Solo During Christmas

Island Neighbours with Alicia Valasse – Polius and Marie-Louise Benjamin

Nwèl – la wivémanmay-la! (Christmas is here children.)
Annouchanté!”(Let us sing.)

THE commencement of the solo – traditional musical commentary – is an indication that Lucian Christmas tradition is alive. For decades, Christmas gangs comprised of the aged members of the community and young musical enthusiasts who seek the joys of the holiday season. The solo gang — armed with shakshaks (a percussion instrument), tanbou (a drum) and a chantwèl (singer) — journeys from household to household to share the spirit of rural Christmas in St. Lucia. This activity, hailed as “house to house”, is one of the most renowned, aged and beloved traditions on the island.

During the year, members of the Christmas gang would tune their ears to the rural news from local shops, ghetto propaganda, the self-proclaimed community journalists and commentary from casual domestic disputes. The meticulous sieving of the data collected begins when the group meets. The group would then arrange the chosen narrative artifacts in the form of a song or songs called solos.

The song is typically arranged in the form of a question and answer session. The soloist, chosen by the group, leads the chants while the rest of the group answers. Lyrics are typically in creole, or the St. Lucian vernacular. The singing is accompanied by the rhythms of a skilled drummer and vibrations from the shak-shak; an event reminiscent of slave plantation life centuries ago in the Caribbean.

Christmas Eve dawns and the Christmas solo gang prepares for the house to house celebrations. As dusk approaches, members of the group assemble. The echo of the drum signals the commencement of the event:

Nwèl – la wivémanmay-la! (Christmas is here, children.)

The gang moves, attracting the attention of onlookers. As they move, new lyrics emerge: the story about the man who was caught cheating with his pants down, a commentary on the first teenage pregnancy in the community, the family who’d consulted a witch doctor to secure a job for their son or daughter, and the senseless behaviour of the unsuspecting victim of gwopwel (the emotional or psychological state of a man or woman after the break-up of a relationship).

As the gang spreads Christmas cheer from house to house, community members prepare for their arrival. Tables are adorned with Christmas favourites: sorrel, cocoa tea, bread from the rural baker, spice rum, Chairman’s Reserve and Bounty Rum. Gang members eat and drink as they extend Christmas greetings to the family. The gang grows as it moves from house to house as catchy lyrics and pulsating rhythms woo the onlookers.

Different variations of this tradition exist on the island. In suburban areas, the tradition is more refined with the absence of the solo. Rural areas, however, have continued to embrace the Christmas spirit with the tradition in its original form.

Christmas in St. Lucia is a celebration of community spirit, culture and people. During Christmas, acquaintances become friends and neighbourhoods become one family. If you’re in St. Lucia, visit one of our rural coastal communities like Babonneau, Choiseul, Canaries, Dennery or Anse la Raye. Join one of these gangs – no membership required! Don’t worry about the lyrics – you’ll catch up quickly as the foot-tapping refrains emerge.

Neighbourly GetAways
Taking a trip through the Island Neighbours is the perfect holiday present. Here’s what we suggest. Travel to the northeast of Martinique to visit the Mount Pelee. Learn about its rise to volcanic power, its destructive path and what the future likely holds for this giant of the Earth. When you are finished in the Isle of Flowers, visit Marie Galante for a relaxing eco-vacation as you enjoy the waters of Grand Bourg and the superb sandy beaches.

A Bit of the French for the Visitor
Travelling during the holidays
I want to go diving – Je tiens à faire de la plongée.
Where are the beaches located? – Oùsont les plagessituées?
Where can I find a taxi? – Oùpuis-je trouverun taxi?
I am on vacation – Je suisenvacances.
Please take my picture – Veuillezprendre ma photo.
Where can I go Christmas caroling? — Oùpuis-je passer Noël verges (pomlázka)?
How much should I pay for the tour? — Combiendois-je payer pour le voyage?
Take me to the best diving spots — Prenez-moi à les meilleurs sites de plongée.
Where can I find a waterfall? — Oùpuis-je trouverune cascade?

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