When edgy Canadian rocker Régine Chassagne found herself dancing to the rara rhythms behind the bands of papier-mâché masked bamboo trumpeters and percussionists two years ago, the co-vocalist of the Grammy-winning band Arcade Fire had no idea how unforgettable that Haitian carnival experience would be.
The mesmerizing sights of Jacmel Carnival found its way into one of Arcade Fire’s music videos, and its drum-fused rhythms crept onto the tracks of the indie rock band’s latest album, Reflektor, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart in November.
On Friday, Chassagne, the daughter of Haitian immigrants who fled Haiti’s brutal Duvalier dictatorship regime in the 1960s for Canada, and husband and band co-vocalist Win Butler, return to the place that inspired it all.
Arcade Fire will headline the Jakmel Jou Bare’n Festival, which kicks off this weekend’s two-day carnival celebrations in touristy, seaside Jacmel on Haiti’s southeastern coast.
Carnival is a celebration of culture and traditions that precedes the Christian season of Lent. In quaint Jacmel, however, the street party takes on its own unique flavor with painted, sinister-looking revelers and musicians in colorful papier-mâché masks.
“I’m really excited,” Chassagne said in a telephone interview from Montreal. She’s unsure how the rock band, which stunned the music world by winning Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 2011, will connect with Haitian carnival goers. She is, however, keeping an open mind.
“It’s Carnival,” Chassagne said with a chuckle and added, “You can’t make any plans for Carnival because they probably aren’t going to happen.”
Long a tourist draw, Kanaval Jakmel takes place a week before Haiti’s National Carnival, which runs March 2-4 in Gonaives. On Wednesday, Haiti’s presidency declared March 4 and 5 Carnival holidays.
Supporters of Haiti’s tourism re-branding efforts say Arcade Fire’s appearance adds an edgy, alternative flavor to the carnival experience in Jacmel, a UNESCO World Heritage site that suffered damages after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake.
It’s just the sort of international spotlight Haiti needs, Tourism Minister Stephanie Villedrouin Balmir said.
“More and more, curious foreigners want to come and see for themselves, to discover the hidden face of Haiti,” she said, “and Arcade Fire, due to its popularity, will provide a boost to local tourism and global advertising of the country.”
Jacmel’s rebuilding efforts and its vibrant artistic culture were notably featured on Thursday in New York City, where Arcade Fire joined other celebrities at the star-studded Haiti Optimiste event to benefit Jacmel’s renown, tuition-free film school, Ciné Institute.
“Lots of people are very excited about their arrival,” said Haiti hotelier and musician Richard Morse. Morse’s vodou rock band RAM will be among the local acts performing at the festival and is scheduled to perform one song with Arcade Fire.
Last week, RAM released its much awaited 2014 Carnival meringue Se Pa Sa'w Te Di (That’s Not What You Said).
This is not Arcade Fire’s first time playing in Haiti. After the quake, the group performed at Morse’s fabled Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince and in the remote rural village of Cange in Haiti’s Central Plateau on behalf of Boston-based medical aid group, Partners In Health.
PIH’s founder, HIV/AIDS pioneer Dr. Paul Farmer, first took Chassagne to Haiti, a country her mother was afraid to visit after seeking exile in Canada.
“Even though she was really traumatized by what had happened to her in Haiti, she always talked about the poor and was thinking of the poor people who don’t have as much opportunity,” Chassagne said of her mother, who has since died.
On her first visit to Haiti in 2008, Chassagne said she discovered parts of herself.
“Everything was so familiar and made me realize, this is why I am like this,” said Chassagne, who plays several instruments. “It explained a lot of things about myself. .. It felt like family, although I had never met any of the people before.”
There also was something familiar about the rara rhythms that blared from the foot bands and the 18-wheelers crawling down the crowded streets.
As for that carnival trip two years ago that inspired Reflektor, Chassagne called it “amazing.” And more than anything this weekend, she said, she’s looking to dance: “I just have to dance.”