3 February 2010

What does Shakira and the Biggest Carnival in Colombia have in common? Barranquilla, land of music

Colombia is a land of music and musicians.... hurmm....wait a second... while I was writing that phrase I was at the same time wondering why do we Colombians consider ourselves to be so categorically more "musical" than other countries.  Do I really have the right to say that? I don’t think I'm exaggerating but still, I  can’t put my finger on what is exactly what make us such a  music loving country... maybe is the mixture of cultures that helped  building Colombia, the Afro influence in both coasts, the fact that we even divide the country in four musical zones or maybe is just the caribbean weather that makes us like this, but the fact is that we live and breathe music and I'm not only talking about the famous Salsa or the Vallenato, music and dancing seems to be part of our everyday life here. Anyway, ramblings aside, this time I want to tell you about aspecific area of our country that vibrates with music all year long and specially during February: Barranquilla and its Carnival. 

Just to put things in context, Barranquilla is a port at the North Coast of Colombia, a city with a little more than a million people and fourth in size after Bogota, Medellin, and Cali. For many years, especially during the 18th Century,  Barranquilla was a very important trading port and therefore, as most big harbors around the world, lots of those traders - many of them Arabs - decided to settle down there. 

As a matter of fact I think you may have heard about a certain Colombian musician of Arab origin from Barranquilla, her name is Isabel Mebarak Ripoll but some also call her Shakira.  Yep, Barranquilla is Shakira's hometown and I would guess that growing in such a culture filled place was a great influence on her music, I remember when Shakira was beginning her career in the early nineties.. the first time I listened to her I thought there was something very special to that somehow weird voice tone.  Actually,  I think I'm one of the few people that still owns her original first LP "Magia" (and now is hand signed  by her too!) when she was still a brunette 14 year old teenager.  With her talent and business sense she's not only a worldwide recognized singer but a multimillionaire who has placed Colombia back in to the map as a multicultural and joyful place where hips don't lie and also told everyone that "in Barranquilla se baila asi"!  (By the way, yesterday was Shakira's Birthday : Happy Birthday Shaki if you're reading this!)  

But above all, as I was saying at the beginning, Barranquilla is where the biggest Carnival in Colombia is held. Due to its amazing cultural display, El Carnaval de Barranquilla was proclaimed  by UNESCO, in November 2003, as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and some say that it is second in size to Rio's, so let’s see what the hype is all about.

El Carnaval de Barranquilla is the best example of our triple cultural fusion (European, African, and Indian) in which the Catholic festivities brought by the Spaniards from the Europe blended with aboriginal ceremonies and the musical heritage of African slaves to become a spectacular folk festivity.

Although there are four main Carnival days  (from February 13th to 16th in 2010),  you can feel the ambiance changing  weeks prior to it,  when the caribbean rhythm of carnival music fills the air in advance of the anticipated celebration. 

The Carnival of Barranquilla begins four days before Ash Wednesday and reaches its climax the following week during the Batalla de las Flores (battle of the flowers), where the gaiety and color of the Colombians come face to face in a unique battle of color, flowers, beauty, and peace.

But, the  "pre- carnival" officially starts with an opening ceremony in which the mayor gives the key of the city to the queen of the carnival on behalf of the people of Barranquilla and from there every weekend from mid January to the beginning of carnival they have the right to celebrate on the streets as they please. I would never end if I start describing the dozens of pre-carnival parties, so I'll just mention one of the main preliminary parades that starts two days before, early in the evening and is called La Guacherna.  "Guacherna" is slang for “Rumba", "Fiesta"  or "Big mess" in English. As all the other pre-parties aside from the "official" carnival, La Guacherna is free to the public and consists on one big dancing, drinking street party with a high concentration of people of all ages...

The enjoyment of the Barranquilla Carnival is not just from the parade but the action in the stands and the merriment around town. The mood is festive and friendly. Parade spectators will share their drinks and food. Canned white foam is the toy of choice for the playful spraying of your neighbors.  It would not be unusual for late arrivals to walk up into the stands and be covered in white foam by the time they find a seat.

As I said before, the main festivities begin with La Batalla de las Flores (The Battle of the Flowers) which is the  central and most important event. The battle is an impressive parade of carrozas (floats), led by the recently elected queen of the carnival and followed by traditional dance groups, cumbiambas and comparsas. Since 1991 the Carnival has taken place on Vía 40 (or 40th Street), unifying the previously disjointed celebrations in an effort to celebrate it in one public place. In parallel, other live acts like the Rey Momo (Carnival King) parade run on calles 17 and 44.

On sunday, the parade continues on  Vía 40, but this time the traditional Grand Parade  (El Desfile de la Gran Parada) takes over the main street, there you'll have the chance to see and hear exclusively to traditional folk bands and dancers, an amazing mixture of afro and local vibes represented by the sound of cumbias, guachernas, mapales, and others.The two most characteristic dances of this parade are:
  • Cumbia, a rythm that's  afusion of indian, black and white elements simulating a couple courting were the woman dances subtly moving her hips to the rythm of the tambora (drum) and flauta de millo (a typical kind of flute)
  • Garabato, which symbolizes man's victory over death
On Monday, we have the Fantasy Parade and the Festival de Orquestas , both start at 4 pm, but is in the Festival were you'll be able to dance all night long until  7am on Tuesday. During this enormous party, you'll see the best bands in many different categories such as traditional folk music, salsa and  vallenato. The winners in each category are awarded the Congo de Oro, which is one of the most sought after music awards in Colombia.  

As a closing ceremony and as a symbol of the end of the festivities, Joselito Carnaval is burried on tuesday night. Joselito Carnaval symbolizes joyfulness and festiveness, and dies after four days of intense partying. His body is cried upon and he is symbolically buried by the merry widows who shared his days of festiveness, his funeral is a symbolic farewell “to the flesh”.

There is no single Joselito, anyone can tour the streets with a figure of Joselito, or even a friend or relative dressed as him. This is a frequent custom practiced by people of all ages, creeds, races, and sexes as a final indulgement before the start of Lent. Thus, Joselito’s funeral marks the end of the feasts of the Dios Momo.
Next morning, the whole city rests and get ready for Ash wednesday which is the first day of Lent, a time of repentance before eastern. Very good timing to, uh?

And that's it,  I hope I was able to express the beauty  of what has been described as  “a thousand theater pieces in just one stage”  the most genuine expression of the Colombian people and a blend of colors, races, legends, parties, and musical rhythms…, but as I always say don't just take my word for it ,  go and check that fact for yourself!

Some Tips:
  • You can book a full tour through a local travel agency; make sure it includes a 3 day ticket for the galleries. If you want to enjoy the full carnival you must save at least 5 days of your itinerary. Flying from Bogotá you'll pay around US$800 including entrances.  A good hotel would be around US$50 per person/pr night. You can also Rent a 3 bed flat for about US$150 pn.
  • You can't buy tickets directly from the Carnival, you must get them through www.tuboleta.com but they only take local credit cards....bare with us, we are changing!

Marcela - Colombia Travel

**All pictures on this post have been taken from various internet sources. Credits to Sandra Tobon, Lucas Barranquila, URVEOK, Alfredo Cantello.


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  2. Hola Jony and thank you very much for your comment. I loved your Voki, I want to get one myself!

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  4. Gracias por tu comentario!

    Un abrazo