Quien lo goza, lo vive! He who lives it, enjoys it!
by Rose Larsen | KF19 Colombia | KF20 Dominican Republic
Barranquilla goes through something of a transformation in the months leading up to Carnaval.
Carnaval is the one period of the year when Barranquilla becomes a tourist destination. For four days each February or March, the city fills up with travelers eager to experience what is known as “the best Carnaval outside of Brazil.”
Pre-carnaval season officially starts a few weeks before Carnaval with an event in the central stadium, where the Carnaval king and queen are crowned, and the only rule of Carnaval is announced: party, dance and have fun until your body can’t take any more.
However, you can feel a subtle change come across the city long before this, as even in December the residents of Barranquilla begin to gear up for Carnaval season.
In every public plaza, groups of youngsters can be found practicing their dances and preparing for the parades that they will perform in. Seamstresses are busy sewing costumes, stands sprout up around the city selling colorful Carnaval gear, and restaurants prepare for the crowds to flow in.
Not surprisingly, this is a busy time for Kiva’s local partner FMSD and other microloan providers – many clients take out loans to prepare and stock up for this busy season.
Carnaval itself consists of four days of music, dancing, drinking and general debauchery, as locals and tourists alike don wild costumes and release their inhibitions. It starts on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday with a 6-hour parade featuring giant floats and hundreds of “comparsas”, or traditional groups of dancers. The “Batalla de Flores” is the most popular Carnaval event and tickets are upwards of $200 for the best seats. Other parades on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday feature fewer floats but more groups of dancers.
Each night, revelers have endless parties to choose from. Both planned and spontaneous block parties are found throughout the city, nightly events are programmed in the main stadium, and the bars and discotecas are filled. Traditional Carnaval music fills the air and you can’t walk one block without seeing someone in a marimonda mask or a negrita costume – the whole city, from small children to old ladies, gets in on the fun.
The Characters of Barranquilla’s Carnaval
As I started perusing the Carnaval gear sold all around the city, I noticed that certain characters and costumes were prevalent. Colombian friends began to explain to me the different characters I would encounter throughout Carnaval, each with a different history and a different type of dance. To give you an idea of how diverse and unusual Barranquilla’s Carnaval is, I thought I’d introduce you to a few of them!
La Reina de Carnaval y el Rey Momo – The Queen and King of Carnaval
Each year a king and queen are chosen to preside over Carnaval. The Rey Momo, based on the Greek god Momus, god of satire, and the Reina of Carnaval attend each parade decked out in fabulous costumes. A Children’s King and Queen are also chosen, as well as queens for each neighborhood of Barranquilla, and even a Reina Gay. The Carnaval queen, the most important figure, is generally picked from the city’s elite class – this year’s queen was the daughter of a senator.
Marimondas are the clowns of Carnaval. The costume originated with poorer Barranquilleros as a way to make fun of the fancy, expensive costumes that members of high society tend to wear. Marimondas wear sacks over their heads, have giant flapping elephant ears, phallic noses, pants worn backwards, colorful vests and ties. The marimonda is one of the few Carnaval characters with origins entirely from Barranquilla - with his silly, unchoreographed dance, he represents the joking, rowdy typical Barranquillero.
Cumbia, a popular type of music and dance, mixes the Spanish, indigenous and African cultures that collide in northern Colombia. The music features African drums and indigenous flutes, and a live band usually accompanies every comparsa.
The women wear long, full skirts and the men wear traditional striped costeño hats. The dance is a flirtatious one, as pairs of men and women dance back and forth, the women moving only their feet and hips, keeping their upper bodies still – some even dance with bottles of alcohol balanced on their heads! A popular Carnaval activity is a “rueda de cumbia,” where revelers join a chaotic group of dancers circling a cumbia band.
The Dance of the Garabato is a dance representing the battle between life and death, and originated in Spain. A garabato is the traditional stick used by the Costeño farmer. For this costume, men wear black pants, a yellow shirt, and a red cape adorned with colorful sequins and designs, and have their faces painted white and red. They use the garabato to do battle with Death, usually represented by someone dressed as a skeleton. Women wear beautiful black dresses with red, yellow and green features, the colors of Barranquilla. Though this costume was close to disappearing at one point, a group of locals brought it back and each year, one of the first pre-Carnaval events is the Parade of the Garabato, which takes place on a Friday evening a few weeks before Carnaval.
El Son de Negro
The Son de Negro costume and dance derives from the African influence in the Caribbean coast. Africans were first brought to Colombia as slaves – the nearby colonial city of Cartagena was a center of the slave trade. This dance has its origins in the region near Cartagena on the banks of the Canal del Dique, a canal that connects Cartagena Bay with Barranquilla’s Magdalena River, where there are many Afro-Colombian communities. For this costume, boys paint their entire bodies and faces black, with their lips and tongues painted a bright red. They wear colorful flower hats and use their bright red mouths to make funny faces, imitating and making fun of the way slaves used to act towards their masters. Though my politically-correct San Francisco upbringing made me slightly uncomfortable around these costumes, ultimately I always had to laugh at the ridiculous faces that they pulled.
The Congo is one of the oldest of the Barranquilla Carnaval characters. This warlike dance was first performed in Cartagena by slaves with origins from, as its name suggests, the African Congo, and soon became a part of Carnaval as well. The men wear bright satin clothes including colorful capes, but the most noticeable component of the costume is the tall headdress covered in fake flowers of every color. A long train trails down from the back of the headdress nearly to the ground. They also wear sunglasses and carry wooden machetes that they use during the dance.
This costume has one of the funniest origins – it first became popular in the 1960s after an advertisement for a Venezuelan brand of detergent called Puloy featured these coquettish women. They wear curly black wigs and cute red dresses with white polka dots, along with matching headbands. The headbands and other accessories are big favorites among the women who watch the parades.
Joselito de Carnaval & his widows
On the last day of Carnaval, a few new characters emerge. Joselito is a representation of Carnaval, and on the final day, Tuesday, he is found dead from too much drinking and partying! Open coffins with a dead Joselito lying inside are featured in the parades on Tuesday, though Joselito often rises from the dead to salute the crowd. Apparently this character is based on a true story of a man who disappeared during Carnaval and was found unconscious on the street. His family organized a funeral for him, but during the funeral procession he woke up and sat up in the coffin!
Joselito’s counterparts are his viudas, or widows, men and women alike who don fancy black dresses, lace and high heels (and fake breasts in the case of the men!), and sob wildly, mourning his death, stopping only to pose for pictures! With the death of Joselito comes the death of Carnaval…at least until next year! See you all at Carnaval 2014?