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Jacmel, Haiti; History of the town and carnival

Jacmel, Haiti; History of the town and carnival

Caribbean, Carnivals

My first motobike ride ever happened today in Jacmel! And I rode it for half the day as this is the main mode of transportation here.  To say I was a bit freaked initially was an understatement.  From no riding at all to riding very comfortably and relaxed in one day?  Who would have thought it? But back to the main focus, Jacmel and its carnival.


I was fortunate enough to interview Markensy Hyacinthe, the general manager and Evans of the very informative and tour company ‘Experience Jacmel’.  I would seriously recommend them as your first port of call when coming here. They were able to tell me more about the history of Jacmel and its carnival.

Jacmel I am told by Evans began in 1698 and was founded 50 years before Port-au-Prince.  The name of Jacmel it is thought came from a French colonel who settled here called Jac Du Mille. And that’s where they shrank the name to Jacmel Louis XIV decided to create this settlement to increase the production of sugar. Jacmel was the only port for the whole continent for over 40 years. It was the only destination for business for the whole Caribbean.

Interview with Markensy: When did Jacmel carnival begin?  To talk about Jacmel carnival we must go over a century but the carnival really began in the 1920s. And the represention with papier mache took flight in 1950.  It was in the 70s, 80s it became a national event. In Jacmel we organise our own carnival a week before the national carnival.  Jacmel helps organise the bigger carnivals. Haitians who live in the diaspora, everyone attends. All the hotels are booked three months in advance. On Sunday, from 10am, we have the mas costumes parade until 4pm.  Then there is the foot bands hwo are on from 4-9pm.  Then the big trucks with the live bands and artists take over until early hours of the morning.

Why did Jacmel become such a focus for carnival and papier mache and culture?  It is because of our creativity. Only in Jacmel we have artisans that make papier mache mas like we do.  It is passed down from parents to children.

How many bands are there in Jacmel carnival?  There are more than 30  bands on foot, we called  ‘La la’ playing bamboo, drums, tamboo and beautiful songs. We have ten who are selected to march on the day. There are other bands such as T-Vice, Sweet Mickey who are on large floats.

Can anyone join the bands?  Well you can dance beside them on the day but they start organising and rehearsing their songs from December. Each group has its own carnival song.

Does Jacmel have Kings and Queens?  Sure. Jacmel is part of the south east. In the south east we have ten communities. And Jacmel is part of ten communities.  This year we are going to have ten kings and queens.  They have already been chosen,. They were given an interview and test. On Saturday night, they will be revealed. There will be poetry talking about Jacmel, the history of Jacmel.

The costumes, I noticed there are not a lot of beads and feathers. That’s the difference and beauty of Jacmel carnival. We don’t really imitate other carnivals.  We have our own creativity in costumes and people from Haiti make our costumes. And of course, we make a papier mache.

What’s your favourite part of carnival? The masquerade.. seeing all the costumes on the road.

Interview with Evans:  What makes Jacmel so special for you?  The history of Jacmel is the first thing.  Jacmel was the first town in the whole Caribbean to have electricity. It was the first one to have the wheel pipe drinking water system, the first town to have a telephone  that facilitated conversation between Haiti and Europe.  The people for Jacmel are very creative.  We have the carnival, the May 1st agricultural festival.

What makes Jacmel carnival so special? The carnival of Jacmel comes from the bottom of our hearts. When it comes to organising it, we are not thinking of money first.  It is to see who can be the most creative.  The artists begin to think quite hard about what they will be creating. We believe in colours when it comes to carnivals. The masks, the motivation that people have to make carnival better every year. The papier mache we do here is different. Other places do papier mache but not like Jacmel. People know how to make masks.

Markensy and I take a short trip to a building where he show me some of the papier mache which will be in the parade.

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I learnt about the history of Jacmel and the carnival of Jacmel.  Can’t wait to see the actual parade and mas tomorrow!!  But there are other things I got to experience whilst here, such as visiting Bassin Bleu (stunning waterfalls) and attending a voodoo ceremony. But that story is for another day.

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