Arcade Fire comes to Haiti for Carnival
Sorry for the blog silence. Plenty has happened since November, and somehow I wasn’t inspired to sit down and write. But last weekend changed that. Arcade Fire + Haiti + Carnival = once in a lifetime awesomeness.
Arcade Fire came down to Haiti and played Friday, February 21 in Jacmel, a coastal town in the south known for its art and music. We left work on Friday, made the four hour drive from the capital, checked into our hotel with friends, had dinner and got ready for an outdoor concert that we couldn’t quite believe that was actually going to happen. Arcade Fire recently came out with their new album, Reflektor, which was partly influenced by Haitian music. Specifically, some of the music on the track Here Comes the Night Time is reminiscent of Haitian carnival music. Carnival season is music season in Haiti. Many established Haitian bands come out with their special carnival song right around this time, often with subtle (or not so subtle) political messages in the lyrics. And many Haitians form ad-hoc rara bands that are mostly made up of long, single-pitched metal horns and drums, and play in the carnival parade and during Easter week before disbanding until next year.
The concert was amazing. After several well-known Haitian bands, Arcade Fire got on stage and performed a mix of songs from Reflektor and several favorites from their earlier albums. It was entertaining to watch Haitians listen to Arcade Fire, who were on stage so full of energy with drums and streamers. Honestly, some Haitians just didn’t get it. Some just stood and stared curiously as the Canadians with crazy outfits went all out. And I understand –the songs are in a different language, and probably very few of them had ever heard of the band before. But as the show went on, the crowd warmed up and soon was dancing and waving their hands; they got into a few of the call and response songs and cheered loudly whenever the band said anything in Creole or French. The crowd had fun, but the expat hipster crowd (if the shoe fits) was borderline euphoric. I mean seriously, listening to Arcade Fire perform “Haiti” in Haiti – I may never be able to top that. I wish I had photos to share of the concert itself, but I decided to leave my camera safely at home. So instead, you should click on this article for photos and the set list. Also, most of the band stayed at our hotel and I finally worked up the courage at breakfast to say hello.
Saturday was a low-key beach day for us, but Sunday was the big day in Jacmel for Haitians: carnival. The actual, official carnival is this Tuesday in the central town of Gonaives, but Jacmel always does their own carnival a week or two early. They are known for their elaborate paper mache masks, raucous parades, and great local rara bands. A friend of ours arranged for a rooftop spot along the parade route so that we could enjoy pizza and beer while watching the explosion of colors and sounds below. We ventured into the street a few times to take photos and visit some other friends in a balcony a block away, but mostly were happy to be high above the melee.
Sometimes Port-au-Prince seems dull and monotone. The dusty gray roads, chalky earth and cement cinderblock houses don’t provide much color. But this weekend we enjoyed a totally different side of Haiti. The streets were full of paper mache versions of every creature imaginable – there were zebras in vibrant colors along with bumblebees, butterflies, parrots, panthers, giraffes, goblins, demons, vodou deities, current and former presidents, dinosaurs and dragons. There were svelte young women dancing with chicken masks on their heads and men covered in molasses and mud threatening to rub their muck on parade watchers. After the dancers and costumes, the rara bands with their trumpets and drums began to appear as the sun was setting. The streets went from full to completely packed. The crowd became one solid river of people slowly flowing up the hill. The occasional fight would break out, but mostly it was a mass of people in full party mode. I’ve never seen anything like it, a complete assault on all the senses. It was hands down one of the most memorable weekends I’ve had, and definitely the best one in Haiti so far.