The Martinique Carnival was born during the colonization at Saint-Pierre, that was the biggest city of the island. It was the mixture of the African and European culture.
Originally, the Carnival dates back to the Middle Ages. In order to suppress the pagan ideas and traditions, the Catholic Church under duress and for fear of the creation of a new less restrictive religion, creates the Mardi Gras which is the rite of the celebration of Spring.
Mardi Gras was therefore the day of celebrations, public dances, costumes and other festivities that fully celebrated European Christians. In addition, there were all kinds of meat menus which were consumed without moderation.
Its position in the calendar, the day before Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lent, the period of fasting and prayers was the last day you could eat fat until Easter. This day will become the Carnival from the Latin carnelevarium which means removal of meat.
The beginning of the Carnival in Martinique
The Carnival from settlers to slaves
In Martinique, Carnival arrives in Martinique with the French Catholic settlers around the 17th century. This tradition they had in Europe, they permeated the African slaves from slave ships. Once installed in the plantations, masters invited family and friends of their rank to commemorate the Carnival according to European traditions imported the Caribbean. Thus, lavish receptions with food in abundance were shared between elite of the time. The guests arrived masked, dressed in luxurious clothes.
Further, in their neighborhoods, near their wood houses, slaves repeated this settlers tradition, trying to copy their masters while keeping their traditional costumes as they were made in Africa. The drum is introduced, and the slaves danced with the timing of this instrument they used formerly in their festivals.
Finally, the festivities were very different according to the social status of the person celebrating the carnival. Because if the carnival was a reception in the home of the white settlers, it was a procession, a costumed parade that mixed dance and music in the slave quarters on the master's home. Indeed, it was forbidden to leave the property of the master. The carnival will, however, repeatedly been forbidden to slaves, masters couldn't stand to view the slaves running through the streets and celebrating with cutlasses, sticks and other tools.
At the end of slavery, the entire population dances together and celebrates Carnival, which has become a festivity that the whole island has made its own. Thus “Creoles, whatever their color, are great lovers of music and dance. You must see them [...] on carnival day. To the sound of a plaintive chant, with a dropping phrase and repeated without intermittence with a few variations, the innumerable procession of men and women marches in time, holding each other's hands, giving each other their arms, separating, uniting according to the movements of this uneven dance, in the midst of cries, songs, laughter, in an endless intoxication."
Note that the Carnival was banned during the First World War as well as the patronal festivals which have been replaced by patriotic festivals. It would have been frowned upon for the inhabitants of the French colonies to rejoice in the streets while the nation was at war and likewise popular gatherings did not guarantee the safety of the participants.
A popular success
The carnival was a great success in the 19th century in particular around the end of the period. Popular parades were organized in the city of Saint Pierre, the capital and largest city of Martinique until 1902 and the eruption of Mount Pelee. Carnival will not be commemorated several years later, and resume at Fort-de-France, the new capital of Martinique.
The reputation of this carnival achieved many islands of the Caribbean, South America by the three Guianas (French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname) and then in the United States. The characters of the Saint Pierre carnival are recreated in Fort-de-France on the basis of the multicultural heritages which then characterize Creole society, from social facts or from the customs in vogue at the time (professions, regional or international news).
Characters of the Carnival Martinique
Thus, appear the different characters of the Martinique Carnival:
- Sa Majesté Vaval (his Majesty Vaval), the giant puppet, King of Carnival will lead the parade bus and the parade. It is either a character, a true story, a political fact, or about local national or international news. Prepared several months in advance in the greatest secrecy, it appears on the Shrove Sunday parade head after a confection made in great secrecy by various associations of the city. During all the Shrovetide, it will be celebrated and honored until Ash Wednesday night, he is burned in a square, close to the Bay of Fort de France, the Malecon.
- The Diable rouge (Red Devil) comes directly from Africa. The mask was manufactured using various materials and recycled objects like mirrors, and inspired by harvest masks from Casamance, a region of southern Senegal. It wears bovine horns and reveals only the eyes. They are honored Mardi Gras which is sometimes called Red Devils Day.
- The Guiablesse is the grieving widow of King Vaval. It appears only on Ash Wednesday dressed in Black and White, came crying Vaval to be cremated on Wednesday evening at the end of Carnival.
- The coupeur de canne (cane cutter) is a character that dates back to the Carnival of 1849, the year following the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. Former slaves were disguised as their former slaves held to ridicule their former cane cutter job. The cane cutter is less and less present in current corteges. Note that even during slavery, slaves sometimes disguised as their master just to mock them.
- The "nèg Gwo Siwo" is a character, like the cane cutter, symbolizing the slaves. He is slathered with cane syrup mixed with charcoal, they make the crowd flee. They are not currently present. You will see him at the Paris Carnival because they have remained very popular with some people of the Haitian community.
- The "Touloulous" once very present in the parades of Saint-Pierre disappeared in Fort-de-France before returning recently through local associations. Very popular in French Guiana, the Touloulou who wears a mask reminiscent of Venice Carnival symbolizes the dominant woman, superior in her hierarchy with man.
- Clay Men are the Pottery workers of Trois-Ilets, one of the oldest companies in Martinique currently still active.
- Karolyn zyé Kokli is a woman carrying on her back her alcoholic husband every night on his shoulders. The weight of the latter is squinting her eyes.
- The mokozombies are stilt men that disappeared gradually of the Martinique Carnival but you can find in Guadeloupe, French Guiana or the Carnival of Paris.
- Finally, Maryan Lapo fig comes straight to the Saint-Pierre Carnival, and the 19th century. According to legend, a circus representation in the city of Saint-Pierre would have seen his bear to escape. Not to disappoint the audience, a woman disguised as a bear with a costume using dried banana leaves to fill the missing bear. Maryan Lapo fig mimics the bear. It is usually accompanied by a puppeteer and a musician.
The Carnival of today in Martinique
Today, Carnival is very popular. It is also one of the most popular events each year with the Round Skiffs Tour of Martinique. If parades or vidés, a word used locally to talk about the cortege, is organized in almost all municipalities, the Carnival of Fort de France is the most popular. Note that the city of Lamentin organizes its Carnival and competes more and more popularity with that of the capital city.
On Shrove Monday, the parade of the Carnival of Fort-de-France is dotted because the top parade is organized by the municipalities of the south of the island. The Carnival is a wonderful time where all the costumes are permitted without restraint. And new characters have gradually emerged in this Carnival, the most popular, the transvestite, a man disguised as a woman, in sometimes very daring way.
But what would this event without its bands? The street bands that delight people playing their drums, cha-chas and other hand made instruments, are associations that are preparing all year for this event.
It is not uncommon to hear drum sounds or Carnival rhythms, off period of Carnival, evidence that these groups are in the process of repeating for Shrovetide. The appearance of the group dates back to 1975, and are one of the components of the Carnival of Fort de France. It is not a legacy of the Carnival of Saint-Pierre.
Also, you should also not be overlooked is the traditional "bradjacks", very old cars decorated with sometimes amusing way, that sometimes carry a dozen young men on their roof. They have sometimes been banned of corteges for public safety reasons, but returned this time with a control, and a permit to participate in the show.
Another equally important character is the Carnival Queen, the elections take place shortly before the Shrove Days. A young girl will be queen is elected during elections which will take place shortly before the Shrove Days. To be elected, the candidates compete by presenting themselves in an outfit made manually from recovered elements in front of a jury which will choose the most original candidate and having the best presence. There is also an election of Queen Mother, a woman aged at least 60, usually dressed in traditional attire, as well as a mini-Queen, a young person under the age of 10-12. King's elections are much rarer. The three generations of Queens will be present on the float of the municipality which organizes the parade.
Schedule of the Carnival in Martinique
Carnival is not just in Martinique only the Shrovetide, as soon the end of Epiphany, parades in the towns are a warm-up of Shrovetide. Carnival strictly speaking, it's 4 days of festivities on Shrove Sunday, Shrove Monday, Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday.
Carnival was supposed to end on the evening of Mardi Gras was extended a day with a papal exemption granted to certain Caribbean islands, and countries in South America in the mid 20th century.
Thus, Lent begins the Thursday after Ash Wednesday at midnight, and the imposition of ashes is on Friday and not on Wednesday, as is customary in Catholic countries. Note that during Shrovetide, after urban parades, carnival festivities continue in different shows in nightclubs, restaurants, casino and other huts.
Saturday preceding the Shrovetide, Queens, Mother Queens and Mini-Queens are presented to the public in a presentation parade. Saturday is not as a day of Carnival, the presentation remains something informal and recent.
Sunday is the presentation of the King Vaval in head of the cortege, and the beginning of the festivities. The population is in the city of Fort-de-France trimmed of all types of costumes. No dress code is given and only originality is required on the first day of vidé.
Monday, the burlesque marriage (burlesque wedding) is honored. Women are disguised as men, and men as women, sometimes a bride. It is the inversion of the gender hierarchy in the couple. That day, the South Parade (the main parade of the island is organized in a municipality of the south of the island) is the event of the day. All South towns Queens are present for the parade and also the major bands of the island. This parade is very popular and brews the entire population of the south of the island.
Mardi Gras is a day that starts early. Indeed, on this occasion the pyjama lévé, a morning parade that begins at 4:30 am inviting everyone in its path to come wake the other inhabitants of the town, just wearing a nightgown or pajamas. Gradually, the parade grows before all these people go home (go back to sleep?) to get ready for the great parade of the afternoon. Mardi Gras is the day out of the red devils frightens younger children probably. The colors of the day are Red and Black. Better to follow the color code because otherwise you really spot in the vidé.
Ash Wednesday is the day of mourning, a day when Carnival people are adorned with black and white, colors of mourning in Martinique. After the parade, the Vaval of the year will be burned on the Malecon, the place bordering the Bay of Fort-de-France. His many widows, Guiablesses will weep seeing the disappearing, destroyed by fire. The festivities will continue in nightclubs until midnight, start time of Lent.
The following Thursday must certainly be seen as the quietest day of the year, as it is quiet after the festivities that have lasted 4 days. Beware though, the dobby (wooden traps to catch crabs) are out because hunting for crabs that will be consumed at Easter is opened. Yes, in Martinique, "show must go on"!