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The culture of Haiti is primarily the culture that has strong African roots, as well as strong French roots due to the French colonization of Haiti, as is evidenced in the Haitian language, music, and religion. The culture also encompasses additional contributions from native Taino and Spanish imperialism. “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s brutal rule was noted for its use of Haitian folklore to terrorize the population, such as the Tonton Macoute.
Brilliant colors, naive perspective, and sly humor characterize Haitian art. Big, delectable foods and lush landscapes are favorite subjects in this land of poverty and hunger. Going to market is the most social activity of country life, and figures prominently into the subject matter. Jungle animals, rituals, dances, and gods evoke the African past.
Artists paint in fable as well. People are disguised as animals and animals are transformed into people. Symbols take on great meaning. For example, a rooster often represents Aristide and the red and blue colors of the Haitian flag, often represent his Lavalas party.
Many artists cluster in ‘schools’ of painting, such as the Cap Haitian school, which features depictions of daily life in the city, the Jacmel School, which reflects the steep mountains and bays of that coastal town, or the Saint-Soleil School, which is characterized by abstracted human forms, and is heavily influenced by Vodou symbolism.
Haiti's most famous monuments are the Palace of Sans Souci and the Citadel, inscribed as a World Heritage site in 1982. Situated in the Northern Massif de la Hotte, in one of Haiti's National Parks, the structures date from the early 19th century. The buildings were among the first to be built after Haiti's independence from France.
Dancing is an important part of Haitian life. In the case of Vodou, the religious experience of spirit possession is usually accompanied by dancing, singing, and drumming. Carnival and rara celebrations feature exuberant dancing and movement in the streets. Dancing is also a social activity, used for celebrations such as church socials and informal parties, as well as evenings out with friends. In small restaurants, social dance music is provided by relatively small twoubadou groups, while larger clubs with big dance floors often feature dance bands reminiscent of the American big bands in size. Social dance music has been one of the most heavily creolized music forms in Haiti. European dance forms such as the contradanse (kontradans), quadrille, waltz, and polka were introduced to white planter audiences during the colonial period. Musicians, either slaves or freed people of color, learned the European dance forms and adapted them for their own use. One of the most popular African-influenced dance styles was the méringue (mereng in Kreyòl). Along with the carabinier, the méringue was a favorite dance style of the Haitian elite and was a regular feature at elite dances. The Haitian expression, Mereng ouvri bal, mereng fème ba; (The mereng opens the ball, the mereng closes the ball) alludes to the popularity and ubiquity of the méringue as an elite entertainment. In nineteenth-century Haiti, the ability to dance the méringue, as well as a host of other dances, was considered a sign of good breeding. Like other creolized dance styles, the méringue was claimed by both elite and proletarian Haitian audiences as a representative expression of Haitian cultural values.
In Haiti, the quadrille dress is called a karabela dress. Traditional male attire for dances, weddings, and other formal wear is the linen shirt jacket.
The most festive time of the year in Haiti is during Carnival (referred to as Kanaval in Haitian Creole or Mardi Gras). The festivities start in February. The cities are filled with music, parade floats, and people dancing and singing in the streets. Carnival week is traditionally a time of all-night parties and escape from daily life. Rara, a festival which occurs before Easter, is celebrated by a significant number of the population as well, and its celebration has been led to it becoming a style of Carnival music. Many of the youth also attend parties and enjoy themselves at nightclubs called discos, (pronounced "deece-ko") (not like the discos of the U.S), and attend Bal. This term derives from the word ballad, and these events are often celebrated by crowds of many people.
Haiti is known for its rich folklore traditions. The country has many magical tales that are part of the Haitian Vodou tradition. The Haitian dictator Papa Doc was a strong believer in the country's folklore and used elements of it to guide his brutal rule of the country.
Haitian music combines a wide range of influences drawn from the many people who have settled on this Caribbean island. It reflects French, African rhythms, Spanish elements and others who have inhabited the island of Hispaniola and minor native Taino influences. Styles of music unique to the nation of Haiti include music derived from Vodou ceremonial traditions, Rara parading music, Twoubadou troubadour ballads, Mini-jazz rock bands, Rasin movement, Hip hop Kreyòl, the wildly popular Compas, and Méringue as its basic rhythm.
Very popular today is compas (konpa) (also known as compas direct in French, or konpa dirèk in creole), a modern méringue that originates from Haiti. It was named compas direct by Nemours Jean-Baptiste, on a recording released in 1955. The name derives from compás, the Spanish word meaning rhythm or tones. It involves mostly medium-to-fast tempo beats with an emphasis on electric guitars, synthesizers, and either a solo alto saxophone, a horn section or the synthesizer equivalent. It is often incorrectly spelled as kompa when translating from French to Haitian creole, as there is no m in front of a b or p like in French and some other languages and therefore an n is used instead.
Haiti is similar to the rest of Latin America, in that it is a predominantly Christian country, with 80%-85% Roman Catholic and approximately 20% professing Protestantism. A small but growing population of Muslims and Hindus exist in the country, principally in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
Vodou, encompassing several different traditions, may contain a mix of Central and Western African, European, and Native American (Taíno) religions is also widely practiced, despite the negative stigma that it carries both in and out of the country. The exact number of Vodou practitioners is unknown; however, it is believed that a small amount of the population practice it, often alongside their Christian faith. Some secular Christians also have been known to participate in some rituals, although indirectly.
Football is the most popular sport in Haiti, though basketball is growing in popularity. Hundreds of small football clubs compete at the local level. Stade Sylvio Cator is the multi-purpose stadium in Port-au-Prince, Haiti where it is currently used mostly for association football matches that fits a capacity of 30,000 people.