Carnival time and Nice is buzzing with the sound of gourds
Nice’s Carnival (Feb 13th-28th, 2016, www.nicecarnaval.com) is one of the oldest in Europe, with the earliest reference dating back to 1294 when a Count of Provence wrote that he had spent “joyous days of carnival” in Nice.
While today the parades float to the beat of contemporary music, traditionally it was another sound – bands playing instruments made of gourds, or rather cougourdons to be exact.
What’s a cougourdon, you ask. Well, it’s a type of gourd grown in the South of France, which can be fashioned into many useful objects. A gourd and squash are botanically defined as fruit because they’re organs that contain seeds, but like tomatoes and cucumbers, they’re often referred to as a vegetable.
The gourd remains essential to the local culture and there’s even a festival in its honour each year around the end of March (see Cougourdons in Nice).
What does it have to do with music? One of the many uses for a dried gourd is the making of musical instruments. Since the gourds are all different shapes and sizes, so are the instruments made from them. You’ll find some shaped like drums, tubas, flutes, and others that would be difficult to name.
And the sound? You might imagine that the music produced by a bunch of gourds wouldn’t be very melodic … and you’d be right. They were called vespa bands, which is the niçois (and Italian) word for “wasp”. They were labelled as such because they sounded quite similar to, you guessed it, a swarm of buzzing winged insects – just like the little Italian motor scooter with the same name.
These vespa bands were very popular at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s but disappeared by the 1960s. Today, as there’s more and more interest in the niçoise culture and language, maybe we’ll see these bands return to the carnival celebration.