The Chanté Nwel Tradition in the French Speaking Caribbean: the Spirit of Togetherness

If for many of us in the UK, Christmas is synonymous with a roasted turkey and all its trimmings, public transport disruptions, presents and overdrafts, in the French speaking Caribbean, Christmas is decidedly the celebration of life.

I say celebration of life because if one goes back at the beginning of the 20th century (I am not an historian, I can only tell you what my grand-mother told me), Christmas was not about presents but about the pleasure of being together as family, as a community. Indeed, a majority of the Martiniquan population at that time came from very modest and rural milieu. Very often, one did not have the means to buy presents for children. What was generally longed for and expected, was the Chanté Nwel.

From the 1900’s to the 1960’s (roughly), the Chanté Nwel, particularly in the rural areas, consisted in groups of revellers with music instruments such as drums, chacha, ti-bwa and even accordions. These musicians would go from house to house, in a similar fashion with the Jamaican Burru players (Reckord, 1998, 234), singing French Christmas Carols arranged in a Caribbean style. They were experts of the tradition as they knew what song were suitable for l’avent, period covering a few weeks before Christmas, and what ought to be sung on Christmas day. For instance, my grand-mother always told me that the song Minuit Chrétiens had to be sung at midnight on Christmas day.

If a family desired to keep the musicians in their house for the night or for a while, they would give them rum, Christmas fruit liquors and Christmas delicacies such as paté cochon (pork patties), sorrel syrup or ham. When all these offering were consumed, the revellers would go to another hospitable house. These families did not have much, but they really strived to prepare food and drink for everyone to share. One usually took great pride to have been able to host a Chanté Nwel. These festivities would go on for the entire night, strengthening the connections between the family and the community.

With the urbanisation of Martinique, this form of Chanté Nwel has disappeared. I believe that the tradition would have totally died out if it had not been for elders such as Mano Loutoby and Loulou Boislaville. In the 1980’s, the young journalist Mano Loutoby experienced a Christmas Parang in Trinidad. Parang is the Trinidadian Christmas tradition product of the Amerindian, African and Venezuelian influences of Trinidad. In the small community of Paramin, the “house to house” parang format was still practiced, impacting greatly on Mano. Back in Martinique, he endeavoured to revive the Chanté Nwel tradition. He came up with the Mano Noël concept which could be regarded as a Christmas caravan. Mano, with his friend Loulou boislaville (notorious talented musician, beacon of the traditional music) would go from village to village attracting throngs of people. The villagers would come with their cantiques (carol book) and sing along with the band. The leader would shout beforehand the page on which the song was to be found keeping everyone on board. The ritournelles (saucy chorus added to the religious songs, usually commenting on local gossips) , the rum and Christmas delicacies were not forgotten, creating a convivial and informal atmosphere.

Mano Noel caravan have unfortunately stopped, but the tradition has not died as groups such as Mazincoin, Ravine Plate, Cantique des Mornes have taken up the tradition. If their compositions are arguably mostly profane and commercial, the spirit of togetherness is preserved as French Caribbeans still gather, wherever they are, with their cantiques to celebrate the Nativity.

Enjoy this Chanté Nwel 2011!

By Nathalie Montlouis

Work cited:
Reckord,V. (1998). From Burru Drums to Reggae Ridims. In N.S., Murrel, A. M., Wiliam.D., Spencer (EDs). Chanting Down Babylon. (231-253). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Learn more about Mano Noel on the website : http://manoretro.unblog.fr/index.php?s=cantique+noel&submit=Recherche

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4 Responses to “The Chanté Nwel Tradition in the French Speaking Caribbean: the Spirit of Togetherness”

  1. It’s truly a great and helpful piece of info. I’m satisfied that you just shared this useful information with
    us. Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Great piece of work.. Priceless info.. Brought back some good memories..

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