The music, the colour and the solidarity of ‘Les Dunkerquois,’ merge and become one at carnival time. Their roots run deep to the 17th century ancestors who set sail to Iceland for six months to catch herring for their families. As a send-off, amateur musicians and poor townsfolk paraded through the streets and ‘les bandes des pêcheurs’ also called ‘la visscherbende’ fishermen, disguised as women, linked arms, drank beer and sang songs to the sound of fifes and drums.
The carnival runs for almost three months and gets bigger and crazier each year. People save to buy tickets in advance for the forty balls, which take place every Saturday in the Palais des Congrès de Dunkerque, known as ‘le Kursaal.’ The ‘masquelours’ say it’s their ‘raison d’être’ – their reason to live, so it’s not surprising that Dunkirk has more than its fair share of artists, starting very young with an impressive children’s competition to design the carnival poster.
Also, true to tradition, the ‘masquelours’ design and make their own ‘cle’tche’ disguise; they are adamant about the carnival being affordable to all. Young men wear hats decorated with bizarre objects and dress up like pantomime dames, sport feather boas, stripy stockings, outlandish spectacles and carry long handled umbrellas. You’ll encounter spotty dogs, polar bears and families of ladybirds, Scotsmen, sea captains, nuns, drummer boys and tribes of Amazons; even dogs and their owners dressed alike! For the less talented, makeup artists offer face painting free of charge at the tourist office.
‘Les 3 Joyeuse,’ the main parades will take place at Mardi Gras, 9-12th February (2013), but the carnivals continue all over the north of France until Easter.
A group of young ‘masquelours’ explain; “It’s not for spectators – if you come you must join in and learn the 57 carnival songs, (some are enough to make a rugby player blush). We’re invited to take refreshments in ‘les chapelles,’ private houses, the mairie (town hall), a club or bar. Even if we’re a little drunk we must be respectful and adhere to the carnival rules. Only the fittest make up the ‘chahut’ (the front lines). On a signal from the ‘tambour major’ (band leader) you must dig in, to stop the crowd behind from moving forward; no one is allowed between ‘la clique’ the band and the front line.”
At 10am, the mayor of Dunkirk opens the ‘Hotel de Ville’ for chapelle; while the Dunkirk giants cross the town before settling in the ‘Place Jean Bart’.
With arms securely linked, the multi-coloured river flows around Dunkirk’s streets, led by the tambour major; stopping at 5pm in front of the mairie; they shout “jet d’z’harengs” until the mayor and his team throw 450kg of smoked herring from the balcony of the landmark Belfry into the heaving mass below.
At midnight it is the time for the ‘Rigodon Final’- thousands gather in the ‘Place Jean Bart’ where hand in hand, on bended knee, they sing the hymn ‘Cantate à Jean Bart’ paying homage to their valiant corsair who defeated the British.
Fireworks fill the air…then off to ‘le bal’.
Dates, times, details: www.ville-dunkerque.fr
By Marilyn Catchpole-Dossat