Festival fun in Provence.

It may not be possible to count all the festivals, carnivals, craft fairs, street parties, outdoor music events, firework shows, marching parades and processions, historical re-enactments, and corridas, in all the town, villages and communes of Provence … there are just so many.  So, whilst India is normally credited with being the country having the most festivals, in terms of density per square mile, Provence must be a good contender for that title.

I was informed of this, though in not quite so many words, by my friend Hubert Tabutiaux.  Hubert has photographed numerous Provence festivals and he exhibits them on his internet blog.  This is a perfect visual guide to the region and to the many events taking place there throughout the year.  Anyone planning a trip to Provence should consult his site in advance.

Hubert’s Photos of Provence

Summer is the time for most festivals, but the partying season really begins back in February, the month containing that religious period of abstinence known as lent.  Traditionally, only vegetarian meals are eaten during this time. Meat (‘carō’ in Latin; ‘carne’ Italian, as in ‘carnivore’ and ‘carnal’) is tabooed. Etymologically,carnival’ thus signifies the occasion when meat is taken off the meal time menu.

In our gregorian calendar, lent begins on ‘Ash Wednesday’. The day before is ‘Shrove Tuesday’ (‘pancake day’ in England), whose date varies from 3 February to 9 March depending on lunar movements.   Shrove Tuesday takes its name from the old English term ‘to shrive’, meaning ‘to confess sins and receive absolution’. Lent, this period of fasting and reflection, then lasts for forty days until Easter.

But astronomy and religious origins apart, it is difficult to think of ‘Shrove Tuesday’ without reference to the great ‘Mardi Gras(‘Fat Tuesday’) celebrations in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro – festivals and feasts taking place before the (‘lent’) fast.

In Martigues, my current home town in France, carnival day kicks off the summer season towards the end of March, not a month earlier as it perhaps should.  Ok.  So, dating precision has been thrown to the wind here to assure us of a few extra degrees of warm sunshine.  But then, further north still, London’s Notting Hill carnival (Europe’s largest) is put off even longer to take place on August Bank Holiday (Aug. 26th and 27th – in 2012). And why not?  Wet and windy carnivals are no fun.

And so, at the end of march, the Martigues’ streets become alive with cacophonic noise and disorderly ceremony as crazily-costumed carnival performers shuffle through a tunnel of neck-straining, photo-snapping observers.  Along the plantain-shaded avenue of ‘Jonquieres’; over the canal’s swing-bridge onto ‘L’ile’ (the island); across the following blue bridge and into the third town section of ‘Ferrieres’, then onto the town hall – with ‘oom-pa pah’s’ and big bass drums thumping out competing, often contradictory, beats; and with phalanxes of tambourine thwackers, handbell rattlers, castanet clackers, maracas shakers, congo and bongos drummers, shaking it to the left, shaking it to the right, samba style, as they dance slowly on through the watching crowds in their fancy dress innovations.

One can not attend such events without being stupefied by the colour and design of the costumes.  Nor, if one takes time to reflect, can one help but be astounded by the amount of work that goes into their creations.  For months, behind the scenes, cloth is being cut and sown, masks are being crafted and painted, headdresses of all shapes and sizes are being assembled, floats are being decorated, musicians are being instructed… etcetera and etcetera, by myriads of volunteers working late into the night to ensure success on the big day when it finally comes.

This enormous social effort involves hundreds of unpaid ‘man-hours’. There is no direct economic reward for peoples labour.  Rather, the reward is in the delight of all ‘pulling together’ to produce a spectacle for all to enjoy; spectators and performers.  When the events are historical re-enactments the attention to the minutest detail is exemplary.  Here, ‘authenticity’ is the key word and is striven for with materials, tools and techniques, for ‘processual history’ (another key term meaning actually ‘doing it’) is the means by which past cultures are better understood.  Hence not only costumes are reproduced, but also traditional crafts are displayed in being actively undertaken; food and drink is consumed which follow old times recipes; music and theatre is performed as our ancestors once did it, and, of course, the crowd-pulling battles are re-played with swords and shields, or spears and pikes, and smoke-bellowing canons to capture the thrill and the fright, of battles that have always occurred (sadly) since time began.

A further aspect to consider, if one takes the time to reflect, is that these occurrences (festivals, carnivals, fêtes etc) are non-hierarchical.  Sure, in role-playing scenes kings, serfs and servants may be chosen, but not to uphold some ‘real-time’ social hierarchy.  On the contrary, the underlying principle is one of social co-operation and reifying community spirit.

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Those stunning Hawaiian cloaks (‘ahu’ulas) of half-a-million bird feathers, once made for royalty; those immense Egyptian pyramids and European medieval cathedrals; that China Wall, those Roman roads and aqueducts (the list is endless)…all served the establishment of hierarchical religio-political structures of power.  Not carnivals and festivals, though.  These are events of ‘the people’, for ‘the people’.

In fact, historically, both State and Church have held ambivalent sentiments regarding secular carnivals and festivals.  The State perhaps has worried about the policing of such affairs and for whose benefit they are being held – if not the state’s (see here).  Meanwhile, the church has often been suspicious of any ceremonial or ritual activity not under its control; ask any late Roman/middle-ages pagan (eg. see here , or here).  Famously, in Venice, to overcome feelings of oppression imposed by the Catholic Church, the wearing of masks began in order to guard anonymity and allow gambling, homosexuality and prostitution to take place without fear of condemnation. Here, in Martigues, with its strong Italian links (many Italians moved here as the town industrialized), and against its backdrop of Italian architectural styles, a Venetian carnival takes place once a year.  With beautiful costumes and masks the wearers (190 in 2012!) parade around town slowly, ostentatiously, flirtatiously; with eyes blackened behind the masks and keeping mute to hide their ages, nationalities and genders.  The people inside the costumes and behind the masks do not exist.  Only their exterior, flamboyant, exhibitionistic selves are seen, in public, swanking around town like proud peacocks.

On a economic/political note, Martigues has a communist town council.  That’s not uncommon down here. Taxation in France, like anywhere I guess, is a complex and sometimes contentious issue. Some money goes north to central government for redistribution and some is retained by the local council.  Actually, quite a lot is retained by the local council – especially the money obtained from taxing local industry and the ports; which adds up to a tidy sum.  But, in keeping with communist ideals, the inhabitants of Martigues do receive benefits from this revenue.  Free local bus and library service, for example, plus a wealth of summertime events such as mentioned in this blog.

Two major firework shows, within a week of each other, light up the skies in July – not to mention the smaller ones taking place on local beaches.

France’s ‘fête de la musique’ is now internationally renowned as an event taking place throughout the country, but throngs do flock to Martigues for the event where they can enjoy fairground rides, bars and restaurants, and the town itself.

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Then, in mid-summer, the town invites traditional folk musicians from around the world to perform at its annual ‘Festival de Martigues’.  Just to give an example, the festival in 2012 included musicians from Cuba, Papua New Guinea, the Philipines, Ireland, Russia and a forty-strong male voice choir from Wales!   Some events are for ticket holders and held in a temporary stadium built along a canal, other events are held on the streets and are free.

But Martigues is only one example of the many.  Perhaps, due to its finances, it holds more festivals than others, but not a weekend goes by (in summer) where somewhere, something exciting is going on.

Last weekend, my friend Hubert invited me to a festival in ‘Pernes-les-fontains. It was superb!  The whole town, from young-to-old, took to the streets in old-style period costume of one hundred years ago: Stone masons, blacksmiths, farriers, policemen, serving maids, washer-women, wheat-threshers, cyclists (on ancient racing bikes, penny-farthing and motorbikes), drapers, post-office workers, mid-wives, shop keepers, babies in prams, boys chasing girls, grandfathers looking hot and bothered… Everybody, it seemed, from the town, was involved in some way, however small, however central.  Social co-operation and the display of the community spirit at its utmost.  Despite the humungous crowds, I was over-whelmingly impressed.

There are still many more Provence festivals for me to see and experience, and perhaps Hubert will lead me to some of these. I know there’s several lavender festivals, wine festivals, and the summertime transhumance festivals (celebrating an old custom of the leading of sheep from valley floors to mountainsides) that I would still like to see.  Plus, I still haven’t seen the gypsy festival at St.Maries-de-la-Mer… or the one in Arles to crown the new Arlesienne queen… or the truffle festival in Uzès.   There’s just so many…!

Alternatively, like anyone reading this and interested in Provence, I can visit Hubert’s site and find a good festival to visit that way.  Here it is again, in case you forgot:

Hubert’s Photos of Provence

Thanks, Hubert.

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2 comments on “Festival fun in Provence.

  1. Huberaime says:

    A very educational post, Philip, clear and carefully written, as you always do. I can only thank you humbly for your homage. You’ll be making everybody fell like coming round to Provence, and I’m looking forward to going somewhere with you again.

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