Where the salt water meets the fresh: les Saintes Maries de la Mer

"Ici, tout le monde est costumé". Photo from avignon-et-provence.com

More on popular celebrations: in may, in the village of french midi les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Camargue), an extraordinary strange celebration takes place, and gypsies have an important part in it. Together with the procession for the two “canonical” saints, Saint Salomé and Saint Jacobé, gypsies from all France and other parts of Europe gather for the procession of Santa Sara, Sara Kali, or Sara the black: who officially is only the servant to the other two saints, but that the gypsies promoted as their patron saint, and that they carry into the sea. This celebration was invented in the end of the XIX century to promote turism and save a depressed region from the effects of massive migration; today it is a strange festival “in disguise”, during which both gypsies, turists and camarguaises fully entered some kind of role play, with neither shame nor complexes. For three days, gypsies with high-class caravans draw their alliances and organize marriages, and settle just opposite to the folkloric carriages that the locals organize for turists. Everybody adopts for three days the identity that the others project on them, as they are all playing, just for partying, for singing and dancing regardless of their traditions and their original musical styles. Flamenco mixes with other musics, as the gypsies with non-gypsies, just like the fresh waters of river Rhone meet the salt water of the sea, and aigues mortes of Camargue melt into the live waters of the Mediterranean.

Sara the Black covered in dresses

  • Marc Bordigoni (2002-3), “Le ‘pèlerinage des gitans’, entre foi, tradition et tourismeEthnologie française, 2002/3, vol.32, pp. 489-501.
  • Among the most assiduous invitees of Santa Sara’s celebration there is the romanés band Urs Karpats, here live in 2010, known also as Ursarii, or bear tamers
  • Great video about the celebration and Santa Sara, with music by Urs Karpaz: TSIGHINDIA SARA KALI :: see also Kali Sara by Latcho Drom
  • Sara Kali, i.e. Sarah the Black, is not recognized as saint by any official church; the fact that her statue wears clothes is a sign of popular religion – it is the devotion of the gypsies with canonizes her as holy. Actually her statue wears many dresses one upon the other, as to symbolize the extreme devotion of her devotees. Many connect her faith with indian goddess Kali, that is also dumped underwater in an annual celebration under the form of Durga.

[audio: http://periferiesurbanes.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/6Rumba-gitana.mp3] Rumba gitana in Santes Maries de la Mer, recorded by ethnomusicologist Roberto Leydi in 1968