Carnival in Guadeloupe
It’s the greatest festival in the Caribbean !
The Carnival is a festive cultural event that takes place in Guadeloupe every year over around two months.
In Guadeloupe carnival has the particularity of being spread over the entire archipelago.
The festival programme is highlighted by a parade in all the parishes every weekend.
Carnival starts on the last Sunday of Epiphany with an explosion of fun and gaiety, and ends with the ‘death’ of Vaval, the King of Carnival, on Ash Wednesday. On that day, devils and she-devils dressed in black and white form processions in the streets of Basse Terre and Pointe-à-Pitre, dancing and singing the Beguine songs of the ‘Grand Vidé’ to the sound of the Tam-Tam drums. At the end of that day, the effigy of Vaval, called ‘Bois Bois’, is burned by the crowds and thrown into the sea accompanied by their cries and lamentations; ‘Vaval Mo, Vaval Mo’ (‘Carnival is dead, Carnival is dead’) and ‘Vaval pa quitté nou’ (‘Carnival, don’t leave us’). Carnival resurges briefly at mid-Lent with a grand parade through the streets by revellers dressed in red and black.
In Guadeloupe, Carnival is particularly celebrated on the ‘Fat’ days (Shrove Monday, Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday). Shrove Monday is dedicated to the burlesque weddings. The disguised couples (with the men dressed as brides, and the women as grooms) and their entourages form a procession to meet the Mayor and the Priest. Shrove Tuesday is the high point of Carnival and there are a maximum of processions. Numerous competitions are organised to elect the best group, best costume etc., Ash Wednesday is a day of mourning. Dressed in black and white, the crowd burns Vaval while they dance and sing.
In a certain way, it could be said that Carnival in Guadeloupe is used to exorcise death. In this way, the disguise is only a passage, a transformation or even a form of transcendence. Therefore, during the three days parades, we see lots of masks, costumes and disguises that parody death (skeletons, skulls, devils etc.,) As relating to Vaval, this is a character who symbolises all the problems and sorrows of the previous year. He is several metres high, made from cardboard, and is burned at the end of the festivities. The death of Vaval therefore marks the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent.
Carnival (‘kannaval’ in Creole) was introduced by colonists in the 17th Century as a form of festivities before the Lenten restrictions. In Guadeloupe, where only the colonists could celebrate the festival in the beginning, the African slaves thereafter added their own cultural touch to this festival that had its origins in its European roots with drums, masks, songs etc… The slaves seized upon this opportunity to unwind but as an occasion to ridicule their dominating masters through costumes and disguises.
The musical groups of Carnival
The Carnival groups are divided into three categories according to their type of music:
• The ‘skins’ groups (‘po’); these are the traditional independent groups. They play small drums covered with animal skins such as goat as well as other traditional musical instruments.
The ‘skins’ group is composed of several sub-groups:
– The whipping groups: Their members generally crack whips to represent the suffering endured by the slaves during the colonial times.
– The ‘gwo siwo’ groups: Their members cover their bodies in a strongly smelling black syrup.
– The parades on foot are the most common; they pay tribute to carnival in a traditional fashion with natural costumes and music that communicates a strong message to the people.
The ‘Po’ groups enable the population to renew their ties to their origins through song and dance and the costumes that are often linked to traditional costumes and myths but can also relate to current events that touch the population, generally in a derisive manner.
• The ‘Mass’ groups
Groups of this type such as we know today made their appearance around the millennium years. Despite their masks and stereotyped costumes they are still often quite innovative due to their choreography and their sense of humour.
• The percussion groups; these use handmade or traditional instruments such as snare drums, large plastic drums, conch shells…
Their costumes are highly varied and they are the only groups that use wind instruments which are highly expensive. They are easily recognisable due to their music and of course their costumes and floats or trucks.
Nowadays, synthesiser groups are also to be seen, originally from the Basse-Terre Carnival they use mobile sound systems with loudspeakers, generators and synthesisers on their floats followed by electric guitars and singers with microphones. But even so, the synthesiser groups are no less typically Guadeloupian and the rest of the musical section, as with those of the percussion groups, follows behind the truck or float. Concerning the music, these groups generally have a faster rhythm so often have the largest number of followers and therefore generate a dance type atmosphere. Although synthesiser groups tend to concentrate more on the instrumental side and less on the costumes and choreography, they still participate in the majority of the competitions.
Wait no longer, reserve now to enjoy the Carnival sights and atmosphere in Guadeloupe this year!