La Saison de Carnaval!

Heureusement qu’on a la semaine pour se reposer [pendant Carnaval]! –Guyane Première

(Thank goodness we have the work week to recover from the weekend [during Carnival]!)

Carnaval in Guyane lasts from the 6th of January (Jour des Roix—Three Kings’ Day) to Ash Wednesday (this year, the 5th of March). It’s a long two months of dancing, parades, costumes, music, and four-day weekends. During the entire Carnaval period, you can easily find soirées (evening events) on any given Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night. On Thursdays, there are free Carnaval dance classes at Café de la Gare in downtown Cayenne. Fridays surprisingly boast the least amount of Carnaval-related action. People will often throw private parties, and families eat the famous Galette des Rois, a sweet and flaky almond pastry cake that is normally only consumed in metropolitan France on the 6th of January (le Jour des Rois—Three Kings’ Day), with a hidden fève, or small figurine, whose finder gets to wear a crown for the evening. The Guyanese really know how to get the most out of their Carnaval. On Saturdays there are two main venues that host traditional dancing with live bands: Chez Nana and Chez Polina. Chez Nana, I’ve been told, is reserved for an older crowd, while Polina attracts a younger population. This isn’t saying much, considering over half the population of all of Guyane is under the age of 50. And 50, as they say in France, is when your life begins.

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Opening Night

Carnaval always begins with the first parade and a spectacle (performance) at Place des Palmistes in downtown Cayenne. There are usually only a few groups who participate and the horn blowing and drum beating is a little shaky, but full of enthusiasm. Several hundred spectators gathered to watch this year’s performance, which took place on a rare sunny Saturday evening. The theme of this year’s performance was La Légende de Caïenne (The Legend of Cayenne) and told the story of two kings, Roi Brésil and Roi Cépérou, who live harmoniously on opposite sides of the Orénoque river. The prince of Caïenne is in love with the daughter of the Roi Brésil, and in order to conquer her heart, consults the village sorcerer, Piaye Montabo, who often communicates with the Grand Ésprit de la forêt (Great Spirit of the forest), Iroucan. Tribal music and dancing ensued, ending in the crowning of the Roi Vaval, the king of Carnaval.

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At the following week’s parade in Cayenne, the Reine Vaval, the queen of Carnaval, is elected. Both the king and queen are usually members of the Carnaval committee, and their costume designs are chosen from a selection of local couturiers (clothing designers). The king and queen are present at every parade from opening night to the end of the Carnaval period.

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La Musique, les Danses, et les Costumes de Carnaval (The Music, Dances, and Costumes of Carnival)

There is nothing like Carnaval music. Saying it is “upbeat” would be an understatement. The beats come relentlessly, fueled by the urgency of drums and trumpets. It has an essentially Caribbean feel, as most of Guyane’s Carnaval music is imported from the French Antilles, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Local radio stations mix in Carnaval hits with pop music, and the effect of that constant energy makes it impossible to stay melancholy for an extended period of time, despite the gray skies that permeate the Carnaval period.

“Kase le Zo” by Olivier Martelly, featuring Roodboy and Top Adlerman

Carnaval dances mimic the lustful urgency of the music. Dance partners shake and pop their hips in time to the music, their bodies almost vibrating to stay in time with the impossible rhythm. For this reason, partners must stay quite close, their hips glued to each other, giving the dances a very sexual charge. It is with good reason that many parade groups go around handing out condoms.

Costumes vary from traditional colorful silk Guyanese robes and painted white masks to tribal wear inspired by the ancient Amerindians to artful neon cardboard creations to bejeweled Brazilian bikinis and feathered wings. Any given parade will have a variety.

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Touloulou and Tololo

Chez Nana and Chez Polina are known for Touloulou and Tololo soirées. Touloulou is a ladies’ choice event, where the women—the Touloulou—come disguised in traditional Guyanese Carnaval attire from head to toe, with not an inch of skin showing. Women arrive solo, having been dropped off or parked their car far from the venue, so that no one can speculate about who they might be. It is really the ultimate anonymity, topped off by the fact that the Touloulou robes are loose enough to disguise even the woman’s figure. Tololo soirées are simply the male version of Touloulou, though they are not as popular as the ladies’ choice dances. I think men here enjoy the Carnaval power exchange. People who choose to participate in these events pay an entrance fee, and then whoever is selected to dance buys their partner a drink for each dance they share.

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Les Défilés et les Bals Masqués (The Parades and Masked Balls)

Every Saturday, after the opening week, a smaller town in Guyane is selected to host a Carnaval parade and musical exhibition. These don’t draw huge crowds, but are rather for the benefit of communities and families who can’t make it to Cayenne or Kourou every weekend for their Sunday parades. The king and queen of Carnaval attend every local parade, where the performers pay tribute to their presence.

The larger towns—Cayenne, Kourou, and Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni—frequently host bals masqués, which are similar to the Touloulou and Tololo soirées, but with everyone in costume sans (without) rules. There are also private bals masqués, which are more like house parties that people host.

There are two major parades that take place just before the end of the Carnaval period: La Grande Parade de Kourou and La Grande Parade de Cayenne. Kourou’s parade is the biggest of the year, drawing the most crowds and the most performing groups. Near the end of the parade route is a red carpet where groups perform a short selection from their repertoire, and are judged on their music and dancing. Cayenne’s parade boasts a green carpet, but the timing and performances are not as organized, so the effect is not the same as the constant energy of the parade in Kourou. Both parades exhibited Guyane’s cultural diversity, with groups representing not only Guyane’s native Creole people, but also Brazil, Suriname, Haiti, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and China, to name a few. In fact, Guyane’s Carnaval is so unique that UNESCO (the United Nations’ cultural preservation agency) may get involved in the preservation of its heritage.

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At the end of the big parades, the vider (literally “to empty”) takes place. There is a large truck with dancers and blasting music that rolls through the streets, followed by a massive crowd of dancing and singing people toting alcohol in plastic water bottles. This feels like a touch of Rio de Janeiro in Guyane—and it is fun! Everyone dances together, sweating and heating up the streets from the fresh air of the rainy season.

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Carnaval à Roura (Carnival in Roura)

When it was Roura’s turn to host the Saturday evening Carnaval parade, it was quite a rainy affair, but with no shortage of spectators. The music continued ceaselessly from the afternoon until well after dark, bringing a liveliness to the quiet town I had not yet experienced. I saw many familiar faces, including quite a few of my students, who ran and played alongside the performers as they marched through the town streets.

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The village schools where I work also hosted their own Carnaval celebration, where all the town children lined up and paraded their handmade costumes in front of the mairie (town hall) and down the rue principal (main street). The weather early that morning was not favorable—pouring rain and slate gray skies. Luckily it burned off by the time the children arrived at school and slipped into their costumes: colorful fish, natural tribal leaf skirts, striped sailor shirts, cardboard fruits and vegetables, and elaborate eye masks. I was in charge of face-painting: mustaches and goatees for the boys and circular swirls at the eyes for the girls, as requested.

We promenaded up the hill to the Maternelle (preschool), and added the little ones to the parade ensemble, as well as a pickup truck with enormous speakers for some music. We hadn’t made it ten minutes through the town without the sky suddenly erupting with rain. As no one had brought their umbrellas, we were all soaked by the end, paper costumes sliding off and tearing by the end of the parade. Luckily, the children were rewarded by the maire (mayor) with menthe à l’eau (mint water) and grenadine (berry-flavored water) upon their return to the school, where the rest of the day was spent celebrating Carnaval.

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Lundi Gras et les Mariages Burlesques (Fat Monday and the Burlesque Marriages)

The last few days of Carnaval are known as Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday), Lundi Gras (Fat Monday), and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday, the same one we know and love in New Orleans, although here it is much more family and kid-oriented). Lundi Gras is the evening of les Mariages Burlesques, where men dress and women and women dress as men and parade through the streets of Cayenne accompanied by the usual trumpet and drum Carnaval bands. It really is quite a spectacle to see Guyane’s tall, muscular men amble their way through the streets in dainty high heels.

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Mardi Gras et les Diables Rouges (Fat Tuesday and the Red Devils)

Mardi Gras, as I mentioned, is really much more children and family-oriented, likely because the majority of Carnaval is devoted to the scandalous hip-banging that entertains the adults. Everyone dresses in red and black, with angel wings and devil horns. The same parading and dancing ensues, with everyone in the streets by the end of the night.

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Mercredi des Cendres et la Mort de Vaval (Ash Wednesday and the Death of Vaval)

La mort de Vaval commences with a street parade where everyone is decked out in black and white to symbolize the end of the Carnaval period, which is normally saturated with color. It involves the typical music and dancing, until the final group escorts Vaval, the Carnaval king, to be burned at the stake at Place des Palmistes. There is one final spectacle, and that marks the end of Carnaval, though partying continues long into the night. Some friends and I trekked to Bar Domino, where there was a huge stage with live music and food stands surrounded by hundreds of people who came out for one last hurrah.

Carnaval really was a lively time, and it made the first leg of the rainy season in Guyane much more bearable—happy music on the radio, colorful costumes, and an assortment of events every weekend in spite of the rain. March brings a mini dry season, followed by the really heavy rains in April and May. Here’s to the last of the sun, and to the last six weeks of our teaching assistantship in Guyane.

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