Monday, January 20, 2014

Today is Fat Tuesday: A Whirlwind Tour of Latin American Carnival Celebrations

article from March 3, 2011
by Julie R Butler

Today, for Fat Tuesday, we will take a whirlwind tour of Carnival celebrations in Latin America, beginning in the Caribbean.

Trinidad and Tobago Carnival

Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is the most notable of the Caribbean festivals. The sounds are of calypso, the Afro-Caribbean music with melodious steel drumming, and its descendant, soca, which combines many newer sounds such as reggae, R&B, and DJ.

It is interesting to note that it was the outlawing of stick fighting and African percussion that brought about the melodic steel drum sounds that are such familiar icons of the Islands today. The Africans who were brought over by the French as slaves were also originally banned from participating in Carnival, so they created their own festival called Canboulay, which later became part of the distinctive celebration that has spread throughout the Caribbean.

The main events of the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival are the competitions to be named Calypso Monarch, Kind and Queen of the Bands, International Soca Monarch, Carnival Road March (which is the most played song in the parades), Panorama (for steel drum music), and other titles for stick fighting and limbo. Each band that competes has its own King and Queen, who wear enormous costumes that often require wheels and extensions to hold up. And, of course, there are dancers decorated with feathers and sequins.

In many traditions, there are also distinctive Carnival characters that have evolved through time. In Trinidad and Tobago, these include the rhyming speechmaker, Pierrot Grenade; the wandering black Minstrels in whiteface; the outrageous braggart, Midnight Robber, Jab Molassie, a devilish figure with an entourage of imps; and Dame Lorraine, a caricature of an 18th-century French aristocrat, usually played by a man.


Moving on to Mexico, the biggest Carnival celebrations are held in Mazatlán, Mérida, and Veracruz, with colorful folkloric dance performances and parades that blend indigenous and European traditions. They are accompanied by fairs, complete with rides and games, and may also include bull riding and other rodeo competitions in the north, while in the south and along the coast, more indigenous elements are present. Regional foods are important parts of the celebrations.

Central America

Carnival in Panama is a big deal, featuring huge concerts with national and international artists in addition to the Carnival parades. The main events are held in Las Tablas, on the Azuero Penninsula in the southwest of the country, and in Panama City.

Elsewhere in Central America, Mazatenango, Suchitepéquez, in the Pacific coastal lowlands of Guatemala, is famous for its eight-day Carnival feast, which keeps alive many of the unique cultural traditions of the region.

Venezuela and Colombia

Venezuelan youths celebrate Carnival with a two-day water fight, along with other family festivities. Meanwhile, in Barranquilla, Colombia, the competitions are with flowers. The festivities there commence with the Battle of the Flowers Parade on Saturday, lead by the Carnival Queen, tossing flowers out to her subjects. The Grand Parade fills the streets on Sunday with such distinctively Colombian music and dance styles as the sultry cumbia dancing, the garabato, which celebrates the victory of life over death, and the torito folk dancing that portrays the bullfight. The four days of revelry come to an end when Joselito Carnaval dies and is symbolically buried. Because colonial authorities censored Carnival celebrations in the larger political centers such as Bogotá and Cartagena, the festivals grew, incorporating local indigenous traditions, in smaller towns such as Barranquilla and Pasto. The vivacity and variety of the many different customs is the focus of Colombian celebrations.


The Ecuadorians also partake in water play, as their rendition of Carnival is heavily influenced by pre-Columbian traditions that celebrated the harvest season with the throwing of flour, flowers, and perfumed water. To this day, the festival in Ambato is named Fiesta de las Flores y las Frutas. The festivals in Ecuador usually begin with the election of Father Carnival, who will lead the parade.


The Bolivians, too, celebrate with water play and distinctive regional music styles. The country’s biggest Carnival celebration occurs in the central Bolivian city of Oruro. This event begins by honoring La Vírgin de Socovon, the patron saint of miners, with a marching band competition. This is followed by three days and nights of parading, where groups perform intricately symbolic folkloric dance forms with names such as Caporales, Diablada, Pujlay, and Tinku. They represent an intriguing blend of Andean indigenous with Catholic traditions.


The Peruvian town of Cajamarca is known as this country’s Carnival Capital. Here, the festivities are centered around the unsha tree, which is adorned with ribbons, balloons, fruits, toys, and even bottles of booze (something for everyone!). After a period of dancing around it, couples take turns striking at the tree, and when it falls, the prizes are claimed.


Finally, we come to Argentina, where Carnival is celebrated most flamboyantly in the north. In the northeastern province of Corrientes, the influence of Brazil is evident in the samba school costumes and parades. Uruguayan camdombe influences are also strong here. The capital city of Corrientes has a version of a Sambadrome called the Corsódromo, but neighborhood parties and parades carry forward the original peoples’ spirit of Carnival. The province of Corrientes is said to be “the cradle of Argentine Carnival.” From there, the traditions spread into the neighboring province of Entre Ríos, where the city of Gualeguaychú also has a Corsódromo. As in nearby Uruguay, the competition between comparsas, or performing groups, goes on for many weeks starting in late January or early February.

Meanwhile, Jujuy, in the northwest, has a very different kind of culture, and this is reflected in the nature of the Carnival festivities, which are more similar to those of Bolivia.

In Buenos Aires, the Murgas play a leading role and the Carnival celebrations mirror those that take place across the Río de la Plata in Montevideo – with more of a focus on the Tango, of course!

[Images via Wikipedia]

Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler

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