If you were wanting to sample the best in Caribbean culture, especially music and food, you probably wouldn’t think of buying a ticket to the Ideal Home Exhibition. Yet, in Paris, that’s exactly what you’d do. Ideal Home’s French equivalent, the far superior Foire de Paris, bounced back on 28 April after a two-year Covid hiatus, spread across five vast halls at Porte de Versailles in the south-west of the capital.
You’ll find everything you might expect, from glossy interior décor to ingenious domestic gadgets being demonstrated by entertainingly manic salespeople. This being France, food and wine play a big part, from great cartwheels of cheese to mountains of saucisson. But the real attraction for Soca News readers is likely to be Hall 4 ‘Artisanat et Richesses du Monde’.
Hall 4 is a showcase for France’s still quite numerous overseas possessions, including Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyane (French Guiana), Saint-Martin, Réunion and Marie-Galante. You’ll also find stalls from African countries that are part of the Francophone world (a concept even more redolent of imperial nostalgia than the Commonwealth), plus outliers such as India, Italy and Brazil. To British eyes it’s an odd mix, but great fun, because this is where the colour, energy and life of the two-week event are to be found – all the fun of the foire, in fact! It’s surely no coincidence that black Parisians make up a large proportion of visitors to the Foire de Paris.
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So what are they all looking for? If the arrays of enticingly colourful bottles are anything to go by, rum – or, rather, rhum – is a big draw. Most stalls are happy to let you sample their rums, punches and rhum arrangé (flavoured with fruit and spices), but there are so many on offer that making an informed choice is almost impossible. My personal pick was Arawak’s warming and sophisticated shrubb, a variety of rhum arrangé that one online guide describes as “a heady blend of spices, sugarcane spirit and sun-dried orange peels”. If Cointreau floats your boat, then shrubb may be up your street too.
Then there’s food, much of it from big, brash stalls proclaiming ‘bokit’. The definition of bokit – essentially a hot streetfood-style snack – seems infinitely flexible and the best approach is probably just to wander round until you spot something that looks fresh, tasty and delicious and accompany it with some Martinican Lorraine beer, a planter’s punch or non-alcoholic cocktail. After that, you could try some homemade ice cream. For something slightly different, there are dainty little samosas and gato piment from Mauritius and Réunion. The Indian Ocean also contributed brightly coloured spices, arranged in orderly pyramids like an art installation, but it was the prettily packaged hibiscus jam (bissap rouge) offered by Boubacar Ndong, from Senegal, that got my vote.
Tempting though these treats are, Hall 4 isn’t all about eating and drinking; there are stalls selling stylish African-print clothes, hats and bags, jewellery, metal figures from Burkina Faso, children’s books, dolls, natural cosmetics… more than enough to please anyone, surely.
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Carnaval de Guyane should be on any carnival-lover’s bucket list, not least because it claims to have the world’s longest carnival season. Its traditions, costumes and music are distinctive and seductive in ways that demand a long article of their own (for a flavour, I recommend the gorgeous Elle Me Dévore sung by Victor Clet aka Quéquette). A highlight of my visit to Foire de Paris 2022, therefore, was coming across the stall of Kolekt’Or, run by the excellent Denis Duvigneau (Patawa Production), which was a treasure-trove of CDs and DVDs. Budgetary constraints meant I had to curb an impulse to buy one of everything, and instead settled on the four-CD + DVD compilation, Kolekt’Or Vol 10: De Nana à Polina. Les Mécènes de Guyane (1977-2017). (Les Mécènes are one of Guyane’s top groups, and Nana and Polina are two of the clubs famous for carnival dances.)
As if that isn’t exciting enough, you may be lucky enough to catch one of the mini-carnival parades down Allée Centrale alongside Hall 4, usually just after 1pm. Groups noted on 30 April included Davina Samba School, Mass Paname and KBM Karibean Mass, the latter including a small pan-round-the-neck contingent.
Some of the top bands and singers from participating territories and countries perform on stage at the back of Hall 4. Without a printed guide or screen, it can be hard to work out whose music you’re enjoying, but the standard is high and you soon get caught up in the Caribbean and African rhythms, which need no translation – they pass straight through the heart to the waist and feet.
This year’s Foire de Paris has passed, but it’s left happy memories (not wholly down to Christophe Fautra’s shrubb!). The music alone is worth the Eurostar ticket, so I’ll definitely be marking next year’s calendar with the dates: 27 April to 8 May 2023. See you there!
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