As a recent emigré, this time of year has the potential to be the hardest. Despite subjection to some notoriously painful Christmas do’s with colleagues, I love the Christmas season. Christmas spirit for me is all about quality time, ideally spent at Christmas dinners, drinks and parties; with friends, family, food, laughter and good vibes, all in huge quantities. A good few thousand miles away from home however, forgive me if I was more than a little slower than usual in getting into the Christmas spirit this year. Thankfully, round here the Christmas vibes are no different even if the unchanged climate seems unsettling at first. I definitely enjoy the party; it’s called chanté nwèl, literally ‘singing Christmas’, which conveys the idea of a vibrant, musical personified Christmas perfectly.
Chanté nwèl, is basically carol singing. But that doesn’t do it justice.
Think a carol singing party, with food and free-flowing drinks. Now imagine songs rather than carols and hymns, in French and/or kréyol, which are remixed with a serious drum beat at the point they usually get boring. Then you throw in the random percussionists. I was playing the empty wine bottle with a large knife (so European and yet so Caribbean), the lead instrumentalist was playing an empty butter tub (think industrial rather than fridge size), another dude was playing a rain stick, and a girl was playing an African drum (typically Caribbean – I have no idea which country in Africa this drum came from). Other instruments included in-time hand clapping and foot-stamping (an important distinction from out-of-time clapping/foot-stamping, which will kill a tune at the speed of light).
Oh, and everyone knows the tunes so there’s a standard book (la cantique) that everyone has or shares, which has the lyrics (essential for newbies like me, but some of the older folk ‘just know’ the words). As the song come to a close, someone shouts ‘page 24!’ or wherever the next tune can be found, and everyone turns to page 24 and the next song begins. A chanté nwèl is my kind of party: Bring a bottle, some conviviality, leave your self-consciousness at home and it’s always a night to remember. They can be a small gatherings in people’s homes, or in larger community spaces, and the odd bar or restaurant might have a chanté nwèl band/choir with the expectation that punters will follow their lead.
Chanté nwèl is also a living link between African-Caribbean folk living today, and the African-African ancestors who came here quite against their will under the auspices of slavers and colonial masters. I particularly love chanté nwèling because it’s one of those rare occasions where you get to experience culture as living, rather than performed. It’s one of those traditions that has been handed down through families and communities for generations but remains popularly practised. Aware of tourists’ interests, I find it’s often the case when I travel that you get to see a ‘display of local culture’, but it tends to involve a stage of some description and long explanations by people who are accustomed to giving them.
This is not necessarily a deception, but always feels manufactured; we holiday-makers are in the country for 2 long weeks – if that – and want to experience the local ‘culture’, they can wheel out people who will perform for money; everyone’s happy. We get to entertain our friends with the interesting and unusual things we witnessed once we get back (or via fb pictures and videos while we’re still there nowadays), and they get our recommendations and more tourists. There’s nothing inherently wrong in performing a funeral song when no one’s died, or doing the wedding dance when no one’s getting married…
But culture as performance can mean a funny thing may happen, whereby young people grow up seeing these dances more often than not performed ‘at special occasions’ and taken completely out of their original contexts. Furthermore, to keep traditions ‘alive’, formal lessons are given to youngsters in schools or cultural centres. This can happen in the countries where the traditions are born, or in countries where significant numbers of immigrants from those countries have resettled. It’s not a Caribbean phenomenon particularly; in London it’s not unusual to send your children to ‘learn their culture’ at a ‘school’ be it Turkish, Chinese, or Hebrew. Likewise, how many of us have taken up a ‘martial art’ for exercise or tried ‘African dance classes’ for fun or to engage with an ‘other’ culture?
Sooner or later, once-meaningful songs and dances become yet another consumable, wheeled out on special occasions when national pride is invoked. This can happen in any context. Bélé might be performed at an event commemorating transatlantic slavery in Paris, the Piaye dancers might perform at a St Lucian independence event in London or Miami or Toronto. The dances begin to walk that space between cultural practice and cultural product, and children and adults of all backgrounds pick them up. But it’s not just dance. I grew up with a good white friend who was in a steel band with a black friend of ours throughout secondary school. They’d be wheeled out for special school occasions, and one of the tunes I remember everyone loving hear them play was ‘The Bare Necessities’ from Disney’s interpretation of Kipling’s Jungle Book collection of short stories.
I’ll repeat that. Ethnically mixed group of girls play steel pans in school band in multicultural South London in the late 90s. Taught by a dude of Caribbean heritage, their big hit is a popular song from a Disney-fied version of a book written by an unabashed conservative famed for capturing/glorifying the spirit of nineteenth century British imperial expansionisim, particularly in India. And yet somehow it was unproblematic at the time. If thought-provoking (and memorable).
Arguably, it is in this manner that culture is shared, changed, and remains contemporaneous. A compromise which is often made to prevent ‘traditional practices’ from dying out altogether, but also reinvents them. Nevertheless, for me, chanté nwèl is incredibly unique because it’s a rare thing; a living tradition, which is simultaneously still handed down and widely valued on both a personal and communal level. It’s also a raucous, fun night filled, as the best gatherings are, with copious amounts of food, drink, singing and dancing. As with Christmas parties, there’s no shortage of chanté nwèl gatherings, as they are a regular feature of life here until 24th December, so I look forward to soaking up the culture during many more samplings of the local take on Christmas festivities.
Wishing you a very Merry Christmas!