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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 3340

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Tam!-tam!-tamtamtam!... The spectacle is interesting from the Batterie d'Esnotz. High up the Rue Peysette,-up all the precipitous streets that ascend the mornes,-a far gathering of showy color appears: the massing of maskers in rose and blue and sulphur-yellow attire.... Then what a degringolade begins!-what a tumbling, leaping, cascading of color as the troupes descend. Simultaneously from north and south, from the Mouillage and the Fort, two immense bands enter the Grande Rue;-the great dancing societies these,-the Sans-souci and the Intrépides. They are rivals; they are the composers and singers of those Carnival songs,-cruel satires most often, of which the local meaning is unintelligible to those unacquainted with the incident inspiring the improvisation,-of which the words are too often coarse or obscene,-whose burdens will be caught up and re-echoed through all the burghs of the island. Vile as may be the motive, the satire, the malice, these chants are preserved for generations by the singular beauty of the airs; and the victim of a Carnival song need never hope that his failing or his wrong will be forgotten: it will be sung of long after he is in his grave.

... Ten minutes more, and the entire length of the street is thronged with a shouting, shrieking, laughing, gesticulating host of maskers. Thicker and thicker the press becomes;-the drums are silent: all are waiting for the signal of the general dance. Jests and practical jokes are being everywhere perpetrated; there is a vast hubbub, made up of screams, cries, chattering, laughter. Here and there snatches of Carnival song are being sung:-"Cambronne, Cambronne;" or "Ti fenm-là

doux, li doux, li doux! "... "Sweeter than sirup the little woman is";-this burden will be remembered when the rest of the song passes out of fashion. Brown hands reach out from the crowd of masks, pulling the beards and patting the faces of white spectators.... "Moin connaitt ou, chè!-moin connaitt ou, doudoux! ba moin ti d'mi franc!" It is well to refuse the half-franc,-though you do not know what these maskers might take a notion to do to-day.... Then all the great drums suddenly boom together; all the bands strike up; the mad medley kaleidoscopes into some sort of order; and the immense processional dance begins. From the Mouillage to the Fort there is but one continuous torrent of sound and color: you are dazed by the tossing of peaked caps, the waving of hands, and twinkling of feet;-and all this passes with a huge swing,-a regular swaying to right and left.... It will take at least an hour for all to pass; and it is an hour well worth passing. Band after band whirls by; the musicians all garbed as women or as monks in canary-colored habits;-before them the dancers are dancing backward, with a motion as of skaters; behind them all leap and wave hands as in pursuit. Most of the bands are playing creole airs,-but that of the Sans-souci strikes up the melody of the latest French song in vogue,-Petits amoureux aux plumes ("Little feathered lovers"). [17]

Everybody now seems to know this song by heart; you hear children only five or six years old singing it: there are pretty lines in it, although two out of its four stanzas are commonplace enough, and it is certainly the air rather than the words which accounts for its sudden popularity.

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