If there’s one party to top them all, it’s definitely Carnival. The public celebration brings the custom of thousands of people gathering on the streets for what feels like endless days of boozing, dancing, and singing. Where drink, mask, and costume is plenty, regardless of place, name, or shape, Carnival is an event that interrupts the mundanity of daily life by its full embodiment of music and fantasy.
Derived from Latin, the word “carnival” means “farewell to meat” (“carne vale”) and is part of the Catholic tradition that marks the time before Lent. Carnival is celebrated in the month of February across parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and South America. A Catholic tradition brought to the colonies by the Spanish, French, and Portuguese since the 1500s, Carnival has become increasingly fused with the traditions practiced by African slaves and their descendants. Many of the rhythms and colorful costumes, masks, and feathers in a Rio Carnival can be traced to African festivals celebrated once upon a time, and even in some places today.
Ayiba traced the Carnival-esque roots in the Caribbean and South America, where its most African influence is most visible.
Originating from European religious events in celebrations of harvest, Carnival street parades were traditionally a way to honor the spirits or ancestors. In his essay on the origins of Dominican Carnival, anthropologist Lynne Guitar argues that it was the custom of many places in Africa for people to walk around the village, singing, dancing, and wearing carefully crafted masks and colorful costumes in purpose of bringing good luck. These parades were meant to scare away the spirits of angry dead relatives, thus it’s no surprise that symbols of death are common in many Carnival street-parades today.
Masks and feathers
If there’s one aspect of Carnival recognizable worldwide, it’s the use of masks and feathers. In Europe, masks are used to hide a person’s identity whereas in the African tradition, masks take on an entirely different meaning: to bring to life some spirit. The colorful feathers used to decorate masks in major carnival regions of Brazil, Peru, and Trinidad and Tobago can be traced to some practices in Igbo, Yoruba, Fon, Ewe, Kongo, and Bantu traditions. Feathers and other natural objects were believed to lend certain spiritual strengths to the wearer. Perhaps this explains the vibrant, hypnotic energy of Caribbean and South American carnivals in comparison to celebrations in the rest of the world.
Music and dance
Enslaved masses, many from West African regions, brought with them to the Americas a variety of musical instruments, dance rhythms, and singing styles that gave birth to today’s Carnival sounds. The batuque, for example, a rhythmic percussion sound essential to the music and dance of samba, is taken from Candomble, a religion practiced by many Afro-descendants in the region of Bahia, Brazil. The religion is infused with Yoruba traditions dating back to slavery. In the past, practitioners danced in the streets to the sound of music, a crystallized moment of release from everyday oppression.
For decades Candomble and its form of music and dancing was deemed “primitive” and banned by ruling upper-class, white elites in Brazil. Regardless of laws, many defied the ban and continued with their celebrations during the Carnival period. By the 1970s, Carnival groups from Bahia known as Blocos Afros, African groups, took on these forms of dance as a symbol against racism and oppression, thus restoring a sense of African heritage much inspired by the Black Pride movement in the US, independence movements in Africa, and reggae music.