It’s carnival time again and Nice is buzzing!
Every year, the Nice carnival has a different theme, and this year it’s music. The Carnival King, His Majesty King of Music, who has the largest float and leads the parades, is depicted as the conductor of an orchestra – and he is rising out of a cougourdon.
What is a cougourdon and what does it have to do with music? Well, I’m glad you asked. Let’s start with the cougourdon: It’s a type of gourd grown in the south of France which can be fashioned into many useful objects. It’s important to the local culture and there’s even a gourd festival each year around the end of March.
But what about the music? Well, one of the many uses for these dried gourds 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. In days gone by, bands of these gourd-instruments performed during the Carnival for a bit of buffoonery.
What did they sound like? You might imagine that the music produced by a bunch of gourds wouldn’t be very melodic… and you’d be right. These bands were called vespa bands which is the Niçois (and Italian) word for wasp. They were tagged with this name because they sounded quite similar to a swarm of buzzing wasps – 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 started to disappear in the 1960s. Today, as there is more and more interest in the Niçoise culture and language perhaps we will soon see these buzzing bands return to the carnival celebration.
1. From the Nice 2015 official carnival program. 2. La Vespa, watercolour by Gustav Adolf Mossa, c. 1925
Find Out More – You can read more about the history of Nice in my book, Curious Histories of Nice, France.
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