in your corner of the world, Happy Carnival!! Enjoy all of the fun and be careful. If you’re like me and you’re just happy for the few days of vacation…enjoy every minute. If you don’t have this festival… SORRY!!
Much love and best wishes friends.