After some persistent e-mithering on my part, the week before carnival, I received a reply from Plastic System Band, a carnival troupe renowned for their representation of the Martinican tradition of the mariage burlesque. In many ways, to describe the mariage burlesque is to describe an average wedding party, made up of a motley assortment of mismatched couples, pregnant brides, family stereotypes and bad dancing. The Martinican tradition takes place on lundi gras of carnival and in an inversion, or perhaps rather an exaggerated caricature, of gender roles within the nuclear family arrangement, the women cross-dress as grooms, male family members or invited guests and the men dress as brides, bridesmaids and all the accompanying female family or invited entourage. The idealised occidental family unit based on conjugal ties is parodied through this performance of ill-fitting male/female relations.
Lors de ce jour gras, la mise en dérision de l’institution familiale est jouée à partir d’une inversion des rôles : les femmes se déguisent en mariés (moustache, chapeau, costume gris ou noir, cravate, canne etc.) et les hommes en mariées (robe blanche et sa traîne, demoiselle d’honneur, etc.). (Rochais et Bruneteaux, 2006: 79)
On this jour gras, the institution of the family is ridiculed through the performance of an inversion of roles: the women dress up as bridegrooms (moustache, hat, grey or black suit, tie, cane etc.) and the men as brides (white dress and veil, bridesmaid, etc).
In the response I received from Plastic System Band, who have been putting on the mariage burlesque for the last 15 years, I was invited to take part in this year’s parade which would take place in Lamentin (the second town of Martinique). Never one to shy away from mischief, as long as there is some masquerade for protection, I swiftly agreed.
In addition to playing with gendered stereotypes, this year PSB also sought to reflect the cultural mix of the Martinican population. On the phone to the organiser I was therefore given the choice of different categories of costume based on different ethnic groups: Indian, Chinese, African etc. and then I was asked if I would be travesti ou non? It was sounding very much like your average fancy dress party. I opted to cross-dress as an African, knowing that I had a few bits and bobs anba kabann (Creole equivalent of the dressing-up box, literally meaning ‘under the bed’) and it also seemed fitting considering my estranged Senegalese spouse.
I set to work tie-dyeing a single bedsheet (costumes are expensive in Martinique), using stones from the front yard and hair bobbles. This would become my beautiful African boubou. Below are some images of the various stages in its creation.
The day of the parade I was dropped by a friend at Place Mahault, the meeting point for the carnavaliers. As I got out of the car I suddenly felt very awkward and very alone. Carnaval band members were sat around eating, chatting and waiting for their fellow musicians and dancers to arrive. They were all the neon legwarmer, coloured t-shirt, sparkley type carnavaliers and as I scanned those present I couldn’t spot any other travesti cross-dressers. Although I was greeted by a ‘bien fait!’ by one young girl and a few smirks here and there, the crowd largely seemed to be gunning me down with their looks. Searching for PSB to no avail, it was now 3.30pm. The parade was due to start at 3pm, but that was ok because we were running on Martinican time. What wasn’t ok was that every time I asked where I could find Plastiqquuue I was told that they hadn’t arrived yet. Trying not to show my panic I waited patiently out of the sun preserving my painted beard and cool outward demeanour!!
Eventually I managed to glean that PSB had arrived and were waiting the other side of the bridge which leads to the centre of town. As I rustled across, trying not to look too panicked, I spotted them as I came over the bridge. A wonderfully colourful gaggle of moustached merry-makers, parasol-twirling cross-dressers and smiling happy folk, I was soon united with my African family (who incidentally were not cross-dressed). I finally felt at ease: the band were warming up (an acclaimed Martinican carnival band, having also released many records over the years) and it felt part village fete, part mad-hatters tea party.
We were the first group of the parade and followed the wedding car with its male to female bride and female to male groom, embellished and strewn with swaths of orange netting and glitz. After the bridesmaids came the family members, as well as the mistress and the bride’s bit on the side in a very dapper bow-tie, waistcoat and fedora. Also present were the chefs of the wedding meal, which consisted of a live cockerel in a cage and some raw patate sweet potatoes. Later we would sing along to these words, playing on the pun of ‘coq’ and ‘koke’ , a vulgar word, which means to fuck in Creole.
We were given instructions by the group leader to form couples and kept to a staggered formation on the left and right. The other African man held a sign, which read ‘The Africans’ in case any of the spectators were in doubt. All the couples linked arms and walked/danced to the sounds of the PSB musicians behind us. My African wife, Marilyne, kindly taught me the Creole lyrics as we went along and made sure I kept in line with the other guests. When I asked her the name of one of the organisers, she explained that she didn’t know and that names weren’t important in carnival. From one year to the next Marilyne decides if she wants to participate and it is of little importance that all the participants may not know each other outside of carnival. This aspect of rubbing shoulders and partying with strangers, le défoulement as it is referred to by Martinicans, seems to me a very liberatory and healthy aspect of the yearly event.
The first loop of the tour carried on in the same fashion, with us all respecting the positions assigned to us, smiling for photographers and batting our eyelashes at the judges (apparently there was a prize for the best group). As we passed Lamentin church, the bells rang out in perfect timing with our performance. The crowd at this stage were mostly families and on some of the quieter parts of the stretch, many locals emerged onto front porches and yards to cheer us on, hooting with laughter at the array of oddball couples, blowing kisses at the beautifully feminine men and shouting compliments in support of our efforts.
As the intensity of the sun died down and with the lighting set to dusk, we continued our route. The formation became more fluid however. The moments where we waited at street corners and junctions became each like mini wedding parties. The guests started to mingle, the singing and dancing became bolder and it felt like people were really starting to enjoy themselves oblivious to the onlookers. I even found myself fending off a lady (male-to-female cross-dresser) who seemed to be in pursuit of my wife and struggled to respond when one of the policemen (in a very ‘Village People’ kind of way) growled “Ca va mon coeur?” in my ear. The carnavaliers were evidently well into their act, with my own African family breaking into a circle of African dance impersonation at one point.
The crowds watching also shifted with the fading light. Teenagers with bandanas hiding their faces and scooters parting the groups with their wheelie stunt antics in counter to the direction of the parade, seemed not as interested in our queer family antics, preferring to wait and jump up with the heavier dancehall basslines of other groups behind us. The atmosphere had changed and as I lifted my weary legs into the car crammed with my new African family, everyone breathed a sigh of relief that we had made it out as the atmosphere started to heat up.