Friday, August 22, 2008

Cheval Bwa: A Kreyol Carousel in Martinique (with video at bottom)


Our nearby town of Saint Anne was celebrating its saints day with concerts, vendors and a tiny carnival. I didn't pay much attention to the carousel until I realized the music was live, flavored with the courtly precision of accordion, the stately march of a drum and snappy percussion. As soon as I approached it I felt touched by something magical. An innocent, simpler past floated with the music into the night air, captivating me.

It was acoustic and human-powered—a huge broad-shouldered youth pushed the carousel around and slowed it when the song came to an end. Somehow it gave me a heartache to see it. The worn painted horses, made over the years by the hands of many artists. The foursome in the middle playing casually and effortlessly together. The children clinging to the horses, looking a little baffled by it all.

Four musicians were in the center: a seated man in a felt hat played a gleaming accordion; a slender dreadlocked woman kept time with a big double-headed drum; a percussionist rapped his sticks on the metal supports of the roof and a length of PVC pipe tied between them; and a man shook a big shaker, the size of a couple of stacked soup cans.

The musicians wore t-shirts depicting the carousel and captioned Cheval Bwa (kreyol for cheval de bois, wooden horse). A change of clothes and they could be playing in 1908 or 1888, in St. Pierre, Martinique or Mexico City or Beirut or Bordeaux. Only the couple of electric lights, the minor amplification, and the wooden car among the horses took it out of the nineteenth century.

Watching the children riding in the balmy night air felt like a window into the ages. The kids rode in endless circles as the song looped, on figures carved generations ago by craftsmen and artists of the bygone Caribbean. Imagine the lives of these pre-industrial carnies who built it and transported it by horse and wagon or boat, bringing it to fairs where its magic was rare and spectacular, in an era before playgrounds, cars or videogames.

The horses were pure folk-art, the envy of any gallery. One was built like a sawhorse, with clear blue marbles for eyes, its neck artfully set off-center from its body. Several had heads with small ears and exaggerated curves, rounded like cartoons. Some resembled traditional carousel horses, but smaller and beautifully worn. A few showed very little detail, just ears and muzzle, rounded from raw branches, not from lumber, and covered with chipping coats of paint revealing every color of the rainbow.

The cheval bwa left such an unexpected longing in my heart—wistful and nostalgic for a past beyond reach, rich with such innocent pleasures and handmade fun. No electricity, no gas, no hum of motor or grind of generator, just simple tunes and an exquisitely pleasant ride into the past on the warm buttery night air of Martinique.

video