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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 13322

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

I thought Grande Anse the most sleepy place I had ever visited. I suspect it is one of the sleepiest in the whole world. The wind, which tans even a creole of St. Pierre to an unnatural brown within forty-eight hours of his sojourn in the village, has also a peculiarly somnolent effect. The moment one has nothing particular to do, and ventures to sit down idly with the breeze in one's face, slumber comes; and everybody who can spare the time takes a long nap in the afternoon, and little naps from hour to hour. For all that, the heat of the east coast is not enervating, like that of St. Pierre; one can take a great deal of exercise in the sun without feeling much the worse. Hunting excursions, river fishing parties, surf-bathing, and visits to neighboring plantations are the only amusements; but these are enough to make existence very pleasant at Grande Anse. The most interesting of my own experiences were those of a day passed by invitation at one of the old colonial estates on the hills near the village.

It is not easy to describe the charm of a creole interior, whether in the city or the country. The cool shadowy court, with its wonderful plants and fountain of sparkling mountain water, or the lawn, with its ancestral trees,-the delicious welcome of the host, whose fraternal easy manner immediately makes you feel at home,-the coming of the children to greet you, each holding up a velvety brown cheek to be kissed, after the old-time custom,-the romance of the unconventional chat, over a cool drink, under the palms and the ceibas,-the visible earnestness of all to please the guest, to inwrap him in a very atmosphere of quiet happiness,-combine to make a memory which you will never forget. And maybe you enjoy all this upon some exquisite site, some volcanic summit, overlooking slopes of a hundred greens,-mountains far winding in blue and pearly shadowing,-rivers singing seaward behind curtains of arborescent reeds and bamboos,-and, perhaps, Pelee, in the horizon, dreaming violet dreams under her foulard of vapors,-and, encircling all, the still sweep of the ocean's azure bending to the verge of day.

... My host showed or explained to me all that he thought might interest a stranger. He had brought to me a nest of the carouge, a bird which suspends its home, hammock-fashion, under the leaves of the banana-tree;-showed me a little fer-de-lance, freshly killed by one of his field hands; and a field lizard (zanoli tè in creole), not green like the lizards which haunt the roofs of St. Pierre, but of a beautiful brown bronze, with shifting tints; and eggs of the zanoli, little soft oval things from which the young lizards will perhaps run out alive as fast as you open the shells; and the matoutou falaise, or spider of the cliffs, of two varieties, red or almost black when adult, and bluish silvery tint when young,-less in size than the tarantula, but equally hairy and venomous; and the crabe-c'est-ma-faute (the "Through-my-fault Crab"), having one very small and one very large claw, which latter it carries folded up against its body, so as to have suggested the idea of a penitent striking his bosom, and uttering the sacramental words of the Catholic confession, "Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault."... Indeed I cannot recollect one-half of the queer birds, queer insects, queer reptiles, and queer plants to which my attention was called. But speaking of plants, I was impressed by the profusion of the zhèbe-moin-misé-a little sensitive-plant I had rarely observed on the west coast. On the hill-sides of Grande Anse it prevails to such an extent as to give certain slopes its own peculiar greenish-brown color. It has many-branching leaves, only one inch and a half to two inches long, but which recall the form of certain common ferns; these lie almost flat upon the ground. They fold together upward from the central stem at the least touch, and the plant thus makes itself almost imperceptible;-it seems to live so, that you feel guilty of murder if you break off a leaf. It is called Zhèbe-moin-misé, or "Plant-did-I-amuse-myself," because it is supposed to tell naughty little children who play truant, or who delay much longer than is necessary in delivering a message, whether they deserve a whipping or not. The guilty child touches the plant, and asks, "Ess moin amisé moin?" (Did I amuse myself?); and if the plant instantly shuts its leaves up, that means, "Yes, you did." Of course the leaves invariably close; but I suspect they invariably tell the truth, for all colored children, in Grande Anse at least, are much more inclined to play than work.

The kind old planter likewise conducted me over the estate. He took me through the sugar-mill, and showed me, among other more recent inventions, some machinery devised nearly two centuries ago by the ingenious and terrible Père Labat, and still quite serviceable, in spite of all modern improvements in sugar-making;-took me through the rhummerie, or distillery, and made me taste some colorless rum which had the aroma and something of the taste of the most delicate gin;-and finally took me into the cases-à-vent, or "wind-houses,"-built as places of refuge during hurricanes. Hurricanes are rare, and more rare in this century by far than during the previous one; but this part of the island is particularly exposed to such visitations, and almost every old plantation used to have one or two cases-à-vent. They were always built in a hollow, either natural or artificial, below the land-level,-with walls of rock several feet thick, and very strong doors, but no windows. My host told me about the experiences of his family in some case-à-vent during a hurricane which he recollected. It was found necessary to secure the door within by means of strong ropes; and the mere task of holding it taxed the strength of a dozen powerful men: it would bulge in under the pressure of the awful wind,-swelling like the side of a barrel; and had not its planks been made of a wood tough as hickory, they would have been blown into splinters.

I had long desired to examine a plantation drum, and see it played upon under conditions more favorable than the excitement of a holiday caleinda in the villages, where the amusement is too often terminated by a voum (general row) or a goumage (a serious fight);-and when I mentioned this wish to the planter he at once sent word to his commandeur, the best drummer in the settlement, to come up to the house and bring his instrument with him. I was thus enabled to make the observations necessary, and also to take an instantaneous photograph of the drummer in th

e very act of playing.

The old African dances, the caleinda and the bélé (which latter is accompanied by chanted improvisation) are danced on Sundays to the sound of the drum on almost every plantation in the island. The drum, indeed, is an instrument to which the country-folk are so much attached that they swear by it,-Tambou! being the oath uttered upon all ordinary occasions of surprise or vexation. But the instrument is quite as often called ka, because made out of a quarter-barrel, or quart,-in the patois "ka." Both ends of the barrel having been removed, a wet hide, well wrapped about a couple of hoops, is driven on, and in drying the stretched skin obtains still further tension. The other end of the ka is always left open. Across the face of the skin a string is tightly stretched, to which are attached, at intervals of about an inch apart, very short thin fragments of bamboo or cut feather stems. These lend a certain vibration to the tones.

In the time of Père Labat the negro drums had a somewhat different form. There were then two kinds of drums-a big tamtam and a little one, which used to be played together. Both consisted of skins tightly stretched over one end of a wooden cylinder, or a section of hollow tree trunk. The larger was from three to four feet long with a diameter of fifteen to sixteen inches; the smaller, called baboula, [5] was of the same length, but only eight or nine inches in diameter.

Père Labat also speaks, in his West Indian travels, of another musical instrument, very popular among the Martinique slaves of his time-"a sort of guitar" made out of a half-calabash or cou?, covered with some kind of skin. It had four strings of silk or catgut, and a very long neck. The tradition or this African instrument is said to survive in the modern "banza" (banza nèg Guinée).

The skilful player (bel tambouyé) straddles his ka stripped to the waist, and plays upon it with the finger-tips of both hands simultaneously,-taking care that the vibrating string occupies a horizontal position. Occasionally the heel of the naked foot is pressed lightly or vigorously against the skin, so as to produce changes of tone. This is called "giving heel" to the drum-baill y talon. Meanwhile a boy keeps striking the drum at the uncovered end with a stick, so as to produce a dry clattering accompaniment. The sound of the drum itself, well played, has a wild power that makes and masters all the excitement of the dance-a complicated double roll, with a peculiar billowy rising and falling. The creole onomatopes, b'lip-b'lib-b'lib-b'lip, do not fully render the roll;-for each b'lip or b'lib stands really for a series of sounds too rapidly filliped out to be imitated by articulate speech. The tapping of a ka can be heard at surprising distances; and experienced players often play for hours at a time without exhibiting wearisomeness, or in the least diminishing the volume of sound produced.

It seems there are many ways of playing-different measures familiar to all these colored people, but not easily distinguished by anybody else; and there are great matches sometimes between celebrated tambouyé. The same commandè whose portrait I took while playing told me that he once figured in a contest of this kind, his rival being a drummer from the neighboring burgh of Marigot.... "A?e, a?e, ya?e! mon chè!-y fai tambou-à pàlé!" said the commandè, describing the execution of his antagonist;-"my dear, he just made that drum talk! I thought I was going to be beaten for sure; I was trembling all the time-a?e, a?e, ya?e! Then he got off that ka, mounted it; I thought a moment; then I struck up the 'River-of-the-Lizard,'-mais, mon chè, yon larivie-Léza toutt pi!-such a River-of-the-Lizard, ah! just perfectly pure! I gave heel to that ka; I worried that ka;-I made it mad-I made it crazy;-I made it talk;-I won!"

During some dances a sort of chant accompanies the music-a long sonorous cry, uttered at intervals of seven eight seconds, which perfectly times a particular measure in the drum roll. It may be the burden of a song: a mere improvisation:

"Oh! yo?e-yo?e!"

(Drum roll.)

"Oh! missié-à!"

(Drum roll.)

"Y bel tambouyé!"

(Drum roll.)

"Aie, ya, yaie!"

(Drum roll.)

"Joli tambouyé!"

(Drum roll.)

"Chauffé tambou-à!"

(Drum roll.)

"Géné tambou-à!"

(Drum roll.)

"Crazé tambou-à!" etc., etc.

... The crieur, or chanter, is also the leader of the dance. The caleinda is danced by men only, all stripped to the waist, and twirling heavy sticks in a mock fight, Sometimes, however-especially at the great village gatherings, when the blood becomes oyerheated by tafia-the mock fight may become a real one; and then even cutlasses are brought into play.

But in the old days, those improvisations which gave one form of dance its name, bélé (from the French bel air), were often remarkable rhymeless poems, uttered with natural simple emotion, and full of picturesque imagery. I cite part of one, taken down from the dictation of a common field-hand near Fort-de-France. I offer a few lines of the creole first, to indicate the form of the improvisation. There is a dancing pause at the end of each line during the performance:

Toutt fois lanmou vini lacase moin

Pou pàlé moin, moin ka reponne:

"Khé moin deja placé,"

Moin ka crié, "Secou! les voisinages!"

Moin ka crié, "Secou! la gàde royale!"

Moin ka crié, "Secou! la gendàmerie!

Lanmou pouend yon poigna pou poignadé moin!"

The best part of the composition, which is quite long, might be rendered as follows:

Each time that Love comes to my cabin

To speak to me of love I make answer,

"My heart is already placed,"

I cry out, "Help, neighbors! help!"

I cry out, "Help, la Garde Royale!"

I cry out, "Help, help, gendarmes!

Love takes a poniard to stab me;

How can Love have a heart so hard

To thus rob me of my health!"

When the officer of police comes to me

To hear me tell him the truth,

To have him arrest my Love;-

When I see the Garde Royale

Coming to arrest my sweet heart,

I fall down at the feet of the Garde Royale,-

I pray for mercy and forgiveness.

"Arrest me instead, but let my dear Love go!"

How, alas! with this tender heart of mine,

Can I bear to see such an arrest made!

No, no! I would rather die!

Dost not remember, when our pillows lay close together,

How we told each to the other all that our hearts thought?... etc.

The stars were all out when I bid my host good-bye;-he sent his lack servant along with me to carry a lantern and keep a sharp watch for snakes along the mountain road.

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