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Thursday, February 23, 2012


 So when people talk about Carnival or Carnaval (in french) you think instantly of Rio , Venice or New Orleans but another carnival that is of equal importance and just as popular is  the Carnaval de Binche. If you've read my other posts you know that I play in a wind ensemble in Binche so I've been told many times before about Carnaval. It was actually one of the first things my host family told me when we  met. This post is going to be kind of long because I'm going to do my best to explain the history and the tradition of Binche. 
         BACKGROUND:  Back in the 1500's Belgium belonged to Spain. Yes, I said Spain ... the emperor Charles Quint ruled over Spain's empire. His sister Marie of Hungary built a Chateau in Binche . The main figures of Carnaval emerged there ( Gilles de Binche) . There are a lot of theories about how the Gilles de Binche came about but the one with the most proof behind it is that of a legend written about the Incas of pre-colombia america and the way the indians were dressed were reciprocated in an show for Marie of Hungary . Although if you mention this to anyone from Binche they'll tell you its bull . 
                   The Carnival itself is three days long and based on the holy calender so the actual dates change every year. Other cities in Belgium do partake in their own version of Carnaval but Binche is the first and Original . The Gilles are in full costume only on Mardi Gras and there are rules to being a Gille that must be followed : 
 * Women are not allowed to be Gilles
 * a Gille must not misbehave ( drink , smoke ) while in costume in public
 * To be a Gille you must have been a resident of Binche for three years.
 * If you are a Gille and you have moved away from Binche you must go back for Carnaval
 * Gilles can only dance to the 27 sacred songs of the Carnaval 
 * If a Gille needs to leave the group during the Mardi Gras they must be accompanied by a drummer ( The Gilles are followed by the tambour ( drums ) and tradtional ensemble ( trumpet, baritone, tuba, clarinet) . 
 * A Gille can only wear the mask on the morning of Mardi Gras and the hat in the after noon of Mardi Gras.
the costumes :)
  there are actually a lot more that I can't think of at the moment but i'll mention them later if they come to mind

INTRO. My whole host family is involved with the Carnaval in some way or another so when I went I got the REAL experience not the tourist version. 
        SUNDAY: ( Dimanche Gras) or Shrove Sunday is when all the men in Binche who are Gilles dress up in costumes, not the traditional ones, usually something transgender or comical . There are different costumes for every society of Gilles . This year there were cave men, female flight attendants, smurfs , ostrich riders ect. They are always accompanied by a viola ( not the alto violin ) . A viola in this case is a very old instrument that plays melodies by turning a crank on the side. They dance all around the streets of Binche for the day and at night they are accompanied by the drums and brass. 
     One of the cool parts about Binche is that it's a walled city , and for part of the tradition we all went into the underground part of the walls and drank champagne . The cool part about the room is that its spherical and there is one part of the room where you can stand on one side of the room and talk to someone on the other side . 
       My friend Audrey was with us for Carnaval and we were walking around with my host mom when the mayor of Binche walked by and gave her the traditional flower of Binche. And then not two seconds after we accidentally ran into the Prime Minister of Belgium Elio De Rupo. NO BIG DEAL.
    The day was spent walking , dancing and following the Gilles until all hours of the morning.
   MONDAY: ( Lundi Gras) Shrove Monday . This day is more for the kids of binche, it has a Halloween feel to it . They all dress up and dance throughout the city with the viola also they have huge bags of confetti that they throw mercilessly  . There are usually themes to the costumes as well and this year it was Italian. My wind ensemble got together to play in the cafes and we all put on Italian themed stuff. I played my host mom's soprano sax and it was such an honor to be able to be an actual part of the Carnaval . ** FUN FACT : the Carnaval of Binche is officially recognized and protected by UNESCO** Also you play games in the street , I don't know the name of it but it works like this : You line up in the street , men on one side and women on the other and in the middle is the bass drum player and the man that runs the game and when the base drum player hits the drum the two sides switch . But if you get stuck on your side you go into the middle , inbetween the two groups and you have to do whatever the man running the game says. OF COURSE i got caught and in the middle of the confetti covered streets i was told to do push ups. I did rip my jeans in the process but they were the best push ups ever .  Towards the evening the little kids are still dancing in the cobblestoned streets but this time they're followed by the drummers and musicians ( i forgot to mention that my host dad is a baritone player for them ) but this time they start burning sulfur in the streets which actually glow red . I know this sounds a little weird but its just tradition. The groups of kids and musicians make their way towards the train station where there is a fireworks show and even while the fireworks are going on they still dance around the sulfur and the musicians still play . The cool part is when the shadows of the dancers are up on the walls of the city . Luckily my host parents know everyone in Binche and they have friends who live near the train station so we all got to go up to their balcony and watch the fireworks. Lundi Gras is the shortest night , IN THEORY. because the next day is the hardest. 
 MARDI GRAS : Shrove Tuesday , THE MOST IMPORTANT DAY. This is when the Gilles come out. The day starts at 2 am. We get up and drive to the house of some friends, because our friend Sylvan is a Gille de Binche. We show up and we get to watch him get into his costume and everything . The Gilles Dance ALLLL DAY on Mardi Gras Starting at 3 am and ending just before sunrise the following day . The whole aim of dancing is to welcome spring and chase away winter.


  • A mask.
  • A hat with ostrich feathers.
  • A belt with bells.
  • A bundle of willow twigs.( they use this to chase away winter and wake up spring)
  • A spherical costume.
  • Clogs.( the wooden clogs are worn and when they dance they are waking up the earth )
  • Basket of oranges, oranges or blood oranges.
 one can easily recognizes the costume: a linen suit with colorful lions and crowns, which is filled with straw, so the front and back creates a hump. They wear wooden shoes and a white collar.On their face they wear a mask (so everyone is anonymous), and a white hat on their head, then sometimes a big hat with ostrich plumes. Around their waists they wear the "apertintaille, a belt with six to nine bells.
 In the morning the Gilles are called together by a fife and drum ensemble. Fifes are kind of rare so if there isn't a fife a clarinet can be played as well. For Sylvan society Les Recalcitrants my host mom plays the clarinet to gather all the gilles. Before we all left to go everyone was piled in to Sylvans parents house with champagne ( that you don't drink out of champagne glasses , in binche you drink them out of glasses a little bit larger than shot glasses). There was even a news crew inside , and right before we left Sylvan's father played one song for him as a tradtition . For the next few hours we go from house to house waking the Gilles and bringing them together . Every house we go to we're welcomed inside and offered food and drinks. Every time another Gille is added to the group my host mom would play one of the twenty seven sacred songs
( SIDENOTE ABOUT THE SACRED SONGS) the 27 sacred songs of carnaval are the only songs allowed to be played in Binche 25 of them are for the musicians and then there is one that is the cadence for the drummers and one is the song played with the viola . 
     After all the Gilles were together we went to a cafe to eat oysters and smoked salmon, Not exactly something you'd eat at 5 am but what the hell it was good . There are dozens of other societies of gilles in binche but eventually after everyone is all brought together they make their way dancing to the train station . Where they are joined by the other costumed groups , ( Le Paysans and Le Pierreos which are usually kids , but little kids are allowed to be Gilles as well). Also during the parade the gilles will throw their bundle of sticks at people in the crowd and whoever catches it is allowed to  go into the group of gilles and dance . My host mom was very lucky and a friend of hers threw one to her , women aren't normally the ones that get to go in .  From the train station the Gilles make their way to the Grand Place of Binche. And half way there they put on their masks. The mask of the Gilles are sacred to Binche , there are no other Carnavals in Belgium that have the same ones . It is tradition for a woman to give the Gilles their masks a girlfriend , mother, sister ect. All the masks are the same to symbolize how a poor man and a rich man could both be Gilles and be equal. Once they arrive at the Grand Place of Binche they all hold hands and dance in a circle . I was lucky enough to be in the circle ! There are thousands of people there , news crews from all over i acually saw one from China . Meanwhile the musicians are playing for them, and after they finish dancing they get to take a break . After lunch they return to dancing but this time with the hats made of ostrich plumes. The hats aren't always manditory but the gilles in le Recalcitrants have to wear them . They make their way through the streets yet again and this time they have baskets full of oranges they throw to the crowd. The blood oranges are for good luck and are only lucky if they are given to you by a gille. YOU MUST NEVER THROW AN ORANGE BACK AT A GILLE IF HE GIVE YOU ONE , But now a days kids from university come and start little wars with them. The dancing goes on and on into the night where they start burning sulfur again and their are the shadows of the dancers , which is easily the most beautiful part. At the very end all the Gilles make their way back to the Grand Place for a huge Fireworks display !
       This was probably the most Belgian thing ever , and i loved every minute of it . My host dad explained to me that people in Binche are different than others, he always would tell me that there are no other cities in the world named Binche. Also everyone in binche knows eachother and somehow they all knew who i was, they'd come up to me and say OH you're the american who sang in the concert last week , I LOVED IT . It was amazing to meet these people who had nothing but good things to say about me even though i had no idea who they were. Actually last night i was still in Binche for a Dinner with the Gilles and i met a woman who asked me what i thought of carnival and i told her i loved it and It was my first one but DEFINITELY NOT my last one . She cried when i told her that.  But its true , I want to come back for Binche every year and hopefully play the 27 sacred songs with the people of Binche.

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