Carnival’s joyful chaos

January 6, 2006 by admin
Filed under: Entertainment and Sport, Events 

Willemstad, Curaçao—It was hard to tell at first glance if the porta-potty mounted on the back of a pickup truck was a bare-bones Carnival float or a last-minute addition to the outdoor facilities that had ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time somewhere along the massive parade route.

It wasn’t until I spotted costumed celebrants jumping on the truck’s tailgate and shutting the door of the porta-potty behind them that it hit me: This is an island where no detail is overlooked in the chaos of Carnival.

After all, when parade participants have to dance non-stop for miles in stifling costumes, waving with one hand and keeping elaborate hats in check with the other, it’s no wonder they need a little time to themselves — even if it is in the questionable privacy of a travelling toilet.

The circus-like Carnival — an eight-week frenzy of music, dance and merriment that overtakes Curaçao starting tomorrow until Feb. 28 — seems like an odd fit on this Dutch island about 55 kilometres off the coast of Venezuela. But the roots of the festival , and its distinctive tumba music, go back to the mid-1600s, when millions of Africans were shipped through this former slave port. Strangely, it wasn’t until about four decades ago that the real Carnival festivities began with grand parades and parties. And there’s been no let-up since.

“The minute this year’s Carnival is over, people will start working on next year’s,” says life-long Curaçao resident Chernov Rozier. “People spend hundreds of dollars to have their costumes made from imported fabric — the bands can spend $5,000 or more just to participate in Carnival. It is the event of the year in Curaçao.”

In fact, a number of islands in the Caribbean feature colourful Carnival festivities that are a big draw for islanders and visiting tourists. Aruba’s 51st Carnival celebrations started this week. And over the next seven weeks, similar festivities will be held on Turks & Caicos, Trinidad, Dominica, Martinique and Guadeloupe, to name just some.

Carnival is traditionally held in the days leading up to Lent and the explanations of its origins are as varied as its striking costumes: Some believe the partying started as a Catholic rite and a way of using up food such as meat and eggs before the Lenten fasting. Others believe the processions are meant to scare away evil spirits.

Regardless of its history, a few things are critical — colourful costumes, as well as a sense of both rhythm and fun. But nothing is as key to Carnival’s success, on the island of Curaçao at least, as the music that fills its busy streets.

Tumba — with its Afro-Caribbean rhythms — is thought to have evolved from tambu, the music used by slaves to express their sorrow and hardship until it was prohibited by colonial authorities. Tambu eventually evolved into tumba, which has been the soundtrack for Carnival here since 1969.

“I always make sure I have earplugs for the kids,” says one local resident, dancing with her 9- and 11-year-old daughters on the makeshift grandstands that line the main parade route through Otrobanda, literally known as the “other side” of Willemstad because it’s across St. Anna Bay from the capital city’s colourful downtown shopping district.

“Some of the bands play so loud, you get a pain in your chest.”

While the music is so deafening, it’s almost impossible to carry on a conversation, something about Carnival is infectious. When brightly costumed participants aren’t dancing down the streets to the tumba beat, or posing for pictures with friends and tourists, they’re grabbing the hands of passersby and pulling them into the action. Rozier has spent most of Carnival soaking up the music, and cooling down with ice cubes, from the protection of a refreshment booth where there’s a constant line of revellers and tourists looking to get a break from the scorching sun with water, pop and beer.

“We get some kids back here whose parents send them with a list and the kids ask me, `Please, can you hurry? I don’t want to miss my Carnival.’

“I say to them, `You go tell your father to get his own drinks!’” says Rozier with a laugh.

The eight weeks of Carnival start in early January when revellers pull last year’s ornate costumes out of storage and hit the streets for weekend street dances, festivals and parties — called “jump-ups.” But as the weeks progress, and Carnival kings and queens are chosen for the adult and child parades, the island’s capital of Willemstad becomes party central.

As the countdown begins to the Grand March — the final festivities over the last weekend in February — residents and businesses stake out their turf, literally. For about $12 a square metre, people can rope off their own viewing area and many spend the days before the parade chaining down rows of lawn furniture, erecting makeshift grandstands or slapping up canvas or plastic sunshields.

Come Jan. 1, the words “Felis Karnaval” are uttered as frequently as “How are you?”

“We can’t even answer our phone when a Carnival parade is going by,” says Farley Hollander, manager of Willemstad’s Avila Beach Hotel.

source: Toronto Star


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