In the Caribbean tradition, folklore, religious rituals and pagan celebrations are genuine public festivals. Local residents lavish great attention on their carnivals. Most of the carnivals in the Caribbean begin in the first week of January and run through the day before Ash Wednesday.Their purpose is symbolic. These popular celebrations commemorate the birth of Jesus and also welcome the new year with jubilation and traditional drinks, dances and foods. Today, the term carnival has a clear Christian reference that comes from the days previous to the Lent season when meat (carne, in Spanish) could be eaten. Thus the term carnival basically means “the festival of meat.” People of all ages dress up in costumes, dance to traditional beats and highlight the ethnic aspects of their region. Typically, almost everyone who participates in the festival takes on an exaggerated appearance. Differences among the population and culture are brought out. Masks and colorful outfits are worn and, in some cases, very little clothing at all. The parade forms in front of the musical groups, which are usually neighborhood groups, and passes through the public plaza. The parade typically takes place in front of the town or city’s main church.
In the ancient past, the carnival made reference to the celebration of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Today, the tradition’s roots lie in Christian beliefs. Despite that, it is associated with licentiousness and grotesque behavior, but that is a biased interpretation because — according to historians — what happens is that the lower classes invert the hierarchy. The cultural elite is ridiculed through exaggerated dress and wild dances.
In various historical settings, the humor, parody and satire of the carnival undermine the legitimacy and supremacy of the culture established by the church, the nobility or the bourgeoisie. Of course everything returns to “normal” after Lent. Thus the carnivals are like a safety valve to relieve the pressure of popular discontent.
A similar thing occurs in the Caribbean as in the rest of the world, except that it is the African heritage and tradition that have sustained the carnival tradition. Two kinds of carnivals can be seen in the Dominican Republic: that which takes place prior to Lent, which is celebrated throughout the country and is most associated with national festivals; and the carnivals of escaped slaves, which are common and famous where there were African slaves during the Spanish colonial era.
Among the Caribbean islands, the most famous carnival is undoubtedly that of Trinidad and Tobago. The cultural mix of Africans, Asians, Hindus and the colonial culture has made it one of the most visited carnivals in the Caribbean. It is comparable with Brazil’s carnival. The preparations for the five-day celebration basically last all year long.
In general, the Caribbean festivals pay homage to the African component that is part of the basis of the Caribbean culture. Emblematic songs are written and are rehearsed throughout the year, and humor and satire on social issues are written specifically for the occasion. And everywhere that carnivals are held, there is traditional music, such as the mambo, chachacha, cumbia, salsa, calypso, soca, and others.
Author: Dalila Rodríguez
Published: March 01, 2012.
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