Much of the connection between Haitian and New Orleans culture has been lost to history, but for Haitian-Canadian Régine Chassagne of Arcade Fire and Ben Jaffe of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, they’ve provided fertile ground for their Krewe du Kanaval Mardis Gras parade and ball. The idea for Krewe started when Chassagne and her husband/bandmate Win Butler took the members of Perservation Hall on a trip to Haiti back in 2015. Chassagne’s family had fled Haiti during the brutal reign of Françcois Duvalier and have been returning to Haiti regularly since the band first played there in 2004, raising money for a local hospital. In 2005, they began working with Partners in Health and Kanpe, continuing their efforts after the earthquake which devastated the country in 2010.
Both Arcade Fire and Preservation Hall will play again for the festival’s third and biggest year on Feb. 14 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater in New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Park, along with guests Michael Brun, Jillionaire, Lakou Mizik, Pierre Kwenders and more. I spoke with both Chassagne and Jaffe about why they created Krewe du Kanaval and what we can expect from this year’s festivities.
Paste: To start out, can you talk a little bit about why a Haitian-themed festival in New Orleans? Can you talk a little bit about the connection between Haiti and the city and what made you want to launch the Krewe du Karnival?
Ben Jaffe: So I’m going to let Régine tackle that because she’s, she’s the one responsible for introducing me to Haiti and sort of beginning my, my discovery journey.
Régine Chassagne: So first of all, I just want to say it’s not just Haitian-themed; it’s a reality. I grew up in Montreal, and my family is from Haiti—all of it. So I grew up speaking French, and I also grew up around Haitian Creole and more of a Caribbean culture. And when I visited New Orleans, every time we would stop by playing, something was just like, ‘What is this place?’ This place has something different that completely felt really familiar to me. Even though it was this different, it was kind of like similar cultural components—but with a different combo of the French and a little bit of Spanish and the Creole. I recognize it, and it really attracted me to the city. It’s kind of like a cousin universe—it’s kind of an oldest connection that come from this.
Jaffe: I didn’t grow up in the typical community in New Orleans. We were very blessed to have so much music, and we really value community here. After I visited Cuba and visited Haiti, I’ve really begun to understand more deeply the source of the things that I appreciate so much about New Orleans. Community isn’t just something you talk about or try to define. It’s actually a thing, you know? It’s actually a neighborhood and actually people that you grew up with. It’s the great grandmother, the great grandfather. It’s the priest and the minister of the church. It’s the person who runs the little grocery store, the member of the social aid and pleasure club, the musician, the Mardi Gras Indian. It’s the Neville Brothers. It’s all of these people that make up this incredible city. And then within the city, there are these little micro-communities of people. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to have a deeper appreciation for that and understand how precious and sacred and rare that is. And it’s something that I was able to experience, and the whole Preservation Hall band was able to go there and actually feel sort of like this big, big family coming together—like a reunion of families.
Chassagne: That’s true. It feels like that.
Jaffe: At one time there was more of a fluid back-and-forth between Haiti and New Orleans and other communities in the Caribbean just because of our trade and because of New Orleans’ very important geographic location. We are the first city at the mouth of the Mississippi. We were the gateway to the Americas from the Caribbean. Everything coming into the country had to come through New Orleans. Coffee, sugar, even—and it’s sad to even talk about it—but humans, as well, coming into this country and leaving the country. All of our exports and cotton, coffee and sugar, were coming out of the country. It’s just interesting that the connection was in some ways more realized 200 years ago. And over the centuries we’ve, we’ve sort of lost a little bit of that. But its fingerprint and DNA is still here.
Paste: Yeah. We’ve seen a huge influx of Haitians into New Orleans over the course of the last couple of hundred years. Both places have also suffered two of the most devastating natural disasters of this century. Haiti just marked 10 years since the earthquake and the country is still suffering from its efforts. What do you see of the differences in the way those two places have bounced back and what do you see as the biggest needs that still remain in Haiti?
Chassagne: Those are gigantic questions. I will speak for what I know—the work that’s being done by organizations like Partners in Health and Kanpe, who are working in the Central Plateau. So I think the earthquake revealed the fragility of the system, the non-system. It’s really hard to build on a foundation when there’s no system like the government, because it was very weak or fragile. When NGOs perpetuate this fragility by bypassing the official infrastructure even as weak as it is, it’s really a short-term solution because you can’t just run a country on NGOs. People need their own infrastructure. So I think we’ll get there. The people on the ground I know are so extremely dedicated but don’t often get the highlights. It’s mostly the outsiders that get all the talk. Anyway, I could go on and on. I don’t want to dwell on that, but I really believe NGOs need to look at themselves. And I’m always talking to myself because to me it’s really important to make sure that we do a good job. And if it’s not working, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Why?”
Paste: I want to get into the Karnival itself, but I wanted to ask one about your family’s immigration from Haiti. It was out of necessity due to the [François] Duvalier’s violent reign. I don’t want to compare, but there have been extra-judicial killings recently that had been linked to the government. How has your history affected your relationship with Haiti and your experiences going back there and your heart for the country? I know you guys have done a lot to try to raise awareness just do good in the country.
Chassagne: Well for me it’s two things. It’s the livelihood. I care about the livelihood of people in Haiti and the opportunities for amazing people to get great things done because there’s so much talent in Haiti, that it’s unbelievable. So that, and also the cultural aspect, which is really important for me because, even as a daughter of immigrants, I think it does stipulate a lot of different people who are sons and daughters of immigrants. It is a thing where when you’ve arrived in a new country, parents feel like they have to negate or deny their whole culture. That they have to like dissolve it so they can blend in. And so they put that on their children as well.
I think it’s still really cool to be adaptable to a new place where you arrived, of course, but that shouldn’t be accompanied by a shame of what you were like, you know? And that the culture that you have—it’s not one culture or the other. It’s like one on top of the other. So you can speak French and English and Spanish and Creole and you’re not one or the other. You’re one. And the other. So it’s a plus to me that you have access to all the universes. It’s a real value because I want to fight that sense of having to be or feel “less than” by these layers that you have. But on the contrary, you shouldn’t feel “less than” but feel even richer for having all these layers for yourself. Haitian culture has been often just completely discarded, and it’s so sophisticated and it’s a diamond in the rough. And it’s given so much to American culture, and people don’t even know about it. So yeah, I’m always trying to put it forward everywhere I go.
Paste: That’s great. And Ben, can you talk about that first Preservation Hall trip to Haiti and what that was like?
Jaffe: Yeah, I went down with Win [Butler] and Régine and a member of our foundation on sort of a research visit to understand more about the work that Kanpe does and just to understand the whole landscape. When we were down there, Régine introduced me to the gentleman who had the band called RAM, Richard Morse. And immediately there was a brotherhood there. He’s doing very similar things in his community that are also being done in New Orleans, like what Preservation Hall does, just on a different scale and with different obstacles. That just grew into me thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is part of the Preservation Hall journey—part of the journey of the members of the band. And part of what I do is to create this dialogue—the moment where the band, the members of my band can go learn something about themselves and continue to grow as musicians. And that’s really impactful when you’re going into a community, like you’re going into Cuba or you’re going to Brazil or Colombia or Mexico. And this trip it was to Haiti, and I don’t even know when the last time a band from New Orleans has been to Haiti. The Preservation Hall band had never been. It may have been hundreds of years since a New Orleans band has been there. I’ve never heard anybody in New Orleans, in my community of musicians, ever speak about Haiti. They speak about it, but we think about it in terms of our connection to voodoo or the Mardi Gras Indian tradition or the jazz tradition and the jazz processions that take place at funerals.
The experience was incredible for the band members. I remember just preparing the guys for the trip and some of the obstacles that we were going to face just in terms of just the the physical challenges of being there and things being outside of our normal comfort zone as a band. But you know, in New Orleans, that’s something you’re kind of prepared for because of the way that we grow up playing in parades and things being played without electricity and you know, like, “Hey, when does the parade start?” “I don’t know, when everybody gets there.” That kind of attitude lends itself to the way we grew up in new Orleans.
And I remember one of the experiences that I loved was just watching from the porch of this old Colonial hotel that we were staying in that was built into the side of a mountain that was a couple hundred years old and watching two of the members of my band watching these the young dancers work on a piece based on sort of traditional voodoo rhythms and dances, and then just being almost like as if they were in watching this happen. They were that moved by just the experience of being in the community of the artists. And that was, that was really how we all felt.
I remember also our trombone player—his family had told him, “Look, you’re probably gonna run into some family members when you’re down there. Cause our families have Haitian roots.” And sure enough, here we are just kind of hanging out at this event that we helped produce at this incredible hotel, and nothing like this had ever really been done before. Bands from all over the country had come to those to perform. And he was backstage and he saw there’s a woman who looks just like his aunt, and he’s texting pictures to his mom. And she was like, “Oh yeah, that’s your aunt so-and-so.” “No mom, I’m in Haiti. This is not my aunt.” She’s like, “Oh that’s your aunt. That’s definitely your aunt.” And they come to find out that they’re all cousins. They’re all back in touch again. And it was that moment that you realize that we’re not even like one degree of separation musically or culturally from Haiti. It’s just something that was cut off for economic reason and political reasons—the same way we were cut off from a lot of our African roots in New Orleans. And this is probably a step in that direction to learn more about that piece of us as well.
Paste: That’s fantastic. It sounds like this was a long overdue connection that needed to happen. So can you talk a little bit about the Krewe du Karnival and the ongoing way that’s kind of reviving that connection between New Orleans and Haiti?
Jaffe: I guess it’s important to understand a little bit about like what a krewe is in New Orleans. It goes back to the beginning of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And it was these organizations that still today are organizations—whether it’s a neighborhood organization or a political organization or a group of friends or business people who get together and form a club. Some krewes have their own clubhouse, and they have events throughout the year. So we wanted to create something that reflected our Orleans experience, something that’s brought together people from the entire city, not just one particular area. And also open up our membership to like-minded people worldwide. We have members from all over the world who come in for Kanaval. So that was really the idea. And we wanted to create something that reflected all of the things that we love about New Orleans and Haiti. The idea of dancing down the street. That’s something that I thought was very particular to New Orleans, but then I went to Haiti and I’m like, “Oh wow, they have that here too.” In Haiti, they call it Rara. In New Orleans, it’s the second line. In both places, those are sacred traditions. In New Orleans that’s a sacred African-American tradition. But it’s where a band marches down the street, accompanied by a social aid and pleasure club, which are primarily African-American neighborhood organizations followed by dancers. And it’s a community, and it’s amazing. It’s the most punk rock thing you can imagine. And then when I went to Haiti to experience a Rara, it was like being in a mosh pit—not in terms of like running around pushing and punching people, but in terms of like of just that release of energy being instant, just calm music and the vibration of the moment. To actually be on the street dancing with a band moving down the street is incredible.
Paste: Let’s talk about this year’s Kanaval. What are each of you most looking forward to for this this third version here?
Jaffe: Well, the two things that stick out this year for me—and I’m going to let Régine talk about like all the choreography and the music of the dance—but the few things that really mean something to me this year is we are going to be holding our ball. So each Mardi Gras parade and each crew has a ball to celebrate their crew. And this year our ball is going to be in the Mahalia Jackson Theater in Armstrong Park, which is adjacent to Congo square, just outside the French Quarter, sort of nestled between the French Quarter and Treme, which is the oldest African-American neighborhood in the country. So that’s really beautiful to me that we’re putting life back into this underutilized and amazing theater in this underutilized park and bringing life back into it. And I’m really proud that we’re doing that this year. And I’m also really excited that this year we’re going to be parading along a major parade route, which in New Orleans is straight down St. Charles Avenue. And that’s an amazing achievement. A lot of organizations don’t get to that point where they actually get permitted to march down St. Charles Avenue. And that’s really a badge of honor. Getting to down St. Charles Avenue and to represent the colors that we represent and the principles that we represent is really beautiful. And I mean Régine could talk about the music and the dance because Arcade Fire is going to be performing and Lakou Mizik from Haiti is going to be performing, Jillionaire, Michael Brun, Pierre Kwenders, Windows 98, Preservation Hall Jazz Band. This year our queen is Mia X, who is a legendary figure in New Orleans bounce, part of the No Limit family. And especially since we just lost a 5th Ward Weebie, there’s like a spotlight on New Orleans bounce. And the bounce community in New Orleans is as important as our jazz community.
Paste: Régine, how about you? What are you looking forward to this year?
Chassagne: Well, Sunday was the actual anniversary of the earthquake. And we had a first big proper dance rehearsal. And there’s a dancer friend who taught us some moves. And it was really moving. We had a moment and she spoke about the earthquake. That plus the fact that we lost one of our master drummers—Francois San Damas Louis, who used to lead the Rara of the previous years. And I don’t know, for me, it really moves me to see these Haitian dance being able to infiltrate the mainstream and Haitian culture pushing through and actually bringing it to mainstream is a big deal. We’re not in Haiti, so it’s not super traditional. But just to be able to recognize that and just add that the spotlight is on this really special community—I’m really, really, really excited about that.
Paste: Oh, well, it sounds like an amazing event and I wish you both the best this year. One of these years I’ve got to get down for one of these. It sounds amazing.
Chassagne: Yeah. Yeah. It’s good for the soul.
Watch the new video on Krewe Du Kanaval from director Julia Simpson:
And watch the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the Paste Ruins at Newport Folk Festival in 2012: