There is a war being fought — a fight for the cultural preservation of a dying martial art: Haitian machete fencing. Alfred Avril, known as the professor or “Papa Machete” is among the last to preserve this tradition.
Rooted in Congolese stick fighting and melded with European fencing, Haitian inhabitants created their own amalgamation of these martial arts. What emerged was a unique and guarded cultural tradition passed down from father to son: Tire Machèt (tee’-ray ma-shet’) or Haitian Machete fencing.
For the uninitiated, it might be easy to dismiss this as a brutish and stereotypical jungle hacking, but careful attention reveals codified movements reminiscent of French and Italian sabre practice coupled with footwork apparently influenced by the Spanish tradition. Emphasis in Tire Machèt is placed on parrying with the flat of the blade while repositioning the body with compassing side-steps to facilitate a counter attack.
To a degree, tire machèt is battle-proven. The Haitian Revolution, regarded as the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Americas, occurred in the wake of the French Revolution and was accomplished despite Napoleonic rule. It was fought in part by rebel French military trained freedmen as well as slaves with makeshift weapons — the trusty machete of the sugar and indigo plantations. The machèt helped the rebels win the only sovereign nation resulting from a slave uprising and it has come to symbolize that struggle for freedom. In the isolation of Haiti following the sucessful rebellion, tire machèt evolved and emerged as a unique practice, a honed combination of the diverse combat traditions to be found among the fledgling island nation.
Now, owing to the grasp of a homogenizing global popular culture and the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that rocked Haiti, this storied and unique cultural tradition is at risk of vanishing. Papa Machete may close his doors and tire machèt may lose one of its last practitioners.
To stave off that possibility, independent filmmakers are producing a documentary about tire machèt to spotlight it’s preservation. They also hope to generate funds via Kickstarter to repair the earthquake damage to Avril’s home and school.
Follow these links to an interview with the filmmakers or to explore the Haitian Machete Fencing Project.