The Haitian Machete Fencing Project
Haitian machete fencing is a functional martial art with deep roots in Haitian history.
Our project is dedicated to promoting and teaching this system worldwide. Over the course of a ten-year apprenticeship with master fencer Alfred Avril, we have been privileged to document this art form in ways never before seen by the wider world, first through our many rough-cut training videos, and later through collaboration on the documentary short film Papa Machete. We have also been honored to welcome many serious-minded foreigners to our training intensives at the Avril family homestead in Haiti. Though Professor Avril passed away in December 2014, his sons and other committed students have received his blessing to continue his practice.
Our 9-day summer training intensives continue to attract students from all over the world. After a hiatus due to COVID-19 and political instability in Haiti, we began hosting these intensives once again with additional precautions in place. Our next program is scheduled for July 2023. If you are interested in joining us, please see our training in Haiti page for details, and then if you think you might be up for it feel free to contact us.
Master fencer Alfred Avril
In Haiti, the traditional art of machete fencing goes by many names, among them Tire Machèt (“Pulling Machetes”). Tire Machèt has roots in the Haitian Revolution, when the revolutionaries were often forced to fight with fewer guns than soldiers. Its combination of ancestral African combat systems proved highly effective both in battle and as a means of individual self-defense. Since that time, a multitude of styles and training methods have proliferated. Though many of these practices remain shrouded in secrecy, Haitian master fencer Alfred Avril extended an invitation to foreigners serious about learning this martial art to come to Haiti to train with him. Over the course of our ten-year collaboration, we had the opportunity to learn and to introduce many others to his practice.
Alfred Avril, whose homestead lies on the wooded slopes of Cap Rouge, just outside the city of Jacmel, was the repository of one such family fencing tradition. At first glance a mild-mannered subsistence farmer, he was a master martial artist who had trained in Tire Machèt since childhood, initially under the tutelage of his father. Over the course of his life, he continued the tradition as a respected professor of Tire Machèt in his own right, training his sons, grandsons, nieces, nephews, and other members of his tight-knit community in the esoteric art of machete combat.
In general, Tire Machèt is practiced in relative secrecy. Family traditions are a closely guarded possession to be passed down through the generations, and only trusted members of the community are permitted to participate in (or even observe) training sessions. Students from farther afield must demonstrate great loyalty to their fencing "professor" in order to gain admittance.
In 2004, Haitian Machete Fencing Project founders Reginald Turnier and Michael Rogers met Professor Avril through one of his sons, and because of this connection were invited to begin training. Over the years, we built a relationship of trust with the Professor and his community such that we were permitted to train with much greater openness, and to bring our own guests to the fencing circle. He encouraged us to make videos of the training in order to introduce this relatively unknown martial art to the world. As time went by, we were fortunate to be able to collaborate with the production company Third Horizon to create the short documentary film about the Professor and his art – Papa Machete – which was an official selection of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Professor Avril often expressed to us his hope that our project might increase the prestige of Haitian machete fencing as an art form, both at home and abroad, and give the younger generation another reason to retain this piece of their cultural heritage into the future.
Professor Avril with his grandson Mackinley
On December 1st 2014, Professor Avril succumbed to a fever and died. The following summer, after a period of mourning, the HMFP staff spent several weeks training in private with Professor Avril's sons Roland, Jean-Paul and Fredo, and came up with a cooperative plan for continuing our annual training programs each summer. Since that time, the Avril brothers have continued to grow into accomplished masters in their own right, each preserving and refining a particular aspect of their father's fencing style. While Roland is a motorcycle taxi driver, Jean-Paul a painter, and Fredo a journeyman mason – and all three brothers work the family agricultural land for food – our project helps them provide their family with additional resources to get through harder times. Together, we continue the work of perpetuating the Avril family and its traditional method of martial-arts training for future generations.
Left to right: Roland, Jean-Paul, and Fredo Avril
A brief history of Tire Machèt
In Haiti, before the Revolution of 1791-1804 (when it was called Saint-Domingue), slaves of African ancestry struggled to keep alive their traditional practices of stick and blade combat by holding clandestine competitions called Kalenda. At the same time, many of the free people of color sought social advancement through service in the French military, where they absorbed the techniques of European dueling culture. Notably, the Haitian fencer Jean-Louis Michel was among the most accomplished European-style fencers of the Napoleonic era. When widespread insurrection finally
broke out, the art of machete fencing emerged to play an important part in combat, since the insurgents were often unable to provide guns and ammunition for all of their soldiers. Since that time, Tire Machèt has served mostly as a means of individual self-defense among farmers who work day in, day out with a machete in their hand to this day.