Sex, death and slaves: Welcome to Haiti's horror carnival

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Blood and black magic flow through Haiti's history – as photographer Leah Gordon discovered when she went to Mardi Gras in the port town of Jacmel...

Leafing through Leah Gordon's book of bewildering, disturbing and thrilling black-and-white photos, one stands out. Two boys stand before the camera, each wearing rough eyemasks, their naked upper bodies smeared with something grim-looking, large horns bound to their heads and rope in their hands. They look, to be frank, terrifying.

The photo was taken in Haiti, at the Mardi Gras carnival of Jacmel, a port on the south coast, and at first glance it plays up to the country's voodoo clichés; but look a little closer – the boys seem at ease, proud even, to pose for their portrait. That they do so is down to the dedication of Gordon, a 51-year-old British photographer. For 15 years, Gordon has been plunging herself into the rich, weird world of the Jacmel carnival and returning with images such as this and many more, which feature in her new book Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti.

For those of us unfamiliar with either its medieval European origins or its altogether different manifestations in the further reaches of Latin and South America, the word "carnival" evokes dancing policemen on the streets of Notting Hill, or the flamboyant, technicolour parades of Rio de Janeiro. But the carnival (or "kanaval" in Haiti's native creole) of Jacmel is quite radically different: a spontaneous, popular and mysterious mixture of theatre and masquing, voodoo and history that reaches a climax in this former French colonial port on Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. '

For a few wild days, boys and men career round the crumbling, picturesque by-ways of Jacmel, often in marauding groups, wearing home-made costumes or in sinister, eye- popping drag. Some outfits have meanings that extend back centuries, others are entirely idiosyncratic and personal to their creators. It is no mere street party, then, but rather a carnival by and for the largely impoverished people of Jacmel, which tells, in its own way, the tumultuous history of Haiti, from the slave rebellion that freed the country from its French masters in 1804 to this year's catastrophic earthquake, via the bloody dictatorships of the Duvaliers and much else besides.

And for her introduction to this intoxicating brew, Gordon has Jill Dando to thank. In 1991, Gordon was watching a Holiday programme sequence about the Dominican Republic: "Suddenly [Dando] said, straight to camera, 'I must warn you the Dominican Republic shares the island with another country called Haiti – do not go there by mistake, because Haiti is a country of dictatorships, military coups, death, black magic and voodoo.' I thought, all that and hot weather? Within a month I was on a plane to Port au Prince." She discovered the Jacmel carnival in 1995, and has been photographing it ever since; but it wasn't until 2003 that she decided to learn more about its traditions and participants.

The result is the book, which mixes photography, several essays by other contributors and the oral histories of carnival participants, which Gordon herself recorded. And it is in these brief interviews that Gordon affords a glimpse into the extraordinary world of Jacmel carnival. Salnave Raphael, for instance, is one of the Lanse Kod (a Creole rendering of "lanceurs de corde" or "lassoists"), described above, who roam the streets with their ropes and horns. "We are making a statement about slavery, and being freed from slavery," he tells Gordon in his account. "The cords we carry are the cords that were used to bind us. The blackness of our skin is made with pot-black crushed charcoal, cane spirit and cane syrup mixed with water. [On] the streets we stop at the first crossroads and at the blow of my whistle we all start doing push-ups, to show that though the slaves suffered they are still very strong. We wear the horns to look even more frightening... in carnival people like to be scared."

The Lanse Kod vie for pre-eminence with other large, equally striking groups such as the Zel Maturin, who enact a battle between St Michel and various spectacularly dressed and bewinged devils, both Christian and voodoo, for the souls of the faithful. Yet perhaps the most bewitching figures are the lone performers, such as Andre Ferner, who appears as Madame Lasiren. Lasiren is a voodoo marine spirit whom Ferner and his ancestors have honoured for generations. "The baby I carry in my arms is the child of Lasiren, who is called Marie Rose... Because Lasiren is a fish," says Ferner, "she has to disguise herself as a woman to be at Mardi Gras. Each year I change the disguise and fashion a new baby. To get inspiration, I go to the place where the big beasts live, and they instruct me to do Mardi Gras. I have been doing this for 18 years."

"I really like Madame Lasiren because [Ferner] is just an old-fashioned Haitian spiritual voodooist," says Gordon, who believes that for many of its participants, carnival isn't just the highlight of their year, it's the source of their social status. "I never asked what their jobs were. It's a difficult question in Haiti, because so many people don't do anything. You don't really get judged so much by what your job is, and that's why things like carnival and creativity are so important."

Other characters which appear equally obscure are in fact pointedly satirical. Until his recent death, Eugene Lamour played a character called Chaloska, in a bicorn hat, with grotesquely enlarged lips and teeth. The name refers to Charles Oscar, a notoriously murderous Jacmel police chief lynched in the early 20th century. Lamour first took him on to the streets in 1962, coinciding with the autocratic outrages of President François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Ever since, the presence of Chaloska in carnival has coincided with popular disgust at certain corrupt figures in the Haitian establishment.

Political commentary, voodoo street theatre, religious pageantry – Jacmel carnival has been juggling these myriad roles for two centuries. But whether it can survive in the form so vividly captured by Gordon is in doubt. Already there is pressure to introduce parades and more music, which, according to Gordon, is largely an attempt to control and commercialise the event, with sponsorship, and licensed food and drink concessions. Jacmel carnival is unusual because, unlike other Haitian carnivals, it has so far resisted this fate.

As for the devastating earthquake of January this year, Gordon is consoled that none of her oral-history subjects was killed; nonetheless, she worries how much of the town's evocative but vulnerable architecture has survived : "What happens to all that history and memory when the buildings collapse?" Instead of carnival in February this year, there was a muted procession to the town's cemetery. Next year, says Gordon, there will definitely be a carnival in Jacmel. "People keep asking me if these [people] that I worked with are going to start doing earthquake-related work, but it doesn't really interest them. It sort of interests the outside world more," she says. "Haitians tend to laugh at crises; not in a horrible way – but they've had a lot of them."

'Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti' is published by Soul Jazz Publishing (souljazzrecords. co.uk), priced £19.99. An exhibition of Gordon's photographs opens tomorrow at Riflemaker, London W1 (tel: 020 7439 0000, riflemaker.org).

Additional reporting by Nick Frost

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution