Exuberance, joie de vivre, insistent rhythms, colourful processions, magnificent costumes, dancers and drummers - it‘s hard to think of anywhere in Europe that Carnival is celebrated as whole-heartedly as it is on the Canary Islands. It‘s an experience not to be missed.
If, some time in March, in the Canaries, you should encounter a group of
gentlemen strutting through the streets to the accompaniment of loud drumming and fiery salsa rhythms, in high heels and dressed up as nuns or nurses, sporting suspenders and designer stubble, then it might be a boisterous LGBT contingent having got the Gay Pride March date wrong, but more likely it means that it is Carnival time in the Canaries!
Dressing up as women
Quite why Canarian menfolk enjoy dressing up as women so much would make an interesting subject for further study, but one thing‘s for sure: its not just fancy dress in general, but men cross-dressing in particular, that has always been a big part of Carnival. This has been a permanent thorn in the side of religious and political leaders alike. For example, in the archives of Santa Cruz de Tenerife we find an edict from the 18th century banning costume which “changes gender“, but to no avail. The inhabitants of the Canaries also remained unimpressed by the ban on masks that was imposed, first by their Bourbon rulers, and later by the arch-Catholic dictator Franco, who wanted to completely eradicate all such heathen traditions. But the Canarians continued to give their Latin American spirit free rein, with magnificent costumes, lots of imagination and a strong sense of the absurd. So the power of authority found its limits, as it still does, when confronted with the irresistible urge to overstep the mark just once a year without being punished for it.
Extravagant and imaginative
With its extravagant zest, imaginative and elaborate costumes, and a mixture of hot salsa and samba rhythms, Andalusian flamenco and African music, Carnival on the Canaries sometimes rivals its famous counterpart in Rio de Janeiro. And that’s not just coincidence – in the 19th century many Canarians were forced to emigrate to seek their fortunes in Central and South America. Considerable numbers of them did indeed prosper there and returned to the Canaries, bringing with them the Carnival customs they had learnt in countries such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador, Cuba and Venezuela.
A family affair
Preparing for a 'fun' event like the Carnival can be a serious business. For many Canarians it‘s one of the most important family traditions, going back generations. Throughout the year, groups of drummers practise loudly, keeping their neighbours up to date with their progress. Preparing the costumes takes months. The most intricate of these can weigh tens of kilos and cost thousands of euros. This would of course be way beyond the means of the average Canarian family, if it wasn‘t for the occasional sponsorship by large companies.
Parades, contests and more
Carnival time on the Canaries is not tied to the calendar. Instead, different carnival dates are arranged by each town,
making sure they don‘t clash. The carnival in Arrecife, for example, finishes on Ash Wednesday, but in other towns
you can still continue to enjoy magnificent parades, Carnival Queen contests, music, dancing, high spirits and now and then a pretty decent firework display. Organising this requires a degree of
co-ordination and planning one could only dream of in other sectors of the islands‘ public services. And as each community has something characteristic to celebrate, the result is as pleasant as it is practical.
Burying the sardine
One of the high points of Carnival is the traditional event which marks its end – Entierro de la Sardina (“burying the sardine“). This is a custom which is thought to go back around 200 years. Legend has it that the then King Carlos III had organised a spectacular feast for Ash Wednesday. Because it was so close to the beginning of Lent and meat is not an appropriate symbol of abstinence, King Carlos instead ordered a shipment of tonnes of sardines. Unfortunately, the entire consignment turned out to be rotten. Whether due to the heat or an unreliable supplier, nobody knows. It was quickly decided that the foul-smelling cargo had to be buried. Despite the spoilt feast no one was annoyed, this was Carnival time after all! And the sardine burial was such a source of amusement that it was decided to include it in the Carnival the following year. Only this time with a single, symbolic sardine.
Along with all the music and dancing and colourful costumes, there‘s no shortage of biting criticism of the powers that be, society and the various irritations of everyday life. The “murgas“ singing groups, together with the “comparsas“ dance groups, are mainly responsible for such satire.
He who laughs last ...
The Canarians are not averse to having a laugh at their fellow citizens. Tourists, with their sometimes peculiar habits, are also fair game. For example, the way some of us walk about in only shorts and a vest or even bare-chested, and happily go to restaurants dressed like that. No Canarian would even consider doing this but, at least during Carnival, he can see its funny side. A popular costume used
by the locals to take the mickey out of their sun-seeking visitors, especially on La Palma, involves fake tan, camera ever ready on bare belly, and those sensible sandals worn with white ankle socks. Confronted with this, the best advice for victims of such mockery is to join in, laughing at something we should be able to see the funny side of any time of the year – ourselves.
Devil masks and buried sardines – a short guide to Carnival
> “Las murgas“ is the name for the singing groups which entertain the people taking part in and watching the Carnival processions with their rhythmic music. Together with the “comparsas“, the dance groups, they provide satire on and a critical view of politics, society, and the adversities of everyday life.
> The devil masks of Teguise (Los Diabletes de Teguise) are an important feature of Carnival on Lanzarote. The modern costume consists of a white jacket and trousers, with red and black diamonds with spots painted in the middle painted. The masks represent black bull‘s heads with horns and a long red tongue. The outfit also includes a stick with a leather bag filled with sand (used for hitting people!), and leather straps with bells on them to announce their approach. The devil‘s mask tradition is especially popular with children, who can roam the alleys in disguise, frightening people and getting away with it.
> Electing a Carnival Queen and a Queen of the Children is accompanied by Latin-American music and culminate in the “Coso“ parade. The magnificent costumes and intricate make-up often requires hours of preparation.
> “Burying the sardine“(Entierro de la Sardina) signals the official end of Carnival. In a mock-tragic procession, it is taken to its final place of rest by “grieving widows“, burnt, and bid a last farewell with a grand fireworks display.
2011 dates for Carnival on Lanzarote:
Carnival in Arrecife 7 - 9 March (Ash Wednesday, end of Carnival in Arrecife).
Carnival in Puerto del Carmen: 10 - 12 March, procession 12 March;
Carnival in Haría: 18 - 20 March, procession 19 March;
Carnival in Tinajo and Teguise: 25 - 27 March, processions: both on 26 March;
Carnival in Yaiza: 17 - 20 March, procession 19 March.