In Haiti, Carnival Celebrations Replaced by Mourning

It is a manifestation of the Haitian spirit, the enduring buoyancy and optimism that has guided Haiti for more than 200 years.

For as long as anyone can remember, carnival or kanaval has taken place. Until this year. Haiti carnival has now become a wake.

As quake-struck Haitians ended three days of national mourning and fasting Sunday, the satirical drumbeats of the traditional “meringues” ridiculing politicians and rivaling musicians that would have marked the beginning of the three-day carnival have been silenced.

They have been replaced with strings of sorrow, and cries to rise from the rubble and move forward — avanse — as Haiti continues to mourn its 200,000-plus dead: fallen artists, struggling neighbors, loving family, inspiring leaders.

Carnival would have ended Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.

“Is Haiti finished? I say, No, No. We have to rise again,” Miami-based T-Vice sings in Nou Pap Lage (We Won’t Give Up). “Don’t be discouraged. I have faith, I have hope, the Haitian people will find victory. Together we shall overcome.”

If Haiti’s pre-Lent colorful street party has always been the barometer of the Caribbean nation’s ailing temperatures, then its cancellation by the government is a sign that the country barely has a pulse. Even if the spirit is willing, Haitians in Miami and on the island say the heart is just too crushed to cooperate.

“Are we broken? Yes,” said Eric Gaillard, a devoted carnival reveler who captured on video the horror and screams of a collapsing capital from the balcony of his house in Port-au-Prince’s Pacot residential neighborhood. “The worst: there is no leadership. The government is not providing strong guidelines. It’s not giving us a vision of hope, saying ‘Haitian people, Port-au-Prince is destroyed, we are going to construct again. We have a plan, be patient with us.'”

Just as reggae and rhythm and blues artists have recorded tributes chronicling the destruction and despair following the Jan. 12, 7.0-magnitude earthquake, so have many Haitian artists.

Instead of preparing to perform live on the Champs de Mars, they are releasing their songs on iTunes, posting them on Facebook and YouTube and handing them to Haitian deejays to fill the airwaves — and to help raise money for charities.

The dark cloud cast by the quake stretches from the empty carnival viewing stands lining the rubble-strewn streets of downtown Port-au-Prince to the empty dance halls of Miami, quieted since the quake.

“I don’t think anybody’s heart is on the music,” Michel Martelly, Haiti’s charismatic konpa king best known to fans as Sweet Micky, said from his Port-au-Prince home, where he and his wife Sophia were preparing to distribute food to the ravaged Bel-Air neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the crumbled presidential palace.

“The dimension of this tragedy is beyond peoples’ imagination.”

In Miami when the earthquake struck and unable to reach his wife, Martelly grabbed son Olivier, called in Haitian-born rapper Black Dada and saxophonist Jowee Omicil to help him capture the dispiriting moment in song.

“From far, I see my peoples dying. From far, I hear the kids, they’re crying. They have no place to go,” Olivier sings in English as his famous father and Black Dada pipe in: “What’s going on? Put your heads together. What’s going on.”

Trying to make sense of the tragedy, they sing, “Tell me what we did to end up like this….Show me a sign from above. All I want to do is stop this misery.”

In recent days, Haiti’s political and religious leaders have called on Haitians to be strong, put their heads together to build a new society.

Ironically, this year’s carnival theme was “Building a New Path.”

“It was the first time I had my carnival song ready a month early,” said T-Vice lead singer Roberto Martino, who was in the group’s Miami recording studio, minutes from recording his voice tracks, when word of the quake hit. “There was such a positive vibe before the quake, everything was moving forward in the country.”

Like many, he can’t recall ever a time when carnival was canceled. Not through the coup d’etats, perennial political unrest or economic hard times; not even in 2005, when musicians and fans were dodging bullets from warring thugs in front of the presidential palace.

“This is supposed to be the most festive time out of the whole year for the Haitian people; a time when they forget about their misery, forget about everything. Now, they have to think 100 times more about their problems,” Martino said. “There is no tomorrow, no hope. That is how the people are looking at it now.”

But even as life in Haiti seems to hopelessly stand still, musicians and instruments remain buried in the rubble, and the Champs de Mars bursts with tens of thousands of homeless rather than hundreds of thousands of revelers, some like Miami musician Ralph Cassagnol see a lining of hope. He ponders this year’s carnival theme to which his group Mawon penned its carnival tune Avancé. The song, written a month before the quake, seems especially appropriate now as Haitians, battered and broken, look for deliverance in another kind of way.

“There’s no time to talk. There’s no time to play around. What’s happened has happened. It’s our time to move forward. We have a country to save,” Mawon’s seven-piece band sings. “Don’t look back. There are no more tears left to cry.”

“We’ve been through a lot of pain,” Cassagnol said from Miami, where Mawon has been doing concert fundraisers to aid Haiti and plans to donate proceeds from the single to charities working to help Haitians recover.

“If we keep looking back we’ll never move forward,” he said. “We have to let the shedding of tears be done during the mourning period. Let’s get that emotion out and move forward.”