Carnivals emerged as a reaction to the fasting period that precedes Lent and as a way for people to have fun, drink, wear costumes, mock the Catholic Church and let go of all the things that they felt oppressed by. The first few written references of this festivity go back to the late 18th century, and based on the testimony of writers and travelers of the period; it was the wealthy families of the island who regularly held fancy dances in their homes while the lower class celebrated in the street. Due to political confrontation, Carnivals were later on prohibited until the year 1945 in which women of the town began to organize secret masked celebrations in attempt to hide their identity, and this practice became so popular that in the year 1980, after general Franco’s death, Tenerife’s Carnival was officially declared a “Celebration of International Tourist Interest” which resulted on a big festivity that made it to the Guinness Book of Records for the large number of people who participated in the gala.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, and as carnival itself started to grow, the different traditions that characterize the Island’s holiday also began to emerge in the form of “cabalgatas,” “rondallas,” “comparsas,” and “murgas” that would gain greater importance to this festivity in later years. The cabalgatas (Spanish for cavalcades) are named after the “caballos” (Spanish for horses) used to transport millions of dozens masks and dozens of people in costumes to the first few Carnival parades celebrated in town announcing the festivities. The cabalgatas usually travel through the main streets in the city of Santa Cruz. In addition, the “Coso” is also typical which is like a second cabalgata only more important. This parade is said to be the most significant display lasting for hours during which all participant group expose their songs, lyrics, garments and creativity to their fullest ability. The rondallas are large bands of street singers and musicians who perform Spanish traditional songs and opera pieces while playing string instruments to accompany their songs. Although during the 1960s they were the classical and true protagonists of Tenerife’s Carnival, they have progressively been overshadowed by the spectacular increase in the number of murgas and comparsas.
The comparsas are colorful dancing bands that unlike the rondallas play wind instruments to accompany their songs. The groups usually include participants of both sexes who frequently wear the same costumes and perform songs resembling those of Brazil and Latin America while adding their own choreographies. They became more common as of the turn of the 19th century. During the 1920s and 1930s the murgas also emerged, and these are satirical singing groups who originally played cardboard instruments and painted their faces to interpret farcical songs characterized by critical and humorous lyrics full of satire and irony related to current happenings in the island as a way to protest and convey the audience the bands’ views on political and social issues. The murgas have evolved considerably, and their participants now wear highly elaborate uniforms. Due to their great success, the female and children versions of these bands have also been created.
The first murga received the name of “Nifú-Nifá,” (Fufa), and it was founded by a group from another murga called “Los Bigotudos.” Because the word “murga” was prohibited at the time just as any other word that had any kind of relationship to the Carnival festivity, this band invented the word “Afilarmónica” by putting the prefix “a-” to the word “filarmónica” (philharmonic) to express that they were exactly the opposite of a philharmonic. However, the true intention behind this new word is found in the first six letters of the expression: “afilar” (Spanish for sharpen), which in other words means that their purpose was to criticize with their songs and lyrics, so the term “Afilarmónica” has become the generic name for murgas nowadays. In addition to these, the “Agrupaciones Musicales” (Spanish for music bands) are also common in Tenerife’s Carnivals. These are typically groups of families; friends or neighbors who wear the same costume with the peculiarity that they are normally inspired in Mexican traditions, and their songs include genres like merengue, bolero and ranchera.
As of the year 1910 contests of rondallas, murgas, comparsas and agrupaciones musicales began, so it wasn’t until that year when a true distinction between the different categories was made. Tenerife’s Carnivals mainly celebrated in the town of Santa Cruz have become the most prestigious carnivals in Europe and the most safe and participative ones in the world. In Santa Cruz people take the streets and everyone joins the crowd wearing a costume. Multitudinous dances are performed with orchestras until dawn as different shows are offered in different points and stages throughout the city. All islanders gather during these festivities, and the celebration usually lasts 27 days in which different important galas take place such as the election of the Carnival Queen, the election of the Drag-Queen, competitions of street bands, processions, parades and the cavalcade, all of which make Tenerife’s Carnival a season of true party and fun not to be missed by both residents and visitors. This year Carnivals started on January 30th and they will last until the 25th of February.
The gala to elect the Carnival’s Queen is a yearly event that represents a main entertainment of Tenerife’s Carnival. During this gala hundreds of journalists are present to broadcast the show and different TV stations compete against each other to capture each minute of the event while transmitting it through national and international TV stations in an array of countries. This gala accounts for the exaltation of beauty of female islanders. During this show candidates show up on a stage of about 4,000 squared feet sponsored by different companies, financial and commercial institutions, recreational organizations, and casinos. The gala is characterized by the majesty of the queen’s dresses, which usually are of great dimensions as they can be over 16 feet high by 13 feet long and weigh over 220 and up to 450 pounds. Queens display these garments with such elegance that often makes people overlook the effort required to actually wear these outfits.
Moreover, every year each municipality organizing Carnival festivities prepares a Carnival poster. This tradition entails the use of colorful proposals usually designed by famous and well-known artists from which the event managers pick the most attractive one. By the same token, the Carnival Song is selected each year as the anthem of the festivities. Finally, the “Entierro de la Sardina” (Spanish for Sardine Funeral) typically celebrated on Ash Wednesday gives closure to the Carnival’s festivities, and this procession is considered the most profane and uninhibited one of all Carnival celebration. The tradition is for people to wear black clothes, go bury and later set on fire a giant sardine made of cardboard, rags and cloths by the Island’s prisoners. The fish symbolizes the Carnival spirit so people go to its burial singing but at the same time crying because the festivity is over. During the parade widows shout desperately because of the dead of the sardine and bullies to the Catholic Church are made by participants who go dress as popes, nuns and bishops blessing people and at many occasions carrying with them objects that hold sexual undertones. The ultimate conclusion, however, takes place over the following weekend during the first Saturday and Sunday of Lent in what is known as the celebration of “Piñata Chica” (Piñata Weekend) with more shows, dances and parades.
Temporary funfairs and amusement parks are also installed during this celebration while the city hall typically disables some parking lots in order to set the Carnival Fair. Young people usually celebrate the festivities by doing a “botellón” (Spanish for big bottle), which is a practice that brings people together mainly to smoke and drink during nighttime. This custom typically takes place at a public area where different groups of people meet while bringing their own liquor and beverages, typically rum, whisky and vodka with ice and sodas to share with friends. This tradition is not exclusive to Carnival’s festivities, but it is without a doubt one of the main events for youngsters, the only difference is that during Carnival they do the botellón wearing costumes, and more people flood the street than at other occasions. The botellón usually lasts between two to four hours but they typically extend until sunrise during the Carnival festivities. The amount of alcohol consumed largely depends on each individual although for most people the idea is to get wasted. Although this custom has been banned in many Spaniard cities it is still allowed in Tenerife and regardless of the many problems associated with it, young people turn to ‘big bottle’ because it is much cheaper to buy drinks at the supermarket than at clubs or drinking holes.
Tenerife’s Carnivals are not only well known in Spain but also worldwide, and although it has been widely said that the island’s celebrations have become the second most famous Carnival in the world after those held in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Tenerife’s Carnival recently received an award as the “Best Carnival in The World” because it’s said to be the most safe and spectacular one out of all celebrated. The recognition was awarded by ‘Fama’ Magazine, which is a Spanish monthly publication edited in New York, which distributes over 1M copies in the States. Despite different public opinion, these two regions are still disputing the first place when it comes to best Carnivals. What it is for sure is that Tenerife’s Carnival is one of the biggest in the world, and that the massive participation of people together with the sophisticated preparation of this festival makes the city of Santa Cruz the most famous one of the Canary archipelago. This already popular destination, with its year-round blast of sun and beautiful beaches is in even greater demand during carnivals, so make sure to make your arrangements well in advance if you’re up for joining the Tenerife’s crowd during the festivities.
Image by: Carnaval de Tenerife