Carnival in French Guiana is distinguished by its exceptional vibrancy, reflecting the region's rich culture and festive spirit. Carnival in French Guiana is known as the world's longest carnival, offering visitors an extended period to immerse themselves. The event is characterized by an explosion of color and remarkable sophistication in costumes and disguises. Each costume is a work of art in itself, but it's not just a visual parade; the atmosphere is electrified by incessant rhythms, with orchestras forming the soundtrack to this grandiose celebration. Beyond the joy and music, Guyana's carnival is a mirror of Guyanese society, revealing its traditions and history. So the Guyana Carnival is much more than just a festivity; it's an invitation to discover Guyana. Whether you're a carnival regular or a newcomer, prepare to be amazed!
The origins of Guiana's carnival can be traced back to the arrival of Europeans, who introduced a Christian festival that was celebrated exclusively by European immigrants. However, the appeal of carnival soon captivated the slaves, giving rise to clandestine celebrations. These celebrations offered them a valuable opportunity to reconnect with their African traditions, while subtly mocking the colonists thanks to the anonymity afforded by disguise.
Over time, the Guyanese carnival metamorphosed, incorporating a mosaic of rites and symbols from a variety of cultures. Born of the colonial period, it has become a symbol of Guyanese Creole culture, marking a moment of freedom and commemoration of African traditions, notably fertility and the harvest.
Today, Guiana's carnival is one of the territory's most important and inclusive celebrations, bringing together metropolitan, Brazilian, Chinese and other communities. Its duration varies and is determined by the Christian religious calendar.
Guyana's Carnival runs from Epiphany weekend in early January to Ash Wednesday, marking the start of Lent, generally in February or March. For 2024, for example, Guyana's carnival begins on Sunday, January 7 and ends on Wednesday, February 14.
The "jours gras", culminating in Ash Wednesday, mark the end of this festive period. During these days, Guyana's carnival reaches its peak, with celebrations running from Friday evening to Monday morning, reflecting the richness and cultural diversity of French Guiana. This carnival, which has stood the test of time and adapted to change, remains a vibrant testimony to Guyana's history and identity.
The 2024 carnival season will be a very short 38 days, or 5 weekends between the reception of King Vaval and his cremation. During these weekends, you can attend the many parades organized every Sunday, mainly in 3 towns: Cayenne, Kourou and Saint Laurent du Maroni, following the decorated floats to the rhythm of the dance. You can also go to the balls held in dancings, also known as universities. There's the "soleil levant" or "nana", the "Polina" in Cayenne, the "Motado" in Kourou and the "Mano Coco" in Saint-laurent-du-maroni.
Saturday January 6, 2024: arrival of King Vaval in the commune
Sunday January 7 (Epiphany): King Vaval is welcomed at Place des Palmistes in Cayenne.
1st weekend: program pending
2nd weekend: program pending
3rd weekend: program pending
4th weekend: program pending
5th and last weekend: program pending
Bold days :
Monday, February 12: Burlesque weddings, a parody of marriage in which the roles of men and women are reversed
Tuesday February 13: Diab rouj, a theme revolving around the devil
Wednesday, February 14: Ash Wednesday, death of King Vaval - dressed in black and white to celebrate the end of Carnival in French Guiana
Guiana's carnival has some great traditional characters.
King Vaval is a central and symbolic figure of Guyana's Carnival, representing the unity of the region's different races and cultures. This emblematic figure embodies painful memories of slavery and the penal colony, but during Carnival he brings dignity and joy, reflecting the cultural melting pot and happiness of the community. As ruler, Vaval grants his people total freedom during the two-month festivities, encouraging dancing, singing, laughter and joy.
Each year, Vaval adopts a new form, metamorphosing into a different animal. For example, in 2022, he took the form of a jaguar named Mèt danbwa, meaning the master of the woods, and in 2023, he appeared with the head of a toucan. This tradition of metamorphosis underlines the changing and dynamic nature of Carnival.
The Touloulous, emblematic figures of Guyana's carnival, embody the essence of anonymity. Their tradition calls for full disguise, masking every part of their bodies, a practice that has evolved over the years. In the early days of Guyana's carnival, characters such as Jé Farin, Lanmò, Zonbi Baréyé, Bobi, and Karolin emerged, each bringing a unique touch and asserting his or her personality. These characters are not mere entertainment; they represent a profound satire of society, reflecting both Guyanese history and popular imagination.
Today, Touloulous are women dressed in full costume, from head to toe. They invite the men to dance, reversing traditional roles. In the past, Touloulous costumes were designed to alter their silhouette, with the addition of cushions and other extensions. However, the evolution of fashion has transformed these costumes. Today, they are tightly fitted, borrowing from Western styles, while retaining their distinctive, mysterious character.
The "neg maron" is an emblematic character of Guyana's carnival, representing both a myth and a historical reality. In the days of slavery, slaves escaped (or "marronned") from their masters, and some of them became famous, surrounded by legends attributing almost supernatural powers to them. These figures have a special place in carnival, where they symbolize resistance and freedom.
During carnival, the "neg maron" play an important role, acting as a sort of orderly service for the Touloulou groups, helping them to clear the way and control the crowd.
The costume of the "neg maron" is distinctive but simple: it includes a red headband in the hair and a kalimbé around the waist. However, the most remarkable aspect of their attire is the coating of their skin with a mixture of oil and soot, creating a shiny black appearance. In addition, they often carry an awara seed in their mouths, completing their symbolic image at carnival time.
These figures represent the sweepers of yesteryear, cleaning the streets in the early hours of the morning. In the spirit of carnival, they sweep the feet of the spectators with a broom made of coconut straw. They wear plain, floral or checked dresses with a knotted scarf.
Devils dressed in red and black take to the streets on Shrove Tuesday.
They challenge the Evil One, who sports a disproportionately large head, all the diabolical attributes (tail, horns, etc.) and a costume covered in mirrors.
The infernal troupe heralds the imminent demise of King Vaval.
His name means 'Flour Thrower', reflecting his mischievous attitude. Children love to play with him, calling and teasing him. He responds by throwing flour at the audience. He wears an all-white costume, with a long conical hat and an apron filled with flour, which he uses to throw at the audience.
Bobi is an attention-grabbing hybrid character, half-bear, half-elephant. His costume is made of sturdy burlap. Animated by the sound of musical instruments, Bobo dances and shakes, captivating the audience with his movements. However, his attempts to escape the trainer's instructions often result in theatrical scenes where he receives 'lashes'.
The Tololos Ball, a recent tradition in Guyana's Carnival. The tololos came into being in the 1990s. These evenings reverse the traditional carnival roles: here, the men don elaborate costumes, covered from head to toe, and take on the role of Touloulous. In this reversed atmosphere, it's the men who invite the women, who are not in costume, to dance.
Connected to each other by a rope, they evolve as a group, chasing passers-by and spectators, while singing to the lively rhythm of whistles. Their costume consists of a white bordered nightgown and white pants, with red ribbons tied around the neck and waist. Their heads are completely covered by a white balaclava.
You can easily combine the parade with a visit to the space center of Kourou, for example, or attend it after a discovery of the Salvation Islands, located off Kourou. However, do not underestimate the travel time, especially if you travel by rental car : the spectators are counted by thousands ! Renting a car in February/March can also be tricky because of the high demand during this period. Marching bands, decorated floats and costumed characters enliven these parades, which are decorated with a different theme each year.
Guyana's Carnival is a veritable kaleidoscope of surprises, fascinating characters and vibrant traditions just waiting to be discovered. To enjoy this unique cultural experience and meet these mythical figures, the period between January and March is the perfect time to plan your trip to French Guiana.
Are you ready to plunge into the heart of Guyana's Carnival? To prepare you for this colorful adventure, discover our articles dedicated to the region's typical dishes. Savor the local gastronomy to energize you for the carnival experience.
And don't forget, to explore the roads of French Guiana and discover every corner of this exceptional festival, think about renting a car. Renting a car is a practical and flexible solution, allowing you to move easily between the different carnival sites, and explore Guyana's cultural riches at your own pace.
So pack your bags, prepare your palate for culinary delights, reserve your vehicle and embark on the Guiana Carnival adventure!
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