Carnival: day 1

Friday night (the eve of the four days of Carnaval):

Went to see traditional groups performing at an open-air stage in a plaza. Besides the few thousand people watching, there was a conga line of a few hundred drunks slowly circling the stage. Oh boy, it’s going to be a long weekend! I thought of joining in, but those rhythms only confuse my body. That, and I wasn’t drunk (an obvious prerequisite).

I then headed over to the stadium, where some great sounding modern bands were playing all night. Didn’t go in, since tickets were $20 (!) But I had a nice time sitting on the curb listening and watching the street life. People walking around with beers in their hands, handicrafts and carnival outfits for sale, old men playing dominoes at card tables, “llamada” people selling talk time on their cell phones. And through it all, vibrancy and energy. People psyching up for the big weekend.

Saturday – day one:

Took a cab to the location printed on my ticket for the first day of parades. It was chaos leading up to the entrances, but once you got through security, it was very calm and organized. Every palco (an area of bleachers) is self-sufficient – food, drink, toilets, even it’s own band! The typical four guys in the white outfits playing various percussion, singing, and those uncannily loud flutes. They would sit at the back of the stands and strike up a tune every so often to get us energized or dancing. They also took requests, but didn’t know “Hotel California” OR “Free Bird”, can you imagine? Sometimes our palco’s band would compete with the next one over. There are dozens if not hundreds of these palcos along the parade route. They’re all set up so the sun is at our backs (behind a sun shade). On the other side of the street are the cheap seats, with the sun in their eyes. I’m glad those were all sold out when I bought my tickets, I would have roasted. I never saw what it was like just watching from the street, but Dominic and Alex told me it was alright.

The other neat thing about the palcos is that you’re with the same group of 100 people for three straight days, so you get to know each other. On this first day, a friendly guy from Medellin who was there visiting friends befriended me. At first I thought these guys were pretty obnoxious, arriving late, blocking views, throwing powder. But I got over myself and we ended up having lots of fun together over the next few days.

The aforementioned powder.. usually corn starch or some other substance, it’s thrown and smeared on each other.. for fun. Yes, most of the crowd is 20 – 30 going on 8. The other fun activity is spraying white foam on each other. It’s like shaving cream, but shoots a lot further. Especially fun to get in the eyes, particularly if you wear contacts. Being the token gringo in my palco, I was “welcomed” with this ritual over and over.. and over. continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…


Carnival: setting the mood

Before we jump into the actual photos and description of what I experienced at Carnival, we’re going to get you in the mood with some music and videos.

First, a tech note. I thought it would be cool to embed YouTube videos straight into the blog post (which I have done below). Unfortunately, this requires Flash. Ugh. This goes against all of my open-source cred (I’ve managed to keep the entire site standards-compliant until now). Therefore, I am providing a direct link to the videos for those of you who don’t have flash installed – just click the link above each error message. If you’re viewing this on an iPhone, the videos will not display inline, but the links will automatically open your YouTube app and play the video. Anyway, let me know if you have any problems.

We start off with one of the most popular songs. You hear this all over the city – played live by groups (always wearing the same costumes as in the video) in bars, in front of houses or on stages; blaring out of taxis, store fronts, hair dressers, even the shopping carts of homeless. It’s a good example of the typical instrumentation – strong, upbeat percussion, vocals, and that simple flute that is incredibly loud for being so small (it sounds like a reed instrument):

Direct link to “Checo Acosta Bulgar” video

Next we move on to an introductory video about the Carnaval in Barranquilla. I was going to upload some videos I took at the parades, but the ones on YouTube are far better. You get to see the wide variety of costumes and characters while listening to a fun soundtrack:

Direct link to “Tribute to Barranquilla Carnaval” video

Although Carnaval in Barranquilla is comparatively tame compared to Rio de Janeiro’s or Mardi Gras in New Orleans (no flashing boobs, for example), there is a crude vulgarity (in a playful spirit) to Costeños (people from this coastal region). For example, rather than saying, “drink the rum,” they say, “suck the rum”. This song with that title is the #1 hit this year:

Direct link to “Mama Ron” video

There are dozens of versions of this song, and you hear it zillions of times a day. It invades my dreams.

I believe the above music falls under the category of Champeta, a style of music unique to this area of the world. The other popular music forms here are Cumbia and Vallenato. It’s fascinating reading how the West African rhythms have blended with Carribean sounds and styles, forming an entirely new form. And it’s constantly evolving – some of these forms were only given names 20 years ago, and were only more recently added as categories to the Latin Grammy Awards.
I think it’s really neat that the folkloric music IS the popular music here. Contrast with the States and Western Europe, where pop music is consumed by 12 – 25 year olds, while it’s mostly older and/or rural people who listen to traditional folk music. There is not that distinction here.

One of the pre-Carnival events that I missed but would have liked to have seen was the gay parade. As usual, many of the trannies are hotter than bio women! The roots of this cross-dressing tradition go back to when the invading Spaniards were raping and pillaging the countryside. Colombian men disguised themselves as women to give the rapists “a big surprise”.

Another parade I would have liked to have seen (it took place a few days before I arrived) was the night parade. It’s all done with candles and lanterns.

Finally, I will leave you with some photos of past Carnavals to tease you while I continue to sort through and upload all of my photos.


Boring Barranquilla

I arrived in Barranquilla last Sunday even though the big parades for Carnaval don’t begin until Saturday (tomorrow). I thought there would be pre-Carnival fiestas and such. There have been occassional events since January, but very sporadically. Not much going on this week. No problem I thought, I’ll explore the city for other things to do. There must be a reason it’s Colombia’s fourth-largest city, right? Shakira, Gabriel García Márquez and Nina Garcia all hail from here, so there must be something that inspired them.

Well, I’ve spent the last four days walking.. and walking.. probably over 200 blocks altogether, looking for something, anything interesting. Nada. It’s an ugly, sprawling mess of a city. There is no central downtown, it’s slightly dangerous, dirty, the architecture sucks, there are no parks or beaches, in summary there is absolutely no reason to come here other than for Carnaval. The people are friendly, though. They speak a bastard form of Spanish here on the Carribean coast – I’ve tried having conversations with several people but although each of us is ostensibly speaking the same language, we haven’t understood one word each other was saying.

I found the Carnaval Festival office where I got some nice advice from some friendly middle-aged women, one of whom gave me her phone number (unprovoked)! Oddly, they didn’t have a detailed schedule of the events – instead, I found this at the Modern Art Museum (which turns out to be a small gallery of one artist’s work). I also wandered into the famous municipal theatre,which turns out to be the same size and vintage (1980’s) as my college theatre. Funny.

I can’t find a map of the city that I’m allowed to take. To solve this, I took a photograph of the map at the hotel. Point and shoot cameras are of high enough resolution nowadays that when I need to refer to the map, I just turn on my camera and zoom all the way down to the detail I need. It takes a bit of panning around, but works quite well. Pretty neat trick, if I do say so myself.

The 20 square blocks around my hotel looks like one enormous Canal Street, with a bit of Fulton Mall thrown in. You can find parts for that old fan that stopped working in the 70’s, get that broken watch band repaired, shoes resoled, anything. One entire street is solely electrical parts sold by dozens of different vendors. Another street has ancient men in tiny wooden booths sweating over broken TV’s, hundreds of parts strewn around them. Things we would have thrown out long ago and replaced with a new one, they repair here. Then there are the chachka vendors – all the crap that tourists buy, only I don’t know who they’re selling it to, since I’ve seen maybe two other white people in the last five days. Of course you have the usual fruit and fish sellers.. and I’m sure you can imagine the stench in this hot climate.

One interesting thing I stumbled upon was a funeral procession. They passed me in the street and I followed them into the large cemetery. This was fascinating – the entire experience was completely different from funerals in North America and Western Europe. It was messy, chaotic, and overflowing with emotion. None of that staid, restrained formalness we know as funerals. The procession zoomed through the streets with a wave of honking and revving engines, at last pulling up into the cemetery. The motorcycles went straight down these walkways, noisily flying all over the grounds.

The casket was haphazardly carried (at times almost running) on the shoulders of young men with a swarm of grievers vieing for proximity. There was anger as well as grief – occassionally people hit the coffin, striking it with a loud smack. Once in a while, when the weight was too much to bear or the emotions overcame them, the casket would be set down on whatever was nearby (usually a tomb). Women would rush the casket anxious to touch it or in some cases even climbing upon it, kissing it, ultimately opening it and clutching the body one last time, not wanting to let go. They were even yelling at the body. Great outpouring of tears and grief. I’m deducing the deceased was a young man who died suddenly.

Occassionally someone (not on the casket) would freak out in hysterics and a group would form around to comfort and calm her down. All this went on for quite some time. Meanwhile on the periphery some looked bored, others played with their phones or took pictures. People were dressed quite casually, as if they were out for a day at the mall. Jeans and t-shirts, sneakers. A lot of the women did wear black shirts, but they were still quite casual.

After about an hour another funeral came up the path and upstaged the first one – all the fringe people from the first one got distracted by this new development and paid attention to that now. This one was interesting because I think the casket was headed for one of the upper crypts, which required the fetching of a ladder and several young men to hoist themselves up onto the roof of the affair in order to help pull it into place. It’s like they were building a house, with the lack of formality and procession.

continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…

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