I said to my Self, “Self, don’t be a wimp.” Not in the mood to feel awkward, I tried to talk myself out of going to the Swaré Bèlè listed in the newspaper without an address or event space. After a phone call and some rough directions to a soccer field in Quartier Bochette in Le Lamentin, I had no idea what to expect. I remembered that I am supposed to be “putting myself out there” and making the most of my time here, so I dragged myself away from watching Magic Mike and left my house.
It was dark and we were driving (swerving) down a potholed path in between banana fields. With no clue as to who organized this event and its exact location, I was glad to see other cars behind and in front of us. We were directed to park in a soccer field, which eventually filled with cars. As we approached, we could smell grillade and hear a man singing in English. This Swaré was meant to have performers from Barbados, Trinidad, and Guadeloupe, which was why I was interested to check it out. My partner bought a beer and we settled in front of the stage to watch.
After the singing came a presentation of Danmyé—a traditional combat art similar to Brazilian Capoeira—which I had read about but had never actually seen.
Danmyé was inspired by African ceremonies for initiating adolescents into adulthood so it shares a lot of commonalities with Senegalese Lamb wrestling. The origin of the word comes from danm, derived from two African languages meaning “initiated,” and yé, referring to “a group”. Danmyé therefore means “those who are initiated.” The sport developed on plantations amongst slaves in Martinique from the 17th to 19th centuries and was eventually used by slave owners as a way to parade the strength of their slaves during festivals in a sort of cockfight. The Danmyé fight is carried out to music; a solo singer (Chantè), choir (La Vwa Dèyè), a tambour player (Tanbouyé) and the ti-bwa player (Bwatè épi ti bwa) make up the orchestra. Danmyé is rhythmic and regulated by the music from which the fighters draw their energy and inspiration.
The fighters, or “Majors,” begin by running in a circle to the rhythm of the tambour, representing the magical space in which the fight will take place. Anyone who enters the circle becomes an adversary. Each fighter takes turns drawing energy and inspiration from the tambour, exhibiting their strength, speed and agility face to face with the tanbouyé. This preparation calls upon supernatural elements and rites from Quimbois. There is a strong connection between the Major and the tanbouyé—he or she plays evenly for the two fighters, however when one gains an advantage, the tanbouyé pushes their foot against the head of the drum, tightening the sound in order to galvanize that fighter’s energy.
According to Pierre Dru, a Danmyé singer and historian, the combat was rejected during the 1970s as a remnant of slave culture. During the period of Créolité, a movement promoted by Edouard Glissant and Raphaël Confiant in the 1980s, Danmyé resurfaced with a nationalistic attitude of it as “by Martinicans for Martinicans”. Though the combat is adapting to the modern times and becoming more mainstream, I have seen only Bèlè presented during celebrations, shows and big events. Extrapolating from Dru, it would appear that Danmyé is relegated to evening swarés that are not as popularized in an effort to protect it from doudouisme (stereotype of Caribbean islands as a romantic paradise where locals simply exist to entertain tourists).
I really enjoyed watching this presentation and it made me somewhat miss wrestling. Young and old, men and women, some of the Majors were intense, others artistic but all were simply enjoying themselves. We recognized some of the fighters and drummers from the last Swaré Bèlè. The energy from Danmyé differs from that of Bèlè; as a combat sport, the intensity is higher, the song lyrics are different, and the relationship between the drummer and fighters stronger. I began to see Danmyé as an art of resistance: the fighting, its esoteric existence and how fundamentally Creole it is. Seeing a few people wearing MODEMAS Nationalist flags, which typically promote an independent Martinique and rejection of French nationality and culture, it made sense that these people revive and nurture these aspects of Martinican tradition. After some traditional Martinican storytelling that we can only assume was funny (we did laugh occasionally, but not as much as everyone else since it was mostly in Creole), we grew tired and had to leave before the Bèlè from Trinidad. I made off with a sticker of the red, green, and black Martinican nationalist flag, happy to have come.
If you’re interested in checking it out, Swaré Danmyé tend to be common in Anse Figuier, in Rivière-Pilote. There are also clubs in Fort-de-France, Rivière-Salée, Saint-Joseph, and Schoelcher.