Guadeloupe: Slaves to the ancestral rhythm

In Guadeloupe, the annual carnival brings the island's dramatic history to life in vibrant fashion. Michelle Obasi witnessed the spectacle
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The Independent Travel

The banana trees planted just before my stay a year ago are now taller than the blue-and-white painted bungalow across from the terrace of my room at L'Hotel les Bananiers. Raw, green bananas grow upended along loping, scaly fronds. Wisps of shredded leaves rest on the dusty-pink roof, which from a distance appears to match the terracotta terrace, but is in fact corrugated metal, bolted down to withstand the hurricane season.

The banana trees planted just before my stay a year ago are now taller than the blue-and-white painted bungalow across from the terrace of my room at L'Hotel les Bananiers. Raw, green bananas grow upended along loping, scaly fronds. Wisps of shredded leaves rest on the dusty-pink roof, which from a distance appears to match the terracotta terrace, but is in fact corrugated metal, bolted down to withstand the hurricane season.

Today's Caribbean-paced walk takes me up the hot track past tough little goats and tethered cows. In the lower reaches of a flamboyant tree, an iguana scatters a shower of leaves as it wrestles with a branch on its way down to the ground, where it lands with a thud. In June this tree will be invaded by the crimson flames of clusters of tiny flowers, but for now there are only pendulous pods hanging down between the leaves.

It's my second stay in Guadeloupe, one of the most exotic départments of France. A year earlier I lived here for five months while working on a novel; now the lure of carnival has drawn me back again. Butterfly shaped, Guadeloupe looks as if it has just alighted on the Caribbean Sea, but of course it came from beneath the waters, coughed out by volcanic activity.

Down on the beach I watch the pelicans, whose gullets gave the small town of Le Gosier its name. They glide gracefully in groups over the translucent water; the Carib Indians, who lived on the island before Christopher Columbus landed, called the island Karukera: "island of beautiful waters". A swimming distance away, though most people take the shuttle boats, is L'Islet du Gosier with its red and white lighthouse and one shambles of a building: a restaurant with occasional walls and fresh grilled fish on offer.

There is a sudden heavy patter on the leaves of the coconut trees and a furious downpour sweeps across the bay. Everyone stays put, it is a locals' beach and they know it will pass as quickly as it arrived. This is an island of extremes: swift rain, piercing sunlight, flat sugar cane fields and the high summit of the volcano, La Soufrière.

It's carnival time and, as I walk back up the track, I hear the distant pounding of gwoka music as a local group practises relentlessly for Sunday's parade. Gwoka, Creole for "big drum", underpins the musical tradition of the island, like the solid wood of a table beneath a fancy dinner service.

Every Sunday afternoon between mid-January and Shrove Tuesday, carnival groups don a different set of costumes and take to the streets of Pointe-à-Pitre to dance their way through to late evening. This is not a carnival of meretricious floats, women in gold bikinis and loudspeaker music, this is the raw and earthy sound of an island's history being stirred from its slumber. Costumes are hand-made, often from raw materials, and carry symbols of the past sewn into their fibres. In the past, while the European plantation owners held masked balls, slaves kept their African traditions alive: drums, masks, dancing, remembering the dead. The days of slavery, which finally ended for good on the island in 1848, are revisited in the charged atmosphere of modern-day carnival.

My friend Jean-Pierre and I arrive in the centre of Pointe-à-Pitre around 6pm, shortly before the abrupt panel of night screens out the daytime skies. We join the thousands of locals who line the circuit every week. The first group that passes is light-hearted: women dressed as saucy brides, flashing stockings and suspenders under short white dresses, and chanting in Creole. Jean-Pierre translates: "When I am married, I will be happy." There is a whoop from the leading woman and the group jiggle frenetically on the spot; another whoop and a small group of girls under 10 years old collapses on to the ground. One hand behind them, the other waving in the air, they pulse to the drumbeats like a convoy of tiny crabs. Behind them, the men beat tom-toms and bass drums strung on straps around muscular shoulders. Hollowed-out calabash filled with seeds add percussion. Most groups follow this pattern of women leading with dancing and singing, and men thudding and rattling along behind; occasionally trumpets are added to the mix.

The next group are dressed top to toe in dried banana leaves. As they dance, they rustle like a litter of kittens trying to escape from a paper bag. A retort is heard and then another and a score of men in grass skirts come running along cracking rope whips. Their bodies are stained red from ground roucou seeds applied in a glistening oil. This is where the underlying meaning of carnival hits home. Standing next to a cracking whip, the chilling sound of power and of brutality, is an unsettling experience in itself; impossible to imagine the agony if it was turned on human flesh. The crowd draw back, children cling to adults, and the men whirl the whips higher, skimming heads and slicing through the air before they are smacked down on to the road. Skeletons follow, rattling their chains, and even though you can see the black fabric and white paint of the costumes, you can almost feel the presence of long-dead ancestors.

As if atonement is in the air, the next group are monks and nuns. The sweet odour of burning incense transports me back to a Catholic upbringing. As with the brides, there is a seaside-postcard naughtiness to the group and the wiggle of the dance is combined with a literally cheeky hitching up of robes.

We find a food van and queue up for a bokit: deep-fried bread rolls filled with chicken, ham, cheese or cod. Like the potato and onion patties my mother used to cook on Bonfire Night, the bokit taste somehow special for being eaten outdoors, soaked in excitement and the promise of the unexpected. As if on cue, someone lets off a banger and the crowd surge back in a momentary panic.

On Shrove Tuesday, Christian and traditional African celebrations merge on a common date, carnival builds up to a crescendo and the parade circles La Place de la Victoire. The next day, Ash Wednesday, an effigy of Vaval, the king of carnival, is burned on a bonfire and then thrown into the sea to signify the end of carnival for that year.

The groups are thinning out and some are heading off through the narrow streets of the city, still bouncing and pulsing and singing and thumping on the drums. As we make our way back to the car, a moving banana tree comes hurtling along, clutching at it's falling leaves, as it tries to catch up with the rest of the ambulant forest.

A large double room with en suite facilities at L'Hotel les Bananiers (00 590 590 841 091) costs around £36 a night, B&B, during the high season (Dec to March). Cheaper weekly rates are available. Trailfinders (020-7937 5400) has flights with Air France via Paris to Pointe-à-Pitre from £443 valid for travel until 28 February, with a seven-night minimum stay.

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