Kanaval, by Leah Gordon

‘Each year, Jacmel, a coastal town in Southern Haiti, holds pre-Lenten Mardi Gras Festivities. Troupes of ‘performers’ act out mythological and political tales in a whorish theatre of the absurd that courses the streets unshackled by traditional parade.

‘The characters and costume partially betray their roots in medieval European carnival, but the Jacmellien masquerades are also a fusion of clandestine Vodou, ancestral memory, political satire and personal revelation.

‘The work is accompanied by oral histories from the participants (see the final three images)’

- Leah Gordon

'Chaloska' (Charles Oscar) - Eugene Lamour a.k.a. Boss

‘The Chief Charles Oscar was a military commandant in charge of the police in Jacmel. He died here in 1912. He was tall and strong with big feet and teeth and feared by all. At a time when there was political instability in Port-au-Prince, when President Sam had just been assassinated, Charles Oscar took his chance to take 500 prisoners from the local jail and kill them all. There was so much blood it made a river of death. The population was so angry that that revolted and tore the police chief to pieces in the street and burned him down. He was killed in the same violent way that he had treated the people.

‘This story has always been very striking to me, and in 1962, I decided to create the character of Chaloska for Carnival. I designed the military uniform and made the big false teeth with bull’s teeth bought from the market. Each year I change the costume a little by designing a different hat for the group to wear.

‘When I created Chaloska I also wanted to create some other characters to go along with him. I created Master Richard and Doctor Calypso. Master Richard is a rich man with a big bag full of money and a huge fat stomach. He walks with the group of Chaloska buying justice and paying the judges. He represents the impunity and corruption that hides behind Chaloska and is the real chief of the city. Doctor Calypso is an old hunch back with a black suit and a stick in his hand. He works for Chaloska and checks on the health of the prisoners, always reporting that they are healthy when they are dying.

‘These characters are still here in Haitian society so it is good to parade them on the street. It is a message to all future Oscars that you will end up this way. The group goes to different places in town threatening the people. The boss Chaloska always finally dies, and the others call for mercy as they are cowards, but then another Chaloska immediately replaces him. This is to show the infinite replication of Chaloska which continue to produce the same system. There will be Chaloska until the end of the world. They started with the beginning and will not end until the end.’

'Madanm Lasiren' - Andre Ferner, 59 years

‘Lasiren is a spirit that lives under the sea and does mystical work there, she is a Vodou spirit, I dream of Lasiren all the time. That is the reason I do Lasiren for Mardi Gras. I chose Lasiren because my grandmother, father and mother all served the spirits, I love her & honour her.

‘The baby that I carry in my arms is the child of Lasiren who is called Marie Rose. When I walk the streets I sing her song which goes ‘ I am Lasiren and I cry for Lasiren, when I work mystically in the night bad luck can come my way’. I prepare for Lasiren by putting on a hat, a mask and carrying an umbrella. I put on a necklace and gloves. This necklace is called Mambo Welcome, it is a fetish.

‘Because Lasiren is a fish she has to disguise herself as a woman to be at Mardi Gras. My mask and hat cover her fish’s head. And the dress she wears covers her fish’s tail. The chain I wear is a sacred chain. Each year I change the disguise and fashion a new baby. In order to get inspiration I go to the place where the big beasts live and they instruct me how to do Mardi Gras. I have been doing this for 18 years.

‘Before that I did another Mardi Gras call Patoko. This was a group of men who were dressed as women, with a nice dresses and high heeled shoes. We did a marriage between men and woman on the street. After that we had a group called the duck who carried brushes in their hands wearing blue trousers, white t-shirts, new sandles and a scarf around our waists. We swept the streets of Jacmel. I have always found a way of doing a Mardi Gras.

Lanse Kòd - Salnave Raphael a.k.a. Nabot Power, 32 years

‘When I was child the Lanceurs de Corde were always my favourite group. But I wanted to do it on a much larger scale. I have a gym here in my yard and all my friends from the gym wanted to join. We have one hundred guys, all strong and fit. We are making a statement about slavery and being freed from slavery. This is a celebration of our independence in 1804.

‘The cords we carry are the cords that were used to bind us. We are always sullen and menacing and we never smile. The blackness of our skin is made with crushed charcoal, pot black, kleren (cane spirit) and cane syrup mixed with a little water in a bucket. Although we know that slaves never wore horns, this is about the revolt of the slaves, and we wear the horns to give us more power and to look even more frightening.

‘When we take to the streets we stop at the first cross roads and at the blow of my whistle we all start doing push-ups. This is to show that even though the slaves suffered they are still very strong. Some of the slaves are so strong that they must wear chains to hold back their massive strength. I chose to do Lanceurs de Corde because I know and like the story, and in carnival people like to be scared. We are the scariest. The Zel Mathurin are supposed to be frightening but they are scared of us because they think that they will dirty their fancy satin costumes if they touch us. Also our costumes are much cheaper to make than many other costumes. No materials, no papier-mache just the charcoal and syrup mixture.

‘There are three other groups of Lanceurs de Corde, Chaneur Gym, Protection Gym and Couvre-Feu. The last group were our true competitors in strength and size but their chief, Lafaille Hans, died a week ago. He spent the night dancing, ate a little mango and dropped dead. All the Lanceurs de Corde from the town, hundreds of us, went to the funeral and did a performance as an homage to a great master. We then went to his house and wrote our regrets on his wall. The leader of Chaneur Gym, Frisson Belleve, died just last year of electrocution. I am worried that these are bad omens, but I will continue.’

All images by Leah Gordon

Drawn from ’Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti‘, available now.

Thank you to Leah Gordon

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