“Who lives it, is who enjoys it (Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza).” The slogan of the Carnaval de Barranquilla reflects its vibrant celebration of life. The carnival is the second largest in the world, second only to Rio de Janeiro. In 2003, it was named one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
The carnival stems from a long folk tradition in Colombia; many say it began as a celebration of spring and renewal. It has links with historical festivals such as Diablos Arlequines from Sabanalarga. In truth, its origin is a mix of many components: it comes from a combination of pagan ceremonies, catholic beliefs, and ethnic diversity, and is a mixture of the European, African and Native American traditions, dances and music. Such celebrations have sprung up in some form all over the world. It was at first a holiday for slaves and grew to be a celebration of the region as it combined with traditional indigenous dances and influences from European colonizers.
“Carnival came from Europe,” said Professor Jairo Soto, “The origin is associated with pagan festivities in Rome, Persia, Egypt, Spain and pagan gods, but at the same time, the Carnival marks the end of the winter, and the beginning of spring. When the catholic church reached power, they needed to fuse Carnival (the representation of the flesh and desires), with the church beliefs: most importantly, the beginning of Lent, and finally, Easter Week. Carnival is nothing else but the joining expression of the pagan and the religious.”
“Barranquilla is a happy city, full of optimism and kind people,” said journalist Fernando Vengoechea, one of the driving forces behind the design project TodoMono. “Its real value resides in its people, and the Carnival is the best time of the year to feel the passion of its citizens, almost touchable in all the festivities, costumes and expressions of an intangible heritage, long preserved through words, gestures, dances and traditions.”
“The Carnaval de Barranquilla is a celebration that has been growing with time, both in number of participants and visitors” said Carla Cecilia, Director of the Carnival. In 2003, UNESCO labeled the event as a World Heritage masterpiece. “This mention was very important for both Barranquilla and Colombia. Barranquilleros assumed a great commitment to preserve it, becoming an example of other cultural manifestations in other parts of the country.”
“It’s the maximum expression of our Caribbean being,” said sociologist Aser Vega. “It crystallizes the key values that define us, including our imagination, irreverence, happiness for life. It is a proposal of life over death, especially in a country with such a violent history.”
“This designation by UNESCO was given to the Carnival due to its cultural diversity, clearly seen in its music, dances, crafts, costumes, oral expressions, rituals and food,” said Cecilia. “It is the clear fusion of three cultural lines: Indigenous, European and African, making in it a live testimony of millennial traditions.”
“The Carnival is our identity,” said Linda Isabel Gomez, Cedros neighborhood queen and 2018 aspiring popular queen. “It is our passport to the world. It is our biggest happiness, color and fantasy we have in Barranquilla.”
Preparation in Barranquilla begins weeks before the carnival. Locals take part in events such as the Carnaval de los Niños (Children’s Carnival); the Fiestas de Comparsas, Fiesta de Danzas y Cumbias and Danza del Garabato (dance performances); and the Viernes de la Reina de Reinas (Carnival Queen Contest), where the future carnival queen is selected.
“Becoming a Carnival Queen was a lifelong dream for me,” said 2018 Barranquilla Carnival Queen Valeria Abuchaibe Rosales. “But at the same time, it’s a great responsibility becoming the visible face of one of the most important festivities in the country. It’s the perfect opportunity to discover each corner of our city, to learn to value the work of our artisans and to feel the warmth of our people.”
“The Queen’s Coronation used to take place on the Paseo de Bolivar,” said Economist Ricardo de Leon, economist, local cultural researcher, and member of the ‘Cumbiamba del Carajo’. “As the event grew, the stage became too small. Parallel to Barranquilla’s development, the event became more complex and elaborate, gaining in visual impact, but requiring a stage with special characteristics.”
“The moment of the coronation was simply indescribable,” said Abuchaibe Rosales. “For the first time, the event took place at the Naval School, located on Via 40. It is here where the most important events of our festivities take place. There, with hundreds of locals and visitors, I had the opportunity to share the show ‘Musa: raíz inspiradora’, dedicated to women through dance, art and music”
“When I was 12, I joined for the first time the Carnival Parade for Children, an unforgettable experience,” said Abuchaibe Rosales, an opportunity to feel the warmth of our people toward our celebrations. A year later I tried to become the Children’s Carnival Queen, but it never happened. I kept on trying. I prepared myself, dancing and learning, becoming part of the shows of other Queens, such as the Coronation of Olga Lucía Rodríguez (2004). All these efforts have helped me understand the responsibility I carry today as an Ambassador of this World’s Intangible Heritage.”
Meanwhile, artisans work tirelessly to create the environment that will give rise to Barranquilla’s fantasy world. They build elaborate floats, costumes, and masks created by local artisans. Each mask represents a different dance or piece of mythology. The Danza de los Congos, for example, is one of the most traditional dances of the Barranquilla carnival. It stems from colonial times, when many of the first Africans were brought to South America as slaves. Dancers wear painted wooden masks of tigers, gorillas, donkeys, goats, and most famously, bulls. In the Garabato dance, which stems from Spain, a skull mask representing Death comes face to face with the Carnival Spirit, eventually losing. Other masks, like the monkey masks of the Micos and Micas dance, represent indigenous traditions.
As the carnival day arrives, the city of Barranquilla shuts down to make way for the festivities. Music takes over the streets, and regular workday activities become impossible. “During Carnival you listen to all kinds of music,” said Teheran. “But of course, the predominant rhythms are the traditional drums, Cumbia, Chande, Guaracha and ‘Ritmo de Puya’.”
“When slaves came from Africa,” said Soto, “they brought their own culture, their own gods, their own music, their own traditions, so we ended up having the marriage between the African, the European and the Indigenous.”
The carnival officially begins with the reading of the carnival proclamation – the Barranquilla mayor symbolically gives the key to the city to the queen for as long as the carnival will last. A proclamation is read along with the queen and King Momo – a fat, jolly character who opens the carnival.
The carnival queen was first crowned in 1918. In fact, the queen has rotated between only a few upper class families in Barranquilla. This has drawn some criticism; however, the role of queen requires great financial expense for her costumes and decorations, which limits middle-class women from participating. The queen must also demonstrate her skills and charisma by performing many different dance forms for the public. The queen is chosen by a board of 11 members 6 months before the carnival.
Since Carnival began more than 100 years ago, the queen has been the main character of the event for a century now Mid last century, the Carnival takes the popular accents, along with Caribbean rhythms. The queen is chosen from the upper class families, a way for the wealthy to enjoy Carnival. It is said that a family could spend between 3000-5000 million pesos ($180,000US) for the trousseau of a girl that wants to pursue becoming queen of the Carnival. “The Queen’s family needs to finance all the dresses for all occasion,” said Ricardo de Leon. “Of course, this includes the trips; a permanent folkloric music group, with at least seven members; a team, including make up artist, press for all daily activities she is involved with, since she is officially crowned.”
“But we should remember that the Carnival also has space for the popular queens,” said Ricardo de Leon. “Each neighborhood chooses their own queen, known of “Reina del Barrio”, among which the “Reina de Reinas” is finally selected. The winner will also parade on a float during the Batalla de Flores parade, together with her royal princesses.
“Being a neighborhood queen was a marvelous experience,” said Gomez. “It was not me who experienced the event, but me as a representation of my neighbors and supporters. The fact that I was chosen provided a sense of pride, being able to have all the requisites needed. With every neighborhood I visited, my awareness raised, feeling people’s empathy and love.”
Next comes the Queen’s Coronation: a nighttime event before the parade. The previous queen crowns the current queen. “Just for coronation night, it is possible that the queen may spend $10,000,” said Ricardo de Leon. “This includes a $1,000 crown, a $7,000 coronation dress, several additional outfits. She is an essential element in all the different choreographies that take place this special night.”
As soon as she takes her throne, the city sleeps and awaits the next morning: one of the most famous events of the carnival, the Battle of the Flowers (Batalla de las Flores). The parade is led by the new carnival queen, who throws flowers into the crowd. This vivid celebration of life lasts nearly the entire day. An endless procession of people streams through the city streets, dancing and performing. The diligent work of the artisans is finally put on full display. The result is an almost otherworldly explosion of color, as troupes of costumed characters seem to compete for the most outlandish outfit. Musicians and dancers entertain the crowd, and once the parade ends, the party continues late into the night.
The next day is the Great Parade, focused on the diverse art of Colombian dance. The region is famous for its dance, characterized by a wide-ranging array of cultural backgrounds. Dancers compete for the Golden Congo prize. Dancers emerge to perform in their painted wood animal masks, reflecting centuries of tradition. Audiences also witness masterful displays of Cumbia: a dance representing the triple cultural mix of the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe.
I can still remember how I felt photographing the Carnival, surrounded by hundreds of people sharing the most passionate joy I have ever seen. For someone like me who has spent years documenting dance and folklore, being able to capture this living history was quite emotional.
“The Carnival could be summarized by the word ‘color’,” said Fernando Vengoechea, one of the driving forces behind Todomono, along with Johnny Insignares . “It is not a single expression, or a feeling. It is many things at once, always characterized by a wide range of colors and different tones. It all depends on the person, on how deeply he wants to experience the event. It is as black and white as death; green as the cayman that travels every year to Barranquilla; and red like the polleras, the dresses worn to dance Cumbia, present on every corner during the celebration.”
The Carnival has evolved with time. “I remember going to the Paseo Bolivar when I was 15 years old,” said Tomas Teheran, percussionist from a group called ‘Las Alegres Ambulancias’. “I have been connected to music since I can remember. Everyone in my family are drummers or singers.
There are multiple parallel events in Barranquilla during Carnival. “Noche de Tambo happens at Plaza de la Paz, in front of the Maria Reina Cathedral,” said Ricardo de Leon.
“There is a new event taking place every night called ‘Baila la Calle’,” said de Leon. “It is a recreation of the Carnivals from the 60s and 70s, along K50 or the “Callejon de la Aduana’. There is a wide variety of music and celebration ambiances and gastronomy offerings, both traditional and modern. It ends with all kinds of performances on a big stage.
“I have always been linked to the Carnival,” said Carla Cecilia. “ I remember many carnivals surrounded by my family, with my siblings, the comparsas, the capitanias, and specially, when I began advising the creation of the floats for the Battle of Flowers. I do love the work done by our artisans, their technique, and all the labor that goes into this moving giants.”
It is important to mention “La Noche del Rio”, in the square of the Parque Cultural del Caribe, along Via 40- n open event that started 12 years ago, with several interruptions over the years. “The nature of the event is to bring all the traditions from all the riverside villages, that sailed down the river Magdalena to finally reach Barranquilla,” said Ricardo de Leon, “in order to join the Carnival celebrations. Here you find ‘bailes cantados’ (singing dances), ‘ritmo del pajarito’ (bird’s rythm), ‘ritmo de tambora’, bullerengue.” This year’s honoree was Majin Diaz, a Colombian musician and composer who recently died in November 2017. He was best known for being the uncredited writer of “Rosa, que linda eres”. At the 18th Annual Latin Grammy Awards, Díaz won the Latin Grammy Award for Best Recording Package; El Orisha de la Rosa had also been nominated for Best Folk Album, but lost out to Natalia Lafourcade.
The end of the carnival is marked by the symbolic burial and mourning of Joselito Carnaval, based on the myth of a former city coach driver who drank himself to death on his day of rest. After this last celebration is over, the inhabitants of Barranquilla can finally enjoy some much-needed rest. They have just completed one of the most famous expressions of celebration in the world. The Carnaval de Barranquilla is more than simply a huge party; it is a complex and labor-intensive reflection of a long history of art and culture in the Colombian region.
“The Carnival is a way of life for the ‘Barranquilleros’,” said Cecilia. “ We are lively like the Carnival. People from this area are kind, passionate, with great sense of humor and pride of our city. Carnival means tradition, sharing, celebrating, creating. We eagerly wait for this event, even more than Christmas.”
It represents a mixture of African, Indigenous, and Spanish traditions: poignant expressions of human emotion. Barranquilla will clean up the feathers and sequins from its streets and return to normal life, only to rise again – more exuberant than ever – in the coming year. As I write this final lines, I am already coordinating our return next year.
“When the Carnival comes to an end, we experience real sadness,” said Teheran. “This event is about enjoying life to the fullest, but only lasts four days. We need to wait a full year to live it again, so when it ends, considering its mere four days, resonates real sadness among everyone.”
“At the end of this year’s Carnival I experienced great satisfaction” said Gomez. “We have a wonderful queen that made us vibrate and feel our culture. And of course, nostalgia. Any real Barranquillero would love to experience Carnival every single day of the year.”
As I conclude these lines, I am already brainstorming ideas to share my love for Barranquilla and its Carnival with the world, and of course, return to produce further work.