You first hear the brass band in the distance, belting out a traditional processional, before you see the visscherbande (fisherman’s band) marching down the street. The tambour major, dressed formally as a drum major should, leads the band and directs the rhythm and the choice of songs. Immediately following the group of trombone, trumpet, fife, sousaphone, snare and bass drums is the “premiére rang” (the first line) of Carnavaleux -- costumed revelers, mostly men, dressed as fishermen, sailors, or literally with fishnets as skirts, cross-dressing as women with wigs, leggings, dresses, sometimes reminiscent of a Scottish kilt with long kneesocks. It’s an honor to be in the first line, as they link arms and parade in front of the rest of the gang.. until the music changes, signalling the first line to do their duty, which is to hold the line, as the mass of people push shove and generally make a ruckus, all while singing traditional songs. The line needs to protect the band from the masses, and sometimes there’s a serious challenge, as the line mutates and rotates to accommodate the shifting and pulsing crowd. It’s all in good fun, of course, because it’s Carnaval in Dunkerque!
Lawyer, electrician, waiter, student, writer, secretary. Neighbor, cousin, acquaintance, enemy, work buddy, all of those normal roles of life disappear during Carnaval. All types of people from Dunkerque (called Dunkerquois), all celebrate their Carnaval as equals and together. Everybody masks, everybody participates, everybody marches in the parade and sings traditional songs – the “bandes” are not really a spectator sport.
Carnaval in Dunkerque lasts nearly three months, every weekend from January until April, with the peak activity happening around “les trois joyeuses” (the three joyous days) of the Dimanche, Lundi and Mardi Gras. The Dunkerque Carnaval was the first real one in France, with more than three hundred continual years of tradition – the first recorded mention of the Carnaval festivities in Dunkerque was in 1659.
Its origin lies in the story of the fishermen, who used to dress as women and parade in bands, before they embarked on dangerous three or four month fishing trips, long journeys to Iceland, where some did not return from the roiling seas. And, since it was a difficult life, one incentive was that they received a portion of their payment up front before they left, some of which they spent on one last long wild romp with their mates.
I'm headed back soon for "les trois joyeuses" - Dimanche, Lundi and Mardi Gras! Allons-y!