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African Roots Enliven the Party

In French Guiana, the touloulous enter the dancehall in head-to-toe African motif gowns, their faces, hands and heads covered. They pick their male partners who can’t refuse their requests.

In Ecuador even though they have been banned, “diabilitos” (little devils) throw water, flour and eggs on unsuspecting victims.

In Vevcani, Macedonia, the village becomes a live theater as costumed street actors perform plays lampooning the elite.

Carnival, the annual rite of letting your alter ego out of the cage, has many faces, customs and costumes. Rio’s gaudy explosion of samba and sensuality is Carnival’s most familiar image. Visitors will pay $471 a night for a tourist seat in the Sambodrome this March and watch samba clubs that have corporate sponsors.

New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is less orchestrated but the hangover from it’s three day jazzy street party can last a lifetime.

Carnival is debauched delirium in some places but it can also be as sophisticated and subtle as the chatter at a United Nations cocktail party. There are hundreds of celebrations unfolding this February and March in Europe, South and North America and the Caribbean that remain untainted by big business, government control and out of control crowds.

Carnival is both a historical link and a current barometer of a country’s changing tastes in music and mores. There is a movement in some countries to tame the event especially in Peru where Carnival has turned deadly with violent street games. Conversely in Mexico, a child-friendly carnival in Mazatlan includes ballet and poetry competitions for conservatively clothed children.

Carnival’s common thread is reverie, an historical release from Catholicism’s wraps. It marks the days before Lent on the Christian calendar, a time to consume food and drink before the fasting and prayerful limitations of Easter. Carnival parades and masquerading were first recorded in medieval Italy and for centuries Venice was the Rio of its era. From Italy, carnival spread to Catholic Spain, Portugal, and France but with colonization of the Caribbean and Latin America, the celebration spread and got interesting.

Afro-Creole influences in the Caribbean and in Brazil infused carnival with the music, dance and vibrant costumes that made it the global spectacle it has become today. Samba, Rio’s driving force, has its roots in Angola. In the Quimbundo language “semba” has several meanings that include a navel bump that leads to an invitation to dance. The religious practices of the West African slaves in Brazil were intertwined with music and dance but they had to camouflage their religion as dance parties to keep their Catholic overseers at bay. By the 20th century samba’s drum-infused beat emerged as Brazil’s musical link to the past and the present.

Condoms And Straws Please

The African influence is no more poignant than in French Guiana on Brazil’s northern border in South America. This year the party started Jan. 8 and runs through March 9. Its parades feature a dazzling assortment of costumes and characters impossible to completely categorize. Ornate layered dresses and Venetian masks parade down the streets of the capital, Cayenne, along with soot-coated slaves in loincloths. The Les Nèg’marrons are men dressed in red loincloths who stuff ripe tomatoes in their mouths and smear their bodies with grease or molasses. It’s a genuine smear campaign as spectators along the parade route are soiled. The uprising reflects the underpinnings of the country’s history of slave and anarchist revolts. The parades also include the soussouris, a character dressed in a black winged leotard that will chase spectators and try to bite them.

Less malevolent but no less on the prowl are the Touloulous who are the stars at the weekend masked balls. Their costumes are designed to mask their identity, their skin color and their beauty or lack thereof. Touloulous enter the dance hall for free and are given condoms to help prevent social diseases from spreading in the towns. Men pay admittance, are not in disguise and can’t refuse a touloulous when asked to dance. Carnival is a time for a woman of any status and beauty to have power. If an undisguised woman gets up to dance, the orchestra stops playing. Alcohol is served and Touloulous pick up men whispering “touloulou thirsty.” She drinks through a straw so her identity is not compromised.

In recent carnivals men have tried to regain the upper hand by organizing soirees tololo where the men wear disguises and try to woo out-of-costume women. The effect just isn’t the same and carnival remains the Touloulous chance to be on top.

Mexican Fireworks Offshore/Onshore

In 1864, the French caravel’s battled with Mexican brigantines; their canons belching smoke and fire off the coast of Mazatlan. The Mexicans won and those explosions still reverberate at Mazatlan’s carnival. A mock naval battle is staged offshore during the five day celebration and the fireworks display offshore, punctuates a celebration driven by music. Along the malecon in downtown Mazatlan, a historical zone fast becoming Mexico’s Havana, a half dozen stages are set up and groups from all over Latin America play into the night and next morning. For $2 you pass through the chain link fence and are transported into musical worlds you never knew existed. Tropicale, nortena, banda, ska and tambora music floats over the ocean and milling crowds. Ad hoc mariachis work the throng, whose occupants are dancing in the street listening to the music. Musicians bring their young children on stage and they can already blow and drum as well as their talented parents.

Olas Atlas, the seven mile seaside road in the city’s mid-section has fallen out of favor and has none of the high-rise condos in the more chic Zona Dorado section to the north. But during Carnival the downtrodden 1950s era hotels and ocean view restaurants come to life with the smells of mango shrimp, smoked marlin and barbequed dorado. Visiting gringos and locals share tables and watch the fireworks together.   The parades draw thousands but don’t have the amazing floats of Rio and New Orleans and are throwbacks to the 1950s and simpler times. The 10-deep crowds throw confetti at the floats after the city fathers banned the throwing of rocks and sea shells. The parade seems anti-climactic after the musical explosion along the malecon.

The Quema de Mal or burning of the bad celebration is probably Mazatlan carnival’s most rebellious moment. An effigy of the most unpopular politician is hung then burned, but perhaps the most liberating day comes on the Monday leading up to the grand finale. It’s declared Day of the Oppressed Husbands and those happily or unhappily married have the right to do whatever they wish for the next 23 ½ hours.

If they know what’s good for them, they just head to the malecon to enjoy the music, the balmy ocean air and revel in Mazatlan’s old school Carnival. If they don’t, well……