Carnival: breaking down social barriers

Bright colours and Andalusian wit abound in the flamboyant theatre shows.
Bright colours and Andalusian wit abound in the flamboyant theatre shows. / SUR
  • Franco frowned upon events that blatantly mingled religion with the purely secular, and carnivals were banned altogether

The prominent travel writer, Richard Ford, once questioned how the people of Andalusia managed to 'keep themselves', as every day seemed to be a holiday.

His first impressions of nineteenth century Andalucía epitomise the thoughts of many people who visit it today. It would appear that at whatever time of the year one visits the region, one is certain to encounter a festival or celebration of some kind.

Carnival is the first major festival of the year and its timing is closely tied to religious festivals, as are most fiestas in Spain. Traditionally celebrated in the week before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, carnival was an opportunity to let off steam before the prohibitions of Easter.

The most popular is the carnival in Cadiz, a lavish extravaganza renowned for its outrageous costumes, colorful, and sometimes provocative, parades, and humorous tableaux. Its origins date back to the sixteenth century when Cadiz was one of Spain's major trading ports. Historians claim that the carnival in Cadiz was inspired by the grand carnival of Venice.

However, carnival is not just confined to Cadiz, because just about every city and town will celebrate with grand parades, theatre shows and plenty of Andalusian wit.

The city of Seville dedicates February to carnival and their celebrations carry all of the glamour and splendor expected from such a vibrant city.

Malaga's carnival is thought to have evolved from a sixteenth century custom; the clergy of the cathedral would dress the wittiest boy of the choir in the attire of a bishop. He would then perform a parody of religious ceremonies in front of hundreds of locals disguised with Venetian style masks.

This event was shortlived due to the uproar it caused and it was not until the eighteenth century when this popular festivity was recovered for the working classes.

Carnival has been essential in breaking down social barriers and providing escape from repression. People could let loose and dress up in any way they wished, and they used their songs as a unique opportunity to lampoon the ruling classes.

This tradition of criticising and poking fun at the government, the church, or anyone currently in the news even continued throughout the Franco era.

However, Franco frowned upon events that he considered blatantly mingled religion with the purely secular, and carnivals were banned altogether. Most Spanish towns and cities followed the ruling, but the 'Gaditanos', being famously independently minded, continued clandestinely.

In 1948, Franco allowed groups to sing in the streets, albeit under strict control, but he prohibited the use of the word carnival.

In 1950, Cadiz launched the 'Fiestas Típicas Gaditanas', which was a watered-down carnival celebrated in the summer. The street musicians could not be as blatant with their ridiculing songs, although their lyrics had hidden meanings in order to escape the censors.

The carnival, which was not restored to its full anarchic glory until 1978, is a fiesta of the people and an opportunity to let go of all inhibitions. Participating in the carnival celebrations, as with the feria, can make one feel the dramatic break with social order.

The parades are gaudy and ostentatious, with huge models of anything from Disney characters to phallic symbols, and basically, anything goes.

Electing the carnival queen is usually a huge event, although maybe not as popular as the drag queen competition. The drag queens are traditionally outrageous in appearance and their parades are spectacular. Some arrive on elaborately garlanded floats, others in outfits so extravagant one wonders how they manage to manoeuvre them.

In Malaga the famous ´boquerón' receives a ceremonial burial.

In Malaga the famous ´boquerón' receives a ceremonial burial. / E. NIETO

People arrive from all over Spain and beyond to enjoy the noisy, colorful, festive atmosphere as well as the strange customs. One such custom is the 'Entierro de la Sardina', the burial of the sardine, usually celebrated at the end of carnival. The burial consists of a parade that parodies a funeral procession and culminates with the burning of a large inflatable sardine. The burning of the effigy represents a purging of the vices and a restoration of order.

One of the top attractions is the groups of amateur musicians famed for their elaborate costumes, witty lyrics and catchy tunes. There are also the more serious groups who are in search of prizes and recognition in the official competitions. The most derisive are the 'chirigotas' who will scathingly attack anyone from royalty to television personalities. 'Murgas', meanwhile, are groups of singers whose songs are based on the current social and political events. They are most often accompanied by nothing more than a kazoo.

The 'coros' alternate between serious and light-hearted and appear in theatres or in the streets and 'comparsas' are the more serious singers, known for the solemn content of their songs. Finally, the 'cuartetos' are all about pure, unadulterated humour.

The groups' performances are often legendary, although most foreigners fail to appreciate the fast wit of the Andalusian.

Keeping up to date with the Spanish news is one way of understanding the topical jokes, but if not, one can always just enjoy the razzmatazz of it all.

'Like a pig in a puddle' is an Andalusian saying meaning to feel really well where one is, and this sums up the attitude of carnival.