Sunday, March 27, 2011
SARA LA KALI
Every May, Gypsies flock to the French seaside town of Saintes-Maries, for a festival in honour of a black Madonna – the Gitan Pilgrimage
BY Garth Cartwright
Saturday 26 March 2011
PHOTOGRAPH GILLES MARTIN-RAGET
Here they come now, two rows of men on white stallions, wearing black hats and carrying lances, providing a guard of honour for a squat statuette wrapped in gold cloth. Surrounding the horsemen are thousands of people, many cheering and chanting "Vive Sainte Sara!" Musicians play bursts of flamenco guitar or squeeze Hungarian melodies out of accordions. The horsemen and the crowd head towards the sea, seeming to move as one, suggesting a mix of religious procession and party. And that is exactly what this Felliniesque scene represents.
Every 24 May the small seaside town of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer hosts the Gitan Pilgrimage. This legend of St Sara accompanying St Marie-Jacobé and St Marie-Salomé when they arrived here from Palestine (so giving this former fishing town its name) dates back to the 16th century and the pilgrimage is a unique opportunity for Europe's Gypsies – largely drawn from French- and Catalan-speaking communities – to come together and affirm their faith and culture. And party hard.
The Gitan Pilgrimage takes place in the Carmargue, a vast, swampy delta immediately south of Arles. The Carmargue is extremely exotic, with tall marsh grasses where pink flamingos, black bulls and white horses roam freely. And the Carmargue's main base is Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a delightfully working-class riposte to St Tropez and other snooty Eurotrash resorts. Van Gogh painted Gypsies in the Carmargue while living unhappily in Arles with Gauguin – and Saint-Maries' medieval church is home to Sara-la-Kali (aka Black Sara, aka the Black Madonna), the statuette the horsemen carry to the sea on the 24th. Black Sara is not recognised by the Vatican, yet she is celebrated as the patron saint of the Gypsies.
I first heard about the Gitan Pilgrimage when reading about Django Reinhardt, a regular attendee who, at the time of his death, was composing a mass for the event. I then found out that the Gipsy Kings literally formed around a campfire here, the two sets of brothers who make up the band having first played and sung together here as teenagers back in the 1960s. Obviously I had to attend, and the first year I stayed in Arles and bussed back and forth. Since then I've always stayed in Saintes-Maries (there's lots of reasonably priced accommodation) and it is a gem of a town.
A visit to the church's crypt where Black Sara resides is essential for Gypsies. Here you can buy a candle, light it and pray that she will help with whatever ails you. Scribbled notes are placed close to Black Sara and bright linen robes are draped on her. This Romanesque church fills with smoke and heat and noise, and in its fervour and passion gives off a primal atmosphere as powerful as the flamenco being danced to outside.
The feast of music accompanying the Gitan Pilgrimage transforms this sleepy seaside town into a wild carnival of music and dancing in the streets. As the procession reaches the beach, the horsemen ride into Mediterranean waters carrying Black Sara high. They are accompanied by a young Gypsy woman, chosen to represent Sara that year. As the surrounding waters fill with people, the experience is both beautiful and ridiculous.
Black Sara is then returned to her crypt and celebrations get under way: alongside Catalan flamenco musicians and Parisian Gypsy jazz duos there are now Balkan brass bands and Hungarian string musicians. Observing these musicians from Europe's frayed edges gather, the listener gets a sense of how Gypsy music reinvents itself.
Exactly how much longer the community will be able to celebrate in Saintes-Maries is debatable: American evangelical churches have converted many Catalan Gypsies in recent years and they ban their flock from attending this loud, proud Catholic procession. And the town's mayor, a Front National supporter, has done his worst to make the Gitan pilgrims unwelcome.
The following day the procession is repeated, this time with the two Maries the town takes its name from. While still an entertaining procession, it is a much calmer event than the previous day's excitement, with the Gypsies having seemingly vanished overnight. Not that you also need move on – the local bullring has a running of the bulls, there are plenty of horse treks or boat tours to take through this marshy land and the sea is just about the right temperature for the first swim of the year. "Vive Sainte Sara!"
Garth Cartwright is the author of Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians (Serpents Tail, £8.99)
Posted by Morgan at 11:08 AM