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In Haiti, little joy in the town that hosts Carnival

JACMEL, Haiti — Jacques Turin unlocks an old wooden shed in his back yard and begins stacking dusty papier-mache masks on the steps: huge yellow rooster heads, orange insects and red demons, each more grotesque than the one before.

"I stopped making masks the day of the earthquake because I knew Jacmel would be too sad for Carnival," says Turin, 42, chief of the Association of Artists of Jacmel.

He was right. On this Tuesday — the last day of the Mardi Gras that didn't happen — there is little joy for Turin and hundreds of other artists and musicians. Men in yellow helmets dig in rubble looking for bodies that may bring Jacmel's death total to 500 from the Jan. 12 earthquake. Houses are painted with the message "our health is in an urgent state." Three-fourths of the buildings in Jacmel are damaged, according to the Associated Press.

All across this beach town of about 45,000 in southern Haiti, a five-hour drive from Port-au-Prince, street bands are silent and massive papier-mache creatures — dragons, scorpions, tigers and birds — are stacked in sheds, gathering dust. Mayor Edo Zenny says the cancellation of the three-day Carnival cost the city's artists and merchants $1 million.

The earthquake is estimated to have killed more than 230,000 people in Haiti, and yet Turin manages to take a break from the sadness.

"Put on a costume," he urges his 18-year-old nephew, John Cayo.

While Cayo pulls a wad of yellow satin from a pile, Turin talks about his 30 years as a maker of papier-mache for Carnival. At 12, he apprenticed with Jacmel's best papier-mache artists. He learned how to shred cardboard boxes and mold them into forms with water, flour and cement paper. He learned how to use the bright acrylic paints to get just the right combination of creepiness and goofiness.

"My favorite is the butterfly because it seems so carefree — like people at Carnival," he says.

Every year, thousands of people from the United States and all over the Caribbean and Europe descend upon Jacmel. They drink Barbancourt rum and flood the streets to dance to some of Haiti's best live music with hundreds of the larger-than-life papier-mache characters. They stay in beach hotels and eat street food, buying souvenirs of one of the world's best parties.

"Carnival is not only our moneymaker, it is our opiate," says Christophe Lang, owner of hotel Cyvadier Plage.

"We have gone on through bad storms, coups and wars," he says. "We especially need it now."

On Tuesday morning, Alex Michel, co-owner of Radio Vibration, a Jacmel radio station that promotes bands during Carnival, meets with musicians who were set to play at Carnival.

"Perhaps a little march in the street around 3?" he asks the 18 artists who have gathered in his front yard.

The response is unenthusiastic.

"Yes, it's Carnival," says Nicolas Petuel, 28, a drum and guitar player in a street band of 19 players, "but people are still mourning."

Nevertheless, Petuel asks visitors to come to his home to see the instruments of his band Skasha, which plays racine — Haitian folk music with heavy African percussion.

Because of the earthquake, his family lives under a large white tarp stretched between a cracked concrete structure and a tin lean-to. Large green horns of tin and bamboo lean against the concrete wall, along with snare drums, bass drums and African bongos called tambours.

Petuel and his friends pick up instruments and begin playing, producing a wild cacophony of sound somewhere between racine and West Coast jazz. They continue just long enough to attract a neighbor who enters and starts dancing. After a few moments, they put their instruments down.

"Ah, that felt good," Petuel says.

At Jacques Turin's home, his 18-year-old nephew puts on the bright yellow satin costume and slips the orange and yellow papier-mache insect mask onto his head. Turin laces ropes connected to wooden wings through the costume so his nephew appears to be flying when he moves his arms.

For a few seconds, the maker of masks, his wife and their two children stand quietly in their dusty yard, watching the butterfly flap its wings without a care in the world.

"Yes, that's how Carnival is supposed to be," Turin says. "Perhaps, someday, again."

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughling@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8068.

In Haiti, little joy in the town that hosts Carnival 02/16/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 12:10am]
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