It could be said that the events we now refer to as Mardi Gras, Carnival, Junkanoo and Carnaval are truly an amalgamation of spiritual and religious traditions, rhythms, dance and costuming traditions … cultures. West Africans from Senegal to Angola were brought to the Americas on French, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish slave ships, their traditions hidden in shoes, pockets and hems, encapsulated in seeds of memory. Colonialists in the New World brought with them European pre-lenten traditions of masked balls and elegant society gatherings, which were known only to the privileged classes. Referred to as “carnival,” meaning literally the “removal of meat,” it is the festive, decadent party period that leads up to the beginning of Lent (quite ironically), after which there are no parties, and the consumption of meat and rich foods such as dairy, fats and sugar is avoided. These carnival traditions date back to pre-Christian ceremonies such as the ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Bacchanalia, which can be traced to the Greek Dionysian and Oriental festivals, which were patterned after the traditional Egyptian pageants honoring Osiris. But the carnival of the New World wouldn’t become what it is today until these European traditions were transformed in the 19th century by West African traditions. Farmers, warriors, princes, princesses and musicians, enslaved people from West Africa brought to the New World, struggling to carry remnants of their culture on their person, in their memory. Traditions music, dance and costuming, and a resolve to keep it all alive, and to own a scrap, a square foot of happiness in the face of their oppression. Is it no wonder that the drum circles, the street processions, the chants, the dances survived, thrived? It was an un-stopable current running through the streets, eventually sweeping up even the jealous scrutiny of their captors, becoming something else, no longer entirely theirs, yet still a vehicle for the celebration of life in the midst of dismal circumstances.
Over the next weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, we'll be presenting specials from a number of locations throughout the tropics where one finds "carnival" traditions.