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A New Mardi Gras Tradition In Krewe Du Kanaval

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Each year on January 6, King Day in New Orleans, Carnival season begins, featuring
numerous parade krewes marching throughout Mardi Gras in the run up to Fat Tuesday (also known as Shrove Tuesday), wrapping up each year the day before Ash Wednesday (February 26, 2020). 
 
General knowledge of Mardi Gras outside New Orleans often begins and ends with the drunken revelry and Bourbon Street bead tossing most prominently featured in the media each year, lending a negative connotation to what, for locals, is an otherwise festive season steeped in tradition, music, culture and cuisine.
 
Win Butler and Régine Chassagne of Canadian indie rock group Arcade Fire moved to New Orleans in 2015. Like Talking Heads before them, Arcade Fire is an outfit impossible to pigeonhole, featuring in its musical stew everything from alternative and rock to baroque pop, punk, soul and more - which makes them a terrific fit in The Big Easy.
 
The musical heritage of New Orleans is defined by its inclusive nature, one which has always evolved as new people of all types come and go.
 
One of the single most important, and often overlooked, elements of New Orleans culture is its Haitian roots, influencing everything from music to food, even Creole language.
 
“It’s a historical fact that the population of New Orleans doubled in the early 1800s as a result of the Haitian revolution,” New Orleans native, Preservation Hall Creative Director and Preservation Hall Jazz Band multi-instrumentalist Ben Jaffe told Forbes last year. “10,000 people of Haitian and African heritage ended up finding their way to New Orleans - whether it was through Santiago de Cuba or directly to New Orleans. Honestly you can see and taste and feel Haiti in New Orleans.” 
 
 
 | Paid Program
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 Mardi Gras 2019 - February 22, 2019
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - FEBRUARY 22: Regine Chassagne (C) of Arcade Fire participates in the second ... [+] GETTY IMAGES
Chassagne was born in Canada to Haitian immigrants who fled the country in the 60s during the Francois Duvalier regime. Upon their arrival in New Orleans in 2015, Butler and Chassagne began a series of collaborations with Jaffe, eventually taking him on a trip to Haiti. 
 
“New Orleans is sort of the source of huge cultural contributions to American society. Just from jazz to music, food and architecture - all of these things that are so unique within America. The first time I went to Haiti, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this all looks familiar…,’” said Butler. “In the context of what Preservation Hall does, which has been to kind of perpetuate and preserve the legacy of jazz, I thought it would be cool for Ben to see sort of the motherland in a lot of ways. The first time he went to rural Haiti, and you’re just in the mountains and hearing these kids play - basically second lining through the mountains with brass instruments - you feel like you’ve found a time machine and went to pre-jazz New Orleans.”
 
That trip led to further work together and in 2018 Krewe du Kanaval was born, a joint effort between Jaffe, Butler and Chassagne on a series of events which make the connection between New Orleans and Haiti, celebrating both. The events have taken place annually since 2018 in what’s become a new part of the Mardi Gras tradition, embracing culture with the goal of giving back.
 
Kanaval Ball is an annual Krewe du Kanaval highlight. This year the concert features Arcade Fire’s first performance since wrapping up their “Everything Now” tour as the group headlines the Ball for the first time on Friday, February 14, 2020 at Mahalia Jackson Theater in Louis Armstrong Park. 
 
Krewe du Kanaval - Directed by Julia Simpson (@yocactus via Instagram)
 
It’s a set Butler referred to as Arcade Fire’s “only show for a while” and, with a theme of “Merci Haiti,” will also feature Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Haitian DJ Michael Brun, Trinidadian electronic artist Jillionaire of Major Lazer, the uplifting sounds of Haitian collective Lakou Mizik, Congolese-Canadian pop musician Pierre Kwenders and more.
 
Proceeds from the Krewe du Kanaval events benefit Jaffe’s Preservation Hall Foundation and Chassagne’s KANPE Foundation. Preservation Hall Foundation works to preserve New Orleans heritage while KANPE targets helping Haiti’s most vulnerable. For Butler, Krewe du Kanaval’s philanthropic efforts were key. 
 
“That was sort of the whole concept. We’re sort of plugging into a way of participating in Carnival that goes back a hundred years with Mardi Grew krewes. I think it was important for us to have something that was altruistic and entirely not for profit,” he said. “There’s sort of the cultural piece at the event but then there’s also the money actually getting back to the charity. And that’s sort of the concept of the whole thing: to kind of have a sustainable, annual event that, over time, raises significant money.”
 
In addition to the sales of concert tickets and merch, Krewe du Kanaval is largely membership driven. Following the Friday night concert, both Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Krewe du Kanaval are set to join the Krewe Freret parade on Saturday, February 15. Krewe du Kanaval members can join in the fun by marching along or riding on a pair of parade floats.
 
“I feel like before I moved to New Orleans, my conception of Mardi Gras was

very limited. It was sort of this spring break, bacchanalia, French Quarter sort of caricature. Which I would say is maybe 10 or 15% of what’s actually going on at Mardi Gras. The actual, overwhelming culture of the city is this whole other thing. Carnival is ultimately sort of a spiritual event,” said Butler. “I feel like this is a good window into more of the real Mardi Gras. Even outside of our events, just in the city, there’s so much amazing stuff going on that’s not your typical plastic beads and Bourbon Street stuff. There’s a lot of really profound things going on. And I feel like Kanaval could be a jumping off point for people to discover that there’s a lot to discover.”
 
The Inaugural Krewe du Kanaval
Even fifteen years later, New Orleans still hasn’t fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina. The situation in Haiti is even more dire following an earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. 
 
Once stories like that fall out of today’s quick news cycle, they have a tendency to be forgotten. As a result, the work being done by Jaffe’s Preservation Hall Foundation and Chassagne’s KANPE Foundation takes on increased importance. 
 
“The area we’re working in is one of the most rural or remote areas in Haiti. We work with women who’ve never handled money. There’s really different levels of need,” said Butler, noting KANPE’s work in Haiti. “In Haiti, the brass band that we’ve kind of helped to support, ends up playing a lot of weddings and funerals and it just sort of provides structure and inspiration. It’s just a piece of it. I’ve been to places with no music but the same level of poverty and it just feels like a totally different place. It just tells you that there’s life. Music is the sound of life really,” he continued. “Haiti contributed all of this to the world kind of for free without asking anything. Because of the situation of the revolution, Haiti just brought all of this brainpower and culture and music and food - taught people how to grow coffee and sugarcane and make rum - and there’s this kind of incredible spreading of culture. A lot of these connections have been lost in time and I just think it’s a beautiful thing to pay tribute to it.” 
 
Krewe du Kanaval's Kanaval Ball takes place Friday, February 14, 2020 at Mahalia Jackson Theater in Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans, LA featuring Arcade Fire, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and more 
Krewe du Kanaval's Kanaval Ball takes place Friday, February 14, 2020 at Mahalia Jackson Theater in ... [+] PHOTO COURTESY OF KREWE DU KANAVAL
Arcade Fire recorded their fifth studio album Everything Now in New Orleans. And as he gears up for this weekend’s Krewe du Kanaval events, Butler is clear on the profound impact his new home has had.
 
“I just feel like, a lot of places, if you tell people you’re a musician, there’s a lot of follow up questions. In New Orleans, it’s kind of the most normal thing you can do. There’s just a level of artistry that’s really inspiring. New Orleans offers a window into music as a way of life as opposed to music as a commodity,” he said. “My heroes are The Clash and bands that just weren’t really f—-king around - this music thing is life or death and it matters. And I feel like I’ve found in New Orleans a city that agrees with that basic premise. This is song and this is life but this sh-t is also life and death. It matters. It’s not an accident that some of the craziest music I’ve heard in New Orleans is at funerals. This is a step of life. It’s something that I’ve always sort of felt. I was raised to believe that. So it’s nice to be living in a city that knows that to be true.”
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