Les Diables Rouges, Red Devils, Carnival in Martinique
Les Diables Rouges

An Nou Zouké ô Swe A – Let’s dance tonight!

This is our last hurrah before Lent… Lent in Martinique means everything is closed. No loud music, and no fun to be had. Carnival in Martinique lasts two weeks but the pot has been stirring for weeks now. Carnival Fever, as it’s called. Students are a little rowdier, bands have been parading (and challenging other bands), and everyone is gearing up for a week of complete debauchery. Last night in my hometown, bands from Ste. Anne, Trois-Ilets, and Haiti came together and performed around the downtown area (mind you, “downtown” Ste. Anne is about the size of Yonge and Dundas Square). It was an enjoyable atmosphere, a show of music and dancing.

Once a year we Torontonians have the pleasure of experiencing Caribana (I don’t care that it’s now called the ‘Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival’. It’s Caribana). I don’t know about you, but for me it’s just a weekend where Americans drive up to Toronto, rent really nice cars and try to get laid by posting up on Yonge Street and pssst-ing at any chick with legs. What we forget is the origins and purposes of these festivals. Did you know that Caribana actually started as the Caribbean community’s tribute to Canada’s Centennial in 1967? It was meant to show positive visibility of the Caribbean community and to promote unity and inclusivity in the Canadian cultural mosaic.

It is said that the origins of carnivals lie in the Bible. Prior to Lent, all indulgent food such as wine, dairy, and meat (in fact, some think the etymology of the use of the word carnival to represent the celebration comes from the Latin carne vale meaning “goodbye meat”) had to be thrown out or consumed. The consumption would occur as a celebration involving the entire community. Parading, dressing up, and masquerading was first recorded in Medieval Italy eventually spreading to other Catholic countries. As most West Indian countries were once colonies of Catholic nations, Carnivals before Lent were of course exported.

In Martinique, Carnival was celebrated in St. Pierre in the 17th and 18th centuries and was reserved for the wealthy. After the abolition of slavery in 1848, Carnival was adopted by the country as a whole and was influenced by former slaves’ beliefs and traditional instruments. This influence persists in the customs, music, and costumes today. Across the West Indies, instead of masquerading, we play Mas. Rather than celebrate, we fete. While the Catholic undertones remain, spirits of Afro-Caribbean folklore are evoked. Instead of violins and lutes, steel pans, tambourines, and the ti-bois reign. We also manage to make political and social commentary as the Carnival King is often an effigy or representation of current social issues.

Looking forward to the next few weeks, even if I can’t keep my classes under control! I’m sure I caused a stir in the middle school…many of my students witnessed me (jokingly) getting my dance on. The reactions were priceless. Wish me luck!

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