Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007).
Carnival ended last Monday with extension into the small hours of Tuesday. In some places there will be attempts still to delay the death of the feast up until tomorrow, a wish convenient to the tourist industry that puts off the inevitable “burial of Carnival.” It is not easy to bring a big binge to a close. But don’t believe that Carnival is still running: it finished last Tuesday. We are already in Lent. So fasten your seatbelts for the ride up until Good Friday, on April 19.
Carnival happens everywhere because it is fun, even if in many cases fiction has been mixed with celebration, rebellion and tragedy to become the “holiday.” Not a few people say it is a feature mainly pertinent to Catholic countries. And yet it has its roots far further in the distant past. The Catholic Church does not quite approve, but it has had to accept the outburst of nearly every human feeling at the event.
The name is said to originate in Italy it seems, as Carne Vale, which might translate as something like “Free the flesh,” before the long season of recollection, devotion and self-critical experiences running up to the Crucifixion of Christ. While it may be non sanctum, the ebullience of joy and beauty and disguised violence started informally in Venice in the year 1094. It was only officially approved by local authorities nearly two centuries later, in 1296.
It is also said, possibly, that the celebration has its roots way back in tribal feasts held to mark the end of Winter, hence there are smaller events in religious calendars. Those might have some origins in pre-Columbian practices.
But as to how the dates were set to fit the launch of Lent, that is not always clear. The most established view is that the ancient Church had to impose limits on the excesses of the upper classes and draw a line at which religious observance had to begin. Thus a fast was imposed from here to Easter.
Carnival settings have made great films, and Brazilians are at their best, with the Manhã de Carnaval or Black Orpheus (1959) film, written by Vinicius de Moraes (1913-1980), by far one of the best in my personal preference. However, along comes Mardi Gras in New Orleans, also an inspiration for film script writers. The date is known also as “Fat Tuesday” (or Shrove Tuesday, in religious terms) on the eve of Ash Wednesday, marking the formal end to feasting (pancake Tuesday) and start to Lent. Mardi Gras also has the same origins in Venice and the French established the event at the start of the 18th century in the United States. At that time the date was a party gathering, with social ostentation ranging up through the ranks. And it was only in the 1830s that the parties burst out onto the streets, whence began the street parades.
Here at home, two cities vie for leadership in the Carnival contests each year. First, there was the Corrientes Carnival, which has been declared the “National Capital of Carnival,” or Capital Nacional del Carnaval, which has just marked its 52nd anniversary. This season ran for 13 nights, from February 6 to March 4. For many years it has been seen locally by some as the very best, in competition with Rio de Janeiro, which is much bigger. In Corrientes, thousands of tourists, locals and incoming teams, go north each steamy summer to gather in the capital for the event. People pay 100 pesos for one show on a cheap day in February at the start, and then the box office builds up with a run to the end of a season when tickets this year were set at 3,700 pesos for 10 days, climaxing with the election of the Carnival Queen.
And even closer to my home, Gualeguaychú celebrates what has been declared by Entre Ríos as the “Country’s Carnival,” or Carnaval del País. This year’s edition, in spite of a poor tourist season for economic and financial reasons, brought together 15,000 people to watch the closing parades last Sunday night. Valentina Riva, a 23-year-old female member of the Kamarr band (comparsa) representing the local Syrian Lebanese Centre, was crowned Queen.
That is the end of Carnival. Then the decorated trucks and trailers carrying part of the bands or comparsas, and not just the dancers, become the stars of the “burial” (entierro), a competition by public vote in which the results are announced on the Monday night. The Kamarr team suffered a severe setback in the run-up to this year’s event when a fire at their warehouse destroyed all their equipment and specially-made costumes. Their recovery to participate this year was achieved with the support of local supporters who helped design and sew costumes night and day for months.
Here in Buenos Aires the carnival teams, or comparsas, compete for cash grants put up by the City authorities each year. And there are mafia groups in the sidelines of the corsos, or parades, that claw in a share in different parts of the City, said an article by Darío Lopérfido, former Culture secretary, who claims he counted 25 parades throughout the capital, alleging traffic had been cut on many streets with the neighbourhood situation resembling weekly street protests.
A kinder glance at the Buenos Aires Carnival was provided by English freelance photographer Kate Stanworth who has followed one murga street-song and dance group or band, known as La locura de Boedo (“The Madness of Boedo”) for the last 10 years, according to an illustrated article published in The Guardian, in London, last Saturday. The photos were colourful and intense. Kate Stanworth toured with the City’s carnival parades with the Boedo murga group, including whole families who also take part in costume-making and in testing out singers and dancers from their midst to represent their whole barrio.
The murgas had been banned by the dictatorship right up until 1983. But they came back with growing strength through the 1990s and into the new century. The City Carnival is now established as a strong form of entertainment, especially among working-class people who cannot afford to get away on vacation. An urban outlet for work and play, for song and dance, in the financial nightmare around them.