9/29/2014

On the Streets with Camilo J. Vergara


Standing on the corner of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 130th St., in Manhattan, a good approximation of the geographic dead center of Harlem, the photographer Camilo José Vergara is looking around with a puzzled expression on his face. At 70, he's been photographing and rephotographing the streets, landmarks and avenues here for more than forty years, and he knows every corner. Now he is all but scratching his head. "I wanted us to look at something," he says. He's been giving me a tour of the latest incarnation of "new" Harlem. "But I'm not seeing it." Whatever it was is gone. He seems truly distraught: "It's just not there. That's why it was so fucking disorienting!" We hurry back up the sidewalk and across the street. On the east side of the Avenue, stretching for two full city blocks, is a wall of blue-painted plywood fencing, marking an enormous construction site. It is as if a huge tree has been felled in the forest, so that along the north side of 132nd St. the low winter sun shines warmly on the red brick and brownstone of classic Harlem. Through a cutout in the fence can be seen a vast hole in the ground, lined with the cement of a new foundation. "This was the Lafayette Theater. Right here. And it's gone.”

To describe the Chilean-born Vergara solely as a photographer is to minimize his extraordinary achievement. Part ethnographer, part sociologist, obsessive documentarian and full-time chronicler of the declining American city, Vergara has been fully embraced neither by the world of art photography nor by that of journalism or academia. Taken alone, his images often appear mundane, little more than generic streetscapes populated by minorities and the small, peripheral businesses of the American urban fabric: hair salons, corner bodegas, greasy spoons and burger joints. “A photographer is somebody who cares about making beautiful pictures,” Vergara says. “I'm not that.” Despite this demurral, which I only coaxed out of him after sharing a couple bottles of fine red on my back deck,  Vergara has published six major photo books, and in 2002 he was the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called “genius award.” In July 2013 he became the first photographer ever to be honored with the National Humanities medal. But in his latest book, Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto, he writes that when he began focusing his lens on the built environment he was dismissed as “a real-estate photographer.” It's a line I think he might have gotten from his good friend Ben Katchor, fellow genius-award recipient and the creator of the sublime comic strip character Julius Knipl. Eerily, like Knipl, who Katchor created years before the two met, Vergara's daily routine is to go out into America's cities with a camera and take pictures, largely, of buildings. Looked at as a whole his enormous archive is an unequaled and irreplaceable catalog of the vicissitudes of an urban United States routinely overlooked, downplayed and marginalized.

Over the past few years, I've gone out a few times with Camilo as a sort of chauffeur-sidekick. My late-lamented little red pickup truck was already so battered that any extra dents Vergara made standing on the roof to take pictures merely added to its aura. A trip we made together to Camden, NJ was something like driving through an episode of The Wire. Entirely unlike the real-estate boom town that is Harlem today, the small and shrinking city is a dingy, derelict place just across the river from Philadelphia. As we drove past crumbling houses and weed-choked sidewalks, he explained that “Camden has always only existed to service the needs of Philadelphia.” Once it housed print shops, shipbuilders and light manufacturing, but the jobs, and even entire industries, began to dry up in the 1960s. Now, on some of the streets Vergara had me drive along, the only signs of economic life were prostitutes and streams of crack and heroin dealers who jumped down off of rotting porches to approach the car, confident that nobody other than a customer would ever bother to cruise their notorious block. On several occasions, Vergara pointed his camera into a vacant lot, aligning the view with the help of slides made on previous trips, and showing modest brick houses where there were now piles of rubble. The city seemed to be disappearing before our eyes.


On another trip, to Jersey City, behind the vast high-school that looks down onto the traffic waiting to pass through the Holland tunnel, we discovered a rather sad and unkempt 9/11 memorial. Vergara observed that it had probably begun its pre-ordained decline as soon as it had been installed and celebrated, almost as soon as some gaggle of earnest potentates had wandered off after a moment of silence and some minor speechifying. A plinth that perhaps once held a flagpole, complete with rusty bolt holes, now held a granite monument that had clearly been commissioned from a tombstone carver. It sat in the sort of tucked-away and neglected area used by students as a place to sneak away and share a joint. Two plastic tubs containing weeds and dead houseplants completed the tableau. 



Again and again Vergara returns to the same streets and ghettos. He has worked primarily in New York City, Newark and Camden, NJ, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Richmond, CA, always in inner city neighborhoods that rarely make the news for much other than violent crime. He has documented housing schemes built and demolished, the slow deterioration of entire blocks, the rising tide of gentrification and the puddles of poverty left when that tide goes out. His groups of images, charting a single building or stretch of sidewalk over decades, become miniature time-lapse documentaries, simultaneously about nothing while encapsulating everything from fashion and diet to urban planning and city politics. In these pictures, sometimes taken decades apart, Vergara demonstrates the same relationship with specific modest buildings that most people only have with their children. He notes their tiny advances, their gradual changes, and he documents them. It's a strangely intimate relationship with his urban surroundings. The fonts lettering the storefront churches, the meals advertised for sale, the peeling paint and the shoes on the feet of the passersby suggest the ebb and flow of aspirations, achievements and illusions. “By taking a picture of a building,” says Vergara, “you begin to establish a trajectory.”

1988
2012
2014

Coming soon to a vacant lot near you. Condos! Three views of the Lafayette Theater site courtesy of and © Camilo J. Vergara.


Back on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, Vergara seems to take the disappearance of the Lafayette Theater personally. It's part of what he calls the “Disneyfication” of the neighborhood. Harlem is being sanitized, he suggests, its rich history and architecture erased by condominiums, its legacy concentrated in a few untouchable icons like the “world famous” Apollo Theater, the emblem of Harlem on its most famous street, 125th. “We've designated a place to be the repository of history, so we can change the rest,” Vergara explains. “The survivors become more powerful. It's like wealth, it's like an inheritance.” It is interesting to note that the disappeared Lafayette was the first New York theater to integrate racially, as early as 1912, more than twenty years earlier than the Apollo. While Vergara agrees that the new Harlem of luxury condos and espresso bars offers a better standard of living than the one of burnt-out tenements and trash-strewn vacant lots that he started photographing in the early 1970s, he feels acutely a tension between the destruction of the historical landscape and the preservation of culture. In this way his work writes an alternative history, one that questions our dominant economic and political assumptions that equate progress with expansion and development. 125thStreet, once an ever-evolving jumble of mom and pop shops, soul-food eateries and African hair-braiding palaces, was a place with its cultural DNA engraved onto the landscape. In the new Harlem, traces of that landscape linger, but the view is dominated by many of the same huge national chain stores and franchises that are to be found in any saccharine suburban strip-mall. Near the former Lenox Lounge, another shuttered landmark farther south, Vergara gestures across the street. “I have pictures of a guy standing in a yard on this block, next to a scarecrow,” he says. “And now it's a Starbucks."



A weathered MLK on the streets of Red Hook (not a Camilo Vergara)

The gentrification of Harlem is only one of countless stories Vergara is able to tell with his enormous archive of images, and they aren't all about the ebb and flow of neighborhoods. A 2012 exhibition at the New York Historical Society showed murals of Martin Luther King Jr. painted on walls all over the United States. Just the varied contexts in which the untouchable civil rights hero was to be found is fertile ground for sociologists. In latino neighborhoods, MLK appeared browner skinned, in the company of notable latinos. Other, early murals show him with Malcolm X; more recent ones show him with Barack Obama. A timeline of black heroes emerges from looking at the images, with the others, the not-Kings, going in and out of fashion, but always basking in King's glory. In How the Other Half Worships, (Rutgers University Press, 2005) Vergara mines the typology of inner-city storefront churches. The book is a demographic goldmine that charts the hopes and aspirations of faith on a low budget. Modest cinderblock buildings make humble attempts at spires. Cornices and stained glass windows are installed, renovated, then obliterated. Signage changes from hebrew, to english, to spanish. “A one shot view of anything is not that interesting, because what does it say?” Vergara asked me, rhetorically. “It says, well there are beautiful things here, or there are interesting things here, but it doesn't give you any sense of time. And that, after all, is what really gives meaning to things.”

I'm grateful to my old friend Alice Arnold, who first introduced me to Vergara's work, almost fifteen years ago. 

Camilo has written me with a couple of corrections. I had him down as 71 years old, but apparently had added an as-yet unlived year. I have corrected his age, above. He also wrote, in defense of Camden, that the city "was not there to serve the needs of Philly. It was a world recording capital, one of the largest shipbuilding centers in the US, a center of the leather industry and of the Ham radio industry. In its time, a little silicon valley." All of this is likely true, but I have not corrected the somewhat contradictory quote, which comes directly from my notebook. From job-lot printing, toxic dumping and mob-controlled carting to crack-dealing and streetwalking, Camden has a plenty long tradition of being a tortured industrial appendix to Philadelphia. 



5/18/2014

Rara ap soti! (The rara is going out!) Recent adventures in sound recording, Part One.

My last trip to Haiti represented the fulfillment of a long-term dream. At least, I hoped that it would. Ever since spending several hours back in 1996 marching from Kenscoff to Furcy while recording a band of drumming, singing, bamboo-didgeridoo playing musicians named Foula I have wanted to make a dedicated trip there to immerse myself in the phenomenon known as Rara. What I then interpreted as music was raw and percussive and unstoppable. The experience of hiking up a mountain surrounded by the constant performance of musicians and singers, under Caribbean heat, resulted in an almost spiritual loss of the self; after some time the marching and the driving beat had no beginning, and no anticipated end, and in my participation in this ever-growing parade I began to feel as if I were a small part of a giant organism, not an individual, but an interchangeable ant in an ant-army. To march with that crew was to viscerally experience Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power to feel both the implicit terror and the enabling thrill of communal action. It was a strange experience, not only to lose one's self in a mass of humanity, but to welcome that loss. Just before Easter, thanks to the persistent encouragement and support of a good friend and fellow Haitiphile, I packed up my sound equipment and flew down to Port au Prince. There was no guarantee, however, that I would be able to locate and obtain the permission to record an raras. My time was short, and pre-production had been minimal.


The first photograph I made, taken out the car window shortly after pulling out of the airport in Port au Prince. I find that within hours in Haiti I become inured to these sorts of scenes, and no longer think them photo-worthy. 

Although we outsiders use "rara" generally to refer to the genre of music, a rara is much more than that. Properly speaking, it is a kind of ambulatory vodou ceremony, with an important ritual significance, and dedicated tasks it must accomplish. To come upon one making its way through the Haitian countryside is a truly special and spectacular occurrence. The musicians are lead by flagbearers, and by two queens, also holding banners. Sometimes a gloomy figure, shrouded in black, goes before them with a broom, sweeping away any evil powders and poisons that competing raras might have scattered earlier to trip them up. The crowd is controlled by a kind of majordomo, cracking a whip and often wearing a skirt made from dozens of brightly colored silk scarves hanging from his belt. The percussion can be heard at a great distance; one can wander through the fields following the sound of the drums until the parade is located. A rara is, all at once, joyful, militaristic, focussed, chaotically disorganized, musical and cacophonic, voluntary and obligatory, serene and warlike.


Waiting for the rara. Traditionally, rara instrumention is composed of two drums, and five "bamboo" of varying lengths, and, therefore, pitches. Today these are usually made from lengths of PVC tubing, actual bamboo having become scarce, along with the knowledge of how to craft instruments out of it.

Although similar pedestrian groups with similar instrumentation start going out shortly after Christmas (usually beginning on the dia de los Reyes), the street revels of the pre-Carnival period are essentially festive, and it is incorrect to refer to them, as I often have, as raras. These are Bann a Pye, literally "foot-bands," with none of the exigencies of vodou invested in them. One might think of them as secular while raras are religious. Rara is strictly a Lenten phenomenon, either a thumb in the eye of the slave-master and his forty days of austerity or their syncretic expression.


For all your Jacmel lodging needs.

Without tremendous forethought I had settled on Jacmel as a great place to begin this project, and on the Tuesday before Easter I drove across the mountains of Haiti's southern claw and installed myself there at the sublime Hotel Florita. Raras go out everywhere the length and breadth of Haiti, and even in Haitian enclaves in the Dominican Republic.* Leogane, about halfway between Port au Prince is Jacmel, is considered a particular stronghold, but I had heard that its annual rara festival had become rather commercialized. The Artibonite valley (Latibonit) is generally considered to be a stronghold of vodou, and I might try to spend a future rara season there. But in Jacmel I have friends. In the late 1990s I lived there for two months, working on Charles Najman's film Les Illuminations de Madame Nerval. The town is also traditionally considered to be Haiti's artistic and literary capital, and it is the home of the Ciné Institute, the film school where I have twice gone to teach sound recording. I had already discussed the possibility of recording local raras with a former student of mine, Bayard Jean Bernard, and he had sent some encouraging reports of the season's activity.


Faith of Job art supply. Also, have faith, the rara will go out....

Nonetheless, Raras do not have websites where they advertise their sortees, and I was rather nervous as to whether or not the trip would pay off. Then, shortly after I collapsed in my hotel bed on Tuesday night, I heard a rara moving through the streets of Jacmel. Although exhaustion overwhelmed me, as well as the fact that I had not yet unpacked and prepared my gear, it seemed a good omen.


My room at the Florita, in which I lounged underneath the mosquito net listening to raras pass by in the streets of Jacmel.

On Wednesday, I got together with Bayard. "I'm ready," I said. "What can we line up for this evening?" He made a few phone calls. He shook his head. "It sounds like everyone went out last night," he said, "I'm not sure what else will happen before Friday...."


Bayard gives me the bad news.

*I am unsure whether rara persists within the Haitian communities of Cuba, but it seems likely, as vodou is widely practiced in them.

4/18/2014

Tropical Camouflage



Like Kingston, Port au Prince is one of those Caribbean cities where the heat, stench and oppressive humidity of the downtown waterfront has historically inspired all those with means to flee up into the cool, forested highlands. In the distant past they went there on the weekends to relax, and then, soon after the introduction of the automobile, to live. Petionville, several miles up a steep hill from the sweltering business district, is still synonymous with the economic elite, with refined dining and shopping for such things as charcuterie and champagne. But the one-time suburb has been all-but consumed by the Haitian capital's tremendous population growth; those seeking the tranquility of the forested highlands now need drive much farther uphill to find calm. 

The mass exodus from downtown in the wake of the earthquake of January 2010 has further clogged the enclave. In the twenty years that I have been going regularly to Haiti, Petionville has spawned its own shanty-towns, impromptu hillside communities that began as opportunistic squats and have burgeoned into dense and undeniable concentrations of humanity. Paint has never been a priority for the residents of these often slapdash cinderblock boxes, which have spread, gray and sunbaked, farther and farther out around the hillsides on both sides of town.


On a trip last fall I was stunned to look up at this perilous, ever-evolving hillside and see a riot of color. Every tropical hue from the (hypothetical) Benjamin Moore Caribe collection seemed to be represented there, as if all the third-world's painters of charming wooden fishing boats had descended at once, brushes in hand, in a mad frenzy of civic improvement. Suddenly, the slums above Petionville looked like Valparaiso


As much as I would have loved to learn that the citizens of this marginal, cliff-like community had banded together into a decorative council something like the competitive gardeners of Brooklyn front yards, I knew, or should I say I was quite certain, that some more grand imperial hand must be at work. How on earth did all these houses get painted in such a uniformly random cataclysm of colors? I asked our driver.

"Mateli te fel," he replied. President Martelly did it.

Not personally, I imagined.

Jobs had been created, I was assured, the people are really happy about it.



Now, were someone to come to my house and offer to paint it for free I might well accept. But it smelled to me like the worst sort of populist pandering, not to mention an absurdly cost-ineffective way to buy community goodwill. I probed a bit more. Why, I asked, did the painting stop so abruptly, leaving miles of dull-gray slum to trail off into the distance?

"They are intending to paint all of them," said my friend. "Eventually." One often finds in Haiti that things are wrapped in multiple layers of meaning. Often there is a surface explanation for events that, like a brilliant coat of tropically-themed paint, obscures other realities beneath. My friend decided that my pronounced interest merited the peeling off of some of the onion skin. "What I heard," he went on conspiratorially, "was that the owners of your hotel and some of the other new constructions around Petionville were complaining."

Our team was staying at the Oasis, a brand new, international style flying vee of a hotel, distressingly multi-storied in the still earthquake-ravaged country. I can attest that many of its rooms enjoy a panoramic view of the brightly painted cinderblock homes on the opposite hill.

"They spent all this money to build, but their guests were not seeing a pretty picture."

All that poverty was sullying the view, and nothing says "happy, contented natives" like lemon-yellow, guava-pink, passionate-purple, palm-frond-green and azure-blue.

Do I hate cynicism, revile and despise it? If so, then in this particular case I must confess I am filled with self-loathing.





4/11/2014

Not just another night at WD50

I had a crazy start to the week. My friend WoWe asked me if I wanted to join him and see what might dribble out the end of my pen while he photographed a gang of international culinary superstars spending 72 hours in New York to prepare for an all-star tribute dinner for Wylie Dufresne. Okay, I said, sounds like fun. Here's one of many possible dispatches:

3 Dufresne dishes, with his famous "Shrimp noodles" on the right.

Last Tuesday afternoon on Clinton Street in Manhattan's Lower East Side, chef Wylie Dufresne's molecular gastronomy restaurant WD50 appeared to be closed. The sun streaming over the tenements made the windows glow a dull, mottled brown: they had been blocked out from the inside with lengths of butcher's paper, as if the place was under renovation. Inside, however, the kitchen was a hive of activity, full to bursting with an astonishing gathering of some thirty head chefs from the best restaurants around the globe. Apples were being cored and mousses were being frothed. Magnus Nilsson of Sweden's Fäviken and Agata Felluga of Jour de Fête in Strasbourg were hip to hip, braiding shallot shoots into little nests of “Longevity” brand noodles, purchased in nearby Chinatown. René Redzepi of Noma, ranked #2 on the influential World's 50 Best Restaurants list, was sampling a variety of hot chile infusions with Ben Shewry of Melbourne, Australia's Attica (#21). Iñaki Aizpitarte (#17) and Kobe Desramaults (#72--the “50 Best” actually has 100 restaurants on it) were piping caviar-laced chicken liver parfait into those cored apples.

Wylie Dufresne was not present. In the basement, event producer Alexandra Swenden had assembled a team that was madly editing video footage to be tweeted and uploaded later in the evening. Out in the dining room, seemingly immune to all the stresses of the kitchen, the impresario Andrea Petrini had only one concern: with hours to go until dinner would be served, could this giant international secret possibly be kept from the pioneering chef whose restaurant they had all occupied?


Agata Felluga, Blaine Wetzel, Virgilio Martínez, Fulvio Pierangelini, Claude Bosi, Daniel Burns, Ben Shewry, René Redzepi, Alex Atala, Rosio Sanchez, Ana Ros, Rodolfo Guzman, Karime Lopez, Magnus Nilsson, Danny Bowien, Daniel Patterson and Gabrielle Hamilton are just the people in this photograph I got to meet and chat with and even interview over the three days of Gelinaz! preparations. Daniel Boulud is in there, too, but I didn't really get to talk to him. I did meet him, at Frankie's Spuntino on Monday night. He walked up while I was talking to Frankie Falcinelli and when Frank introduced us he said “do I know you? I don't think I know you.” I don't think he intended to be rude, I imagine he was just wondering if I was some Gelinaz! chef he hadn't met yet, but I never quite recovered enough to ask him to talk to me later. David Chang and I had plans, but apparently he started running the kitchen at WD50 to get things back on schedule Tuesday night and so he eluded my interviewing stamina. That's why I'm only an accomplished home cook, not a chef. All the other people who aren't named: I hope to meet you another time and I don't mean you any disrespect.

This surprise dinner for one of their own was the most recent in a series of undefinable culinary events presented by Gelinaz!, a loose collection of chefs that is part think-tank, part spectacle and part gathering together of friends who like to cook. Petrini, a longtime food journalist and talent scout, is the co-founder and the cement that binds them together, much like the transglutaminase “meat glue” that Dufresne uses to make his infamous shrimp noodles. Coincidentally, this is likely the actual dish immortalized in the recent premiere of HBO's Silicon Valley as “liquid shrimp.”

Gelinaz! started in 2005 “as a joke,” Petrini told me. His good friend, chef Fulvio Pierangelini “was known world-wide for being a pain in the ass, always complaining that people were stealing his ideas and his recipes. So I proposed that he go onstage with a bunch of other chefs who were re-imagining his dish and we would do away with copyright forever.” Perhaps the only thing all subsequent Gelinaz! events have had in common is this core idea of many chefs concocting their own versions of a specific dish. At a June, 2013 event in Ghent, Belgium, diners were served twenty interpretations of an 1861 Cauderlier recipe for chicken in pig's feet jelly.

We live in an era uniquely obsessed with food and its preparation. Cookbooks, now almost invariably tied to a particular chef and restaurant, are one of the few thriving areas in “old” publishing, despite the mind-boggling number of recipes and preparations available on the web. As evidenced by HBO name-checking Wylie Dufresne, high cuisine is pop culture, and an art-form. Last night's dinner is as worthy of conversation and serious discussion as the latest Wes Anderson film or that recent museum show that just opened. “We live in difficult times,” Petrini explained to me as I was trying desperately to dodge hot saucepans and scurrying sous-chefs. “Food is something that can reassure us”. The old standard of excellence in food was the Guide Michelin, which, Petrini says, “judged food by the criteria of the upper classes.” The idea was that a regular family would save its money to go to a great restaurant, perhaps once or twice a year. Today, that seems absurd. “For young people,” Petrini says, “food is everywhere.”

On the web, we have instant access to menus and photographs from the most far-flung of the world's temples to eating. Places like Nilsson's Fäviken, in a remote corner of rural central Sweden, would likely never have become must-eat destinations without the information era. But meticulously prepared food is not a commodity that can be ordered from Amazon. The global promise of the internet has also brought a great uprooting which with food has had the paradoxical effect of making us desperate to regain a sense of place, a sense of craft. We want access to unique ingredients and preparations that in the past might have remained unknown. Craft in general, and food in particular, is an antidote to the emptiness of consumer culture, and to the mass production and anonymity that are the less welcome side effects of the information technology explosion. Food grounds us, and an innovative, memorable meal is something everyone can aspire to create. It is no coincidence that so many of the World's 50 Best chefs here, many assisted along their way to stardom by Petrini's significant influence as its french chairman, are foragers, cooks who make it a point of pride to use ingredients so fresh and so local that they are often found growing only in the immediate surroundings of the restaurant. Places like Noma and Attica turn the winemaking notion of terroir into a guiding culinary principal.


Monsieurs Wylie and Andrea

Petrini is modest, with a profound sense of humor he expresses daily in his wry smile and his choice of wardrobe. At WD50 he was wearing a pale lemon-colored flannel shirt trimmed all the way around at the bottom with a row of dangling white lace balls that looked as if they might have been stolen from your grandmother's lampshade. “I'm not trying to influence anything,” he said, but chef after chef commented that they first met Petrini because he came to eat at their restaurant when it was still comparatively unknown. Rodolfo Guzman struggled for five years to keep open his restaurant Boragó, in Santiago de Chile. Then he was named #8 on the Latin American 50 Best list. “Overnight, we were booked one month in advance,” he explained to me, while picking through his arsenal of endemic Patagonian murtilla berries. “It was like a gift. It's why I am here.” Redzepi remembers meeting Petrini at Noma only a few months after he had opened: “That's why he knows everybody, because he discovered everybody.”

The chefs gather around unwitting host / roastee / honoree Wylie Dufresne, stretched out on his own work table.

At WD50, time was running short. The sun had set, and Dufresne was due to walk through the doors at 7:30 PM, lured to the restaurant on his day off by bogus reports of a refrigeration catastrophe. The ten-course meal--what Petrini called “remixes” of three of Dufresne's signature dishes, including the shrimp noodles—was as ready as it could be. Seventy non-paying guests—each chef had invited two—were hushed into silence in the dark dining room. In the kitchen behind, the lights dimmed; the only sound to be heard was the roar of the range hoods. Thirty of the world's best cooks had worked seamlessly together preparing for this moment, their egos apparently left at home. Now they crouched in the gloom in their colleague's kitchen. Precisely on time, Dufresne entered. In the middle of his own dining room he was greeted with a wide-screen television playing videotaped greetings from one chef after another. “Where are they?” he murmured in the dark, “where are they?” Suddenly, the lights went on, and there they were, hugging him, and serving him reimaginations of his own food. At once the world seemed smaller, friendlier, and a whole lot more delicious.


Alex Atala, Wylie Dufresne and René Redzepi

All photographs courtesy WoWe

Update: I don't want to jinx anything, as it hasn't run yet, but this story has now been acquired by the Suddeutsche Zeitung. If you want your own story, be in touch, as I have many more. 

Another Update: A gently longer version of this story will run in the Suddeutsche Zeitung Feuilleton tomorrow, April 19th, with more images by WoWe.

3/08/2014

Proud Freaks


Even mardi-gras aficionados might not think of Jacmel when making a list of the world's greatest carnivals, but the Jacmelians, much as they would love to have had more visitors since mass tourism withered in Haiti some thirty-five years ago, ultimately don't seem to care. Through dictatorships long and short, political turmoil of every stripe, cyclones and hurricanes, this small city on the south coast has nourished and maintained its old and eccentric carnival traditions. Only the terrible earthquake of January 2010 put a one-year damper on the festivities. Today's urban planners and "creative placemakers," fond of overusing words like resiliency and vibrancy, would do well to visit Jacmel, where on most Sundays between the Day of Kings and mardi-gras itself the Avenue Barranquilla and its innumerable side streets may be filled with impromptu parades, guerilla theater and entirely freelance carnivalesque actions. New Orleans is definitely a good time on mardi-gras day, but its uniformed high-school marching bands and vast motorized floats populated by waving bacchanalians seem hopelessly corporate when put up against the roving pantomimes of Jacmel's masqueraders. I confess I have never been to Trinidad or Rio, but it is hard for me to believe that their mardi-gras wonders could surpass those of Jacmel.


Haiti's carnivals have been by no means immune to corporate pressures. There is now an "official" national carnival, organized by the government, held this year in Gonaïves, and in recognition, perhaps of Jacmel's uniqueness, there is also a weekend dedicated to Jacmel's "historic" kanaval. This took place on the weekend of February 21st and 22nd, a few days before I arrived in Port au Prince, fed up at last with New York's endless winter. We wanted to film and record music in Jacmel, and because the previous weekend had been heavily promoted, people in the capital announced that Jacmel's carnival had already happened, that we had missed it and would find nothing on the weekend of March 1st and 2nd, when the whole country, they said, would be heading for the giant party in Gonaïves. Contacts in Jacmel, however, assured us that this was preposterous, that the revelries would be in full swing, and that we would find, if anything, a more authentic and relaxed expression, given that the town would not be overrun by partying outsiders.


Early on Sunday morning, we headed out from Port-a-Prince for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Jacmel. By 9:30 we were cruising slowly through near-deserted streets. While many of Jacmel's tropical Victorian coffee warehouses and gingerbread homes were damaged by the earthquake, the town is still architecturally splendid. There wasn't a carnival reveler to be found. “Perhaps after church lets out,” said my friend and former student Bayard, a graduate of the Ciné Institute of Jacmel who had agreed to help us film some kanaval action. As the unofficial producer of this particular weekend's filming, I felt a sense of responsibility, and therefore nervousness. I had been in close touch with Bayard all week, and he had urged us to leave the capital as early as we could, but now that we had arrived bright and early Jacmel was so calm that I wouldn't have been surprised to see a tumbleweed blowing down the street. I had to wonder if my intel was bad.

Then, as we were turning onto a steep cobblestoned street leading up to the town square in search of breakfast, we were accosted by a strange figure. He wore turquoise trousers and a blue blazer, festooned with colored ribbons and ersatz medals. On his head was a red felt hat and a mask made from flesh-colored screen decorated with a cotton-ball beard. In one burgundy-gloved hand he held a small scepter, or perhaps a short length of tin curtain rod, to which were tied bits of red, white and blue ribbon. "Je suis Mr. L'histoire D'Haiti," he said. "I am here to tell you about the Haitian history. Would you like to know it?"


Why, yes, we said, excitedly. We unloaded our gear just in time for Mr. Haitian History to begin what turned out to be a grand recitation of some long-forgotten (by others) primer, complete with commas and full-stops. ("On August fourteenth comma seventeen ninety one comma the voodoo priest Boukman held a ceremony at the Bois Caïman comma launching the Haitian revolution period.) Soon, under the tropical sun, we were exhausted. Mr. History was not. He seemed prepared to recite the entire textbook, if we were interested.

I'm not sure if Mr. History of Haiti is a well-established member of the Jacmel carnival pantheon, or a recent creation, but this uncertainty is just one of the things that keeps the town-wide party interesting. Successful "traditions," once invented, are passed down the generations. Sometimes they lie dormant for years, or decades, only to be resurrected, often when their particular political message once again seems relevant, or pointed.

Perennial favorites are the gangs of "Charles Oscar," a sort of combination of multiple eras of evil political enforcer based on a single early 20th century Jacmel police officer of renowned brutality. These roving bands wear Napoleonic gear and huge sets of felt teeth to represent their corruption and insatiable greed.

Those interested in the history of anti-semitism will be shocked and awed to turn a streetcorner in Jacmel and come upon a pantomime of the Wandering Jew, in which a beak-nosed, silk-robed figure with a tall shepherd's crook takes turns trading blows with a hostile, jeering, laughing crowd.

The semiology of the "Lanceurs de Corde" should be obvious; these ominous chain gangs of whip-cracking youth, painted head-to-toe with a foul, black and sticky tar, menace spectators with their long ropes, their threat of a syrupy smear, and their allusion to slavery.

Our random, felicitous encounter with Mr. History of Haiti proved to be a good omen. As the day wore on, we were to meet with all these Jacmel archetypes and more.

My dear friend Leah Gordon has published a spectacular book of photographs culled from more than fifteen visits to the Jacmel Kanaval. (Full disclosure, I wrote one of the accompanying essays.)

I believe Jacmel represents the apogee of papier-maché construction.

March of the zombie Carmen Mirandas?

Where else are you likely to find a marching gang of green satin frogs banging bits of scrap metal together and presenting an impromptu parallel-bar gymnastics act?

Demented transvestite beautician-arborist? This gentleperson is a solo operator who runs madly up the street cacking to himself, before pausing to touch up his astonishing makeup.


We're really into recycling.

12/22/2013

Bloggus Moribundus

Don't worry, I have some spectacular new posts coming soon. It's just that I'm spending my mid-life with my one-year-old daughter and it is difficult to find the time to scintillate you regularly with my bloggery.

11/04/2013

All the Bookworm leaders we don't trust

One of the huge array of free services and products that Google provides in order to get our data in their clutches is the automated transcription of voicemail messages. I have my cellphone set to forward all unanswered calls to Google Voice, which then instantly transcribes any left message and emails it to me. While typically garbled in whole or in part, the transcript is usually enough to gauge the basic content and urgency of the message. It is far easier to read an email than go through the rigamarole of dialing in and entering prompts to listen to a message, with the result that I no longer do the latter. Sometimes the transcripts are so incomprehensible as to be amusing. Blame Marty Markowitz's heavy Brooklyn accent. 

Tomorrow is election day; don't forget to cast your vote!

All
 what's I'm delighted to call you because there is a very important election this Tuesday. Will Brooklyn District Attorney so I hope thatyou'll join the and supporting Democrat 10 times, along with the New York Times and all the Bookworm leaders, we don't trust fromsome of the truck show month, so I'm next may have. Again the course is a top notch federal prosecutor. He has a plan to get a legalguns or possibly as the integrity and this is to make each about the person is able to see if and Scroll. This is Borough President, Marty.Markowitz bridging the both a democrat Kent Thomson, but book with District Attorney this Tuesday, November 5th. Thank you.