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Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane: Celebrating Christmas with “Chanté Nwel”

Categories: Caribbean, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Arts & Culture, Citizen Media, Music

With Christmas approaching, the French Overseas Departments of Guadeloupe, Martinique and Guyane are vibrating to the tune of their folk musical instruments like ka [1] (a big drum)[Fr], ti-bwa [2](two bamboo sticks)[Fr] and of Christmas Carols. Welcome to the world of “Chanté Nwel” (Singing for Christmas).

In the blog Sous le Soleil de Guadeloupe [3] [Fr], Pat and Jac describe the paradoxical situation of the island, gripped with the Spirit of Christmas and raging through the gas crisis [4] [En]. Interestingly enough, the pictures taken by Pat and Jac, at the biggest shopping center of Guadeloupe [5] [En], highlight just another ambiguity in the Christmas celebration of Guadeloupean people, who live both by the European standards of the fake snow-capped Christmas trees and their local palm trees.

Still, there is one thing at the core of the Guadeloupean traditional celebration of Christmas and it is “Chanté Nwel”. Creole [6] [En]for “Singing for Christmas” or “Singing Christmas (carols)”, it is the very shrine of Christmas in these French territories. “Chanté Nwel” used to be an opportunity for entire families to go around their neighborhood to visit neighbors and sing Christmas carols with them to the tune of the “ka” and the “ti-bwa”. At that time, it was in a safe atmosphere that people would go around their remote villages very late at night.

Although Chanté Nwel cannot be done in the same way as before, people still feel the need to sing Christmas carols together and in a very local way. You haven't celebrated Christmas, if you haven't been to a “Chanté Nwel”!

It is such a vivid tradition that even the West Indian diaspora abroad wants to celebrate. On his blog Risbomontréal [7] [Fr], a young Guadeloupean university student describes his joy at receiving an invitation for a “Chanté Nwel”:

Quelle bonne nouvelle que j'ai eu ce matin en ouvrant mon p'tit mac :D ! La news lettre de ces types super cool de Tropikal97 où ils invitent à participer à une super soirée diner/Chanté Noël + Boite de nuit à l'antillaise et tout ^^ !!!

I received great news this morning when I opened my lil’ mac :D! In the newsletter of the very cool guys of Tropikal97, there is an invitation for a nice dinner/Chanté Nwel and West Indian night club and stuff ^^!!!

Who could imagine that snowy Montreal could welcome such tropical events!

It seems that the Chanté Nwel fever is spreading wherever French West Indians can be spotted, as in this invitation for a Chanté Nwel in Cergy [8], in the suburbs of Paris, published on the blog Carrefour du Soleil [9] [Fr], by a group of West Indians.

On top of everything, I can't explain my surprise when I found out that Cactus, a Guadeloupean folk group, promotes Chanté Nwel in a blog called Cactus Chanté Nwel [10] [Fr]. Here is a video [11] of Cactus performing some Christmas carols, sung in Creole.