Carnival is an outlet where everything is permitted—inversion, derision, inhibition, questioning the rules—cutting into the monotony of daily life. Carnival in Martinique is special—it’s not a spectacle with bleachers, stages, and famous artists flown in to perform. Here, everyone is together and in movement: you can be as much a part of the parade as you want, whether it’s dressing up and watching or running behind a truck playing your favourite music, and every person in attendance contributes to the atmosphere.
Carnaval 2013 has come and gone in Martinique—this year with much less pomp and circumstance than the last in my opinion. Nevertheless, here is a little more about carnival in Madinina.
Though the groupes à pied have been making their rounds since the Epiphany in January, this is the first official day of carnival. Elected from every commune, the Queens (young women), mini-Queens (girls) and Queen-Mothers (senior women) parade through Fort-de-France showing off their themed costumes to the crowds.
This is the first big défilé (parade) of the carnival; most importantly, however, this is the day that King Vaval or Rwa Bwa Bwa is revealed to all of the carnavaliers. Vaval is a large float, a satirical caricature of a person or concept that marked the previous year. At the end of Carnival, Vaval will be sacrificed as repentance for the excess of the celebration.
This year, Vaval manifested himself as Koupé and Fyon, a gay couple parodying the mariage pour tous (same-sex marriage) debate happening in France. The names of the couple characterize Jean-Francois Copé and Francois Fillon, whose surnames in creole translate to “to f*ck” and “ass,” respectively. The combination of their surnames is already unfortunate but the true wit is revealed when you learn that these two French politicians are staunchly against same-sex marriage. They drank champagne called La Fin d’un Monde, the End of a World, and held champagne glasses with the words Klordécone and Banol on them. Chlordecone and Banole are pesticides that have poisoned a lot of agricultural land in Martinique and leached into the water…there’s always some scandal attached to them.
On this day you will find many of the characters typical of Carnival: Neg Gwo Siwo (nègres gros-sirop) men covered in sirop de batterie (the black waste from the production of rum) representing the liberation of slaves, Mariyan Lapofig (Marianne peau de banane), a woman covered in dried banana leaves, among others. Bwadjacks are also taken out in full force—cars modified to rev exceptionally loudly and painted with satirical and/or offensive pictures and phrases.
Lundi Gras: Les Mariages Burlesques
On Monday, roles are reversed and the theme is cross-dressing. Men dress up as women and women dress up as men, though mostly in the former direction. For my first day of carnival, I took it easy and spent the day the Parade du Sud, the biggest parade outside of Fort-de-France. Here, all of the Queens from the southern communes process along with their respective orchestra and the occasional char (truck with a sound system playing music).
Historically taking place in Sainte-Anne or Marin, this year the Parade du Sud was in Le Robert, a commune not technically in the South. Regardless, I got the impression that this year’s Parade du Sud was better organized and well-situated. Le Robert’s beautiful waterfront and lawn provided a divine backdrop and comfortable view of both Martinique’s islets and the multi-coloured festivities; I watched the wigs, masks, costumes and bands walk by while enjoying a refreshing ice cream under the shade.
Mardi Gras: Les Diables Rouges
On Fat Tuesday, the theme is devils and carnavaliers dress up in red and black and the colours often produce very impressive costumes. This is often the wildest day of carnival—I can’t give a firsthand account of this year’s festivities as my inner introvert manifested itself and I stayed in town.
Coincidentally on this day, the Mariage pour tous law went to vote in the French Assembly. Despite Martinique’s religiosity and general opposition to same-sex marriage, Serge Letchimy, Deputy of Martinique and President of the Conseil Régional, voted in favour of the law. Letchimy stated that in the framework and values of the French Republic it is unacceptable that people should be discriminated against for the reasons of their being.
Mercredi des Cendres
Though for most countries Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, in Martinique this is the last day of Carnival. The origin of this tradition dates back to the 19th century legend of the diablesse—a woman dressed in all black and a white scarf who would lure men away from their estates at noon. At the end of the 19th century, students in Saint-Pierre often continued the festivities until Wednesday wearing black and white to honour this legend. Though most believe black and white is worn as a symbol of mourning the death of Vaval, it is in fact homage to the legend teaching men not to stray from their women.
In Fort-de-France, carnavaliers were running the vidés (groups of people who join the parade dancing behind the trucks or bands), orchestras were in full swing, bwadjacks were noisy and numerous and attendees were decked out in black and white. A little bit rainy and not quite the turnout I remembered from last year, I was slightly disappointed with the feeling. The capital didn’t quite have the lively feeling I had expected from the last day of carnival and around 5PM people had started lining up on the Malécon to watch the burning of Vaval. It was as if people couldn’t wait for carnival to end…
Boats and dinghies started drifting over by the waterfront to watch the end of carnival. Night fell and Vaval’s eulogy was played; by 7:10PM, the flames engulfed dear Vaval marking the end of Carnaval 2013. The flames give the impression of death, the end of carnival; however, the symbolism lies in the ashes. Ashes fertilize the earth, representing life and rebirth. Next year, Vaval will be reincarnated—different, but the same, signifying the continuity of carnival.