Haiti's Kanaval Unmasked

For a window into Haitian culture, watch as the colorful pantomiming parade of political commentary, Voodoo references and oversized, expressive papier-mâché masks known as Kanaval floods the streets in the seaside town of Jacmel.

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Photo By: Bess Adler

Kanaval in Haiti

Rivaled by and compared with the Carnivals of Rio de Janeiro and Trinidad, Haiti’s Mardi Gras Carnival, or Kanaval in its native Creole, shows the expressive, artistic and proud side of this resilient Caribbean country. 

Haitian Mardi Gras

The largest annual celebration in the country, Kanaval, is held in Port-au-Prince and, like its counterparts, takes place about 46 days before Easter as a last hurrah before the Lent season.

Jacmel’s Kanaval

In addition to the capital celebration, Haiti’s national Kanaval also takes place in another city, which rotates every year. Despite that, the seaside town of Jacmel still traditionally organizes its own Kanaval 1 week before the larger parade in Port-au-Prince. 

Jacmel, the Heart of Kanaval

While the official Kanaval is held in the capital, Port-au-Prince, Jacmel’s 3-day celebration is the heart of Kanaval in Haiti and is known to be the more artistic carnival, largely because of the papier-mâché masks that the town is known for creating. 

Daily Life Stops for Kanaval

For 3 days in February, Haitians of all backgrounds, rich and poor, come together and forget their pain and political struggles during Kanaval, an all-day street celebration in Jacmel, Haiti.  

The Lassoers

The lassoers, or Lanse Kod in Creole, are one of the most striking and frightening parts of Kanaval. Referencing the history of slavery, they roam the streets with ropes and horns, covered in pot-black charcoal to emphasize the darkness of their skin. 

Depictions of Voodoo Rituals

In Haiti, Kanaval includes depictions of Voodoo religious rituals, as well as masks and costumes that satirically represent a part of the Haitian struggles.

UNESCO Candidate

Jacmel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site candidate, and in December 2014, the seaside town joined the UNESCO Creative Cities initiative. Jacmel, one of only 2 network members in the Caribbean (Nassau, Bahamas, also joined in 2014), is recognized for its crafts and folk arts. 

History of African Roots

Kanaval also celebrates the power of the African culture’s roots in Haiti, with costumes and movements depicting the country’s history of slavery.

Artistic Expression

While some costumes and masks have historical or political references, others are personal to the creators.

2010 Earthquake Cancels Kanaval

After the devastating earthquake in 2010, Kanaval was canceled in Haiti for the first time.

Animal and Demon Masks

The masks typically depict animals, often painted in vibrant, unnatural colors. Other masks are a terrifying blend of demons, animals and humans. Children and young men don the oversized masks, which sometimes leave just their legs protruding out. 

Kanaval Music

Every year, new music by Haitian artists is released specifically for the Kanaval season. Haitian kompa is mixed with rara street beats and dance songs to create a heart-thumping street party. 

Traditional Dances

Women perform traditional dances dressed in colorful costumes and ornate headpieces as they parade down the crowded streets in Jacmel. 

Tourist Hub of Haiti

The tourist hub of Haiti, Jacmel is known for its art-filled streets, beautiful beaches and warm people — believed to be the nicest in the country. The general sentiment is that it’s safe to walk around this town.

Photojournalist Bess Adler

All photography is by photojournalist Bess Adler. Based in Brooklyn, NY, Bess is working on an ongoing photo story about Haiti. Her work can be seen on her website or on Instagram @BessAdler.

All photos were taken during an English in Mind trip. For more information on volunteering and traveling with English in Mind, a Haitian-led English school in Port-au-Prince, go to englishinmindinstitute.org.