Carnival in Brazil and the Caribbean

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Carnival in Brazil and the Caribbean

The term Carnival refers generally to a wide range of festivities that are held in Europe and the Americas in the days before the Catholic observance of Lent. The festivities are a time when the normal restraints of society are abandoned and the hierarchy of social class is reversed or subverted. In the Americas the regions that received large numbers of African slaves developed some of the most famous and colorful Carnival celebrations that exist today. In those places Carnival, although it follows the Catholic calendar and has many strong roots in European traditions, has been shaped by the infusion of African traditions that slaves and their descendents brought to them. The music, instruments, themes, styles of singing and dance, traditions of masking, and many other discrete cultural elements show a link to an African past. The naming of kings and queens, which has a counterpart in European traditions, can be linked in the Americas to a practice from the time of slavery when communities of Africans named their own leaders, expressing a hierarchy in their own community that built on memories of different types of African social organization. These black kings and queens could be found throughout the Americas, from the Argentine and Uruguayan Candombe to the "Negro Election

Days" in the United States. In the twentieth century, many of these kings and queens came to be translated into Carnival figures that take to the streets in the upside-down world of Carnival.

Brazil has one of the most famous Carnival traditions in the world. Most people think of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival when they talk about this celebration in Brazil, but there are many different expressions of Carnival in Brazil, each with its own local character. In every case, however, Carnival has been shaped by the traditions of Africans and their descendents. In Rio de Janeiro, many different threads came together in the late nineteenth century to give birth to the music and dance of samba and the batucadas (percussion orchestras), dances, and parades that make the current Rio de Janeiro Carnival famous. The signature music and dance of the current-day Carnival celebration, samba, had its roots in the lundu, a popular dance of the African population. The dance was known for its "breaking" of the body and circular movements of the hips, done to a polyrhythmic music, which directly linked lundu to its Afro-Brazilian predecessors such as the batuque. The dance became popular among many Brazilians of European descent, especially during the European pre-Lenten festivities called entrudos in the nineteenth century, when people would go out for several days and throw colored powders and water balloons at each other.

In the late nineteenth century the lundu evolved into a new dance craze, the maxixe, which soon swept throughout Brazil. At first the maxixe was danced in dance halls, but it soon emerged on to the streets when, during the 1880s, groups of blacks brought their cucumbys to the streets during the pre-Lenten celebration. The cucumbys, also known as congos and congadas in different regions of Brazil, were expressions that emerged from lay religious brotherhoods of blacks and that included the procession of kings and queens accompanied by ambassadors, who dressed as different "nations" of Africans and Indians. Processions of the cucumbys were most often associated with the Day of Kings (the feast day of the Epiphany), January 6, when many of the black lay religious brotherhoods held their feast-day celebrations. They emerged in the pre-Lenten Carnival in the same year as the abolition of slavery, in 1888, probably to celebrate that victory. Soon the cucumbys, who had paraded with drums and various hand-percussion instruments, were mixing their movements with the maxixe, which led to the formation of the modern samba. In the 1930s, in large part because of a populist mayor, the descendents of Africans who lived in the shantytowns around Rio de Janeiro started their own "samba schools," and the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro as we know it was born.

Salvador, Bahia, has a reputation for a Carnival that emphasizes Afro-Brazilian themes. Like Rio de Janeiro, Carnival in nineteenth-century Salvador was marked by the entrudo, which was characterized by play and practical jokes. In the late 1880s, again corresponding with the abolition of slavery and in an attempt to get the unruly entrudo off the streets, the elite of Bahia started to sponsor Carnival clubs that celebrated the European past of Bahia. In response, descendents of Africans started to sponsor their own clubs that honored a noble African past, including African kings and their entourages. The first club to start was the Embaixada Africana (African Embassy) in 1895, which in its first year crowned King Babá-Anin and Ajahy, figures reminiscent of West African kings. The club paraded to the rhythm of African instruments, the atabaque and the agôgô. In 1898 the same club chose an Ethiopian king, whom they crowned in front of the Church of the Rosary, a nod to the lay religious brotherhoods that had for centuries crowned their black kings and queens. The Embaixada Africana was only one of many African clubs, which had names such as the African Merrymakers and the Sons of Africa.

Black Kings and Queens in the Americas

The presence of black kings and queens in almost every Euro-American colony highlights the important role that concepts of kingship and hierarchy played in Africans' understanding of the world. African leaders, whether chiefs of small polities or kings of large states, held important ritual positions that mediated several levels of social, spiritual, and political relationships. When Africans were brought to the Americas, they reconstructed these social structures as best they could in the narrow nooks and crevices that the slave structure left open. In some cases the kings and queens may have been part of, or been descended from, royal families in Africa. In other cases they may have been elected, or chosen, by a particular community. When communities lasted longer than a generation, some black kings and queens in the Americas inherited their titles from relatives. All of these variations represented the reconstruction of African social structures in the Americas.

The two most common settings in which black kings and queens appeared in the Americas were in black social organizations and runaway slave communities. The social organizations took various forms. Whether in the black confraternities of Brazil and Spanish America, the cabildos of Cuba, or the "Negro Election Days" and Pinkster Festivals of British North America, records exist of black leaderskings, queens, governors, and chiefspresiding over black festivities. In many cases, however, their influence went beyond simply being "king for a day." The authorities in seventeenth century Mexico City closely associated the coronation of black kings and queens in confraternities with slave uprisings, and quickly moved to ban those organizations. In Brazil, where authorities saw confraternities as a form of social control, kings and queens would often be in their positions for life and would pass on their scepter and crown to a chosen successor. Sometimes these successions could be fraught with political intrigue and eventual recourse to the authorities. In small towns in the Brazilian backlands authorities would complain of the assumed power of the black kings and queenssome of whom were still slaves. The positions of kings and queens were so important throughout the Americas that they still survive, not only in the ubiquitous Carnival celebrations but also in confraternities of blacks and communities descended from them. As in the past, these kings and queens today are often much more than just "festive" royalty, they hold their positions for life and are respected and influential in their communities.

Slaves and free blacks that participated in these enclave communities found a way to interact with the dominant society, which constantly placed them at the bottom of the social structure. Many slaves, however, chose to flee intolerable conditions by running away and forming communities with fellow runaways. These communities, called quilombos and mocambos in Brazil, maroon communities in the Caribbean and the Guianas, and palenques in much of Spanish America also named leaders who often took the titles of kings, queens. Some of the most famous leaders have gone down in history as mythic heroes in the fight against slavery, such as Zumbi of the Quilombo dos Palmares in Brazil, and Nanny, the leader of the Windward Maroons of Jamaica. Although many maroon societies were destroyed or eventually assimilated into the modern nations in which they were located, examples of the hierarchical systems in these runaway communities still exist in a few places, such as among the Bush Negro groups in Suriname which still have their own tribal chiefs and village leaders.

Around 1905 began a period of repression of the African clubs, which threatened the new concept of order and progress of the Brazilian First Republic. In 1949 there emerged a new type of Afro-Bahian Carnival group, afoxés, which used in their songs a secular version of the music of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. In 1975, as a result of the growing black consciousness movement, blacks in Bahia started the blocos afros, the first of which called themselves Ilê-Aiyê, or "House of Life" in Yoruba. Like their predecessors almost a century earlier, blocos afros became

places to honor and teach about the African past, as well as to serve as a forum for criticizing racial inequality in Brazil.

Cuba has one of the strongest African cultural complexes of the Caribbean, and traditionally its Carnival celebrations have expressed those influences. In Santiago de Cuba, as elsewhere on the island, present-day Carnival traditions are based on the cabildos, mutual aid societies that were similar to the black lay religious brotherhoods of Brazil. In Cuba, the African cabildos tended to divide by "nations," each of which would choose its own royalty. Although they had long celebrated privately, after 1823 cabildos were given permission to parade publicly on the Day of Kings, January 6, and at that celebration each of the cabildos crowned its king and queen. The cabildos also participated in the Carnival celebrations and inspired the other major types of Carnival groups in Santiago, the congas, comparsas, and paseos, all of which continue to play important roles in Santiago's Carnival. Until the 1920s there were two Carnival celebrations in Santiago, a pre-Lenten Carnival held in exclusive clubs and a Carnival held on the feast day of St. James on July 25. The summer Carnival was held by the workers to celebrate the end of the sugar harvest. In the 1920s the pre-Lenten festival ended in Santiago, leaving only the summer celebration. After the revolution, Fidel Castro officially changed the date of Carnival to July 26, near to the date of the already existing Carnival in Santiago, to commemorate the attack on the Moncada barracks that started the revolution. Even with the sponsorship and control of the state, the cabildos and their royalty still play a role in the Carnival of Santiago, most notably the Cabildo Carabalí Isuama and the Cabildo Carabalí Olugo, both of which trace their origin from the Igbo region of Nigeria. Afro-Haitian groups, such as the Tumba Francesa and Tajona, whose members are descendents of nineteenth-century Haitian immigrants to Cuba, also continue to participate in Carnival in Santiago with their kings and queens and their distinctive style of music and dance.

Trinidad, despite the British and Protestant influence on the island, boasts one of the most energetic Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean. More than any other place in the Caribbean, Trinidad has been the site of a riotous mixture of cultures and influences. Nonetheless, as elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, its Carnival has been highly influenced by the African branch of its history. The traditions of masking (to "play mas'"), canboulay (canne brûlée, burning cane), and calinda (stick fighting) all emerge from strong African roots. Masking in Trinidad's Carnival descends in part from West African traditions of masking and masquerading, as do the stilt dancers. The canboulay tradition, which is the central aspect of the Trinidadian Carnival, reenacts the times when slaves were called to put out burning cane fields, and probably dates from before the abolition of slavery. Shortly after emancipation, which came on August 1, 1838, the whites stopped participating in Carnival altogether until the beginning of the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century canboulay bands, which also divided by African "nation," would each have their own kings, queens, and princes. By the 1880s Carnival centered on the predawn activities of the Monday before Lent, called J'Ouvay, when canboulay bands would gather, sing call-and-response songs, and engage in the calinda. Despite inevitable changes of the twentieth century, including the invention of the steel drum and the development of music such as soco, the traditions of masking, J'Ouvay, canboulay, and calinda remain central to the Trinidadian festival.

See also Festivals, U.S.; Samba


Bettelheim, Judith, ed. Cuban Festivals: A Century of Afro-Cuban Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2001.

Butler, Kim D. Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolition São Paulo and Salvador. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Chasteen, John Charles. "The Prehistory of Samba: Carnival Dancing in Rio de Janeiro, 18401917." Journal of Latin American Studies 28 (1996): 2947.

Liverpool, Hollis Urban. "Origins of Rituals and Customs in the Trinidad Carnival: African or European?" TDR: The Drama Review 42 (1998): 2438.

Mauldin, Barbara, ed. ¡Carnival! Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.

Riggio, Milla C. "Resistance and Identity: Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago." TDR: The Drama Review 42 (1998): 624.

elizabeth kiddy (2005)