Tag Archives: music

Carnavales part 1: pueblo preambling

It would be impossible to condense the endless stories and embody the full excitement of Carnavales in a simple blog post, but here are a few vignettes to try!

Carnaval showcases the culture and colors of the Colombian coast.

Background of Carnaval  Barranquilla’s Carnaval is the world’s second-largest carnival, and the most traditional. The annual four-day festival showcases the Colombian coast’s rich blend of European, African and indigenous cultures through traditional costumes, folk dances and music. The event displays the history and culture of the coast, as well, including the Carnaval king and queen, various characters based on local history and local music.

If you live on the coast, however, Carnaval began long before March–in my town, it seemed that people were in a rush to get Christmas over with so they could focus on carnavales.

“Navidad is big, but Carnaval is bigger,” they promised me.

 Beginning in January, it seemed that carnaval was suddenly everywhere. You know how stores seem to put out their Valentine’s Day stuff the day after Christmas? I am pretty sure I woke up on December 26 to carnaval music and neon colors everywhere–the carnaval theme seems to be general disorder, so the more colors and textures, the better! Throw in a can of shaving cream and a box of corn starch to cause further mayhem, and you’ve got yourself a fiesta!

Monocuco club! This bunch of amigos invited me to join in the mayhem and taught me all the dance moves.

Soon, carnaval took over a prominent place in every conversation, television commercial (look for me!) and class schedule. We didn’t have class on Friday for almost two months because each week there was an event–a parade, a cultural dance contest or a coronation to attend! Walking down the street, a moto would pass, carrying a teenage girl clutching a plastic bag bursting with tulle and sequins–there goes a reina, a queen! On Friday afternoons, the street music would be pumped up, and groups of kids wearing monocuco outfits would run around town,chasing each other around with shaving cream and lining up for the parades. If you’re a monocuco in a parade, your job is to be as energetic and ridiculous as possible–and to dance serrucho, the song of the year, on repeat (on average, 12 times per parade. At least.) 

Reina and Rey Momo: a monarchy ruled with fiestas and fun

 My school asked me to be the international reina, or queen, which gave me a front row seat to understand the significance of the history, traditions and effort behind carnaval. As a reina, I was expected to learn the traditional dances, pose for endless pictures and most of all, with my rey momo (king), animar el publico, or rouse up the crowd! Thankfully, my rey momo, a chemistry professor at our school, was great at getting the crowd energized and choosing the perfect moments to toss his hat into the crowd or pull a professor onto the dance floor for a quick jig. I just had to blow a few kisses and stumble around in high heels!

I’m writing a separate blog entry about the queenship and its adventures, but suffice it to say that as a reina, I had an in-depth view of my first Carnaval and the work and fun involved.

Each week, the fiestas got more elaborate and my students’ attention spans got shorter. Here in the pueblo, there were events every weekend, and Barranquilla had various parades and parties, too. It was hard to pick and choose, but the mantra was, “there’s always another!”

My school held a foro, or forum, of the traditional dances. I was blown away—the bright colors! The pulsing cumbia drumbeats! The flushed dancers with glowing eyes! The elegant dresses! The flashy makeup!

The creativity! The talent! The culture! 

These middle-schoolers have already mastered the cumbia.

If there’s any takeaway from Carnaval, it is that Colombians are born with dance and music in their blood. I saw first graders moving their hips like I have never done in my 23 years (nor will accomplish in the next 23!) I watched cumbia players fall into intricate rhythms and play their instruments with their whole bodies, swaying and tapping the beat.

 I watched the entire town go into carnaval-mode, with seamstresses, door-to-door souvenir saleswomen, dance instructors and queens coming out of the woodwork. In true small town fashion, there’s a guy for everything: need a shoe fixed? The guy at the corner does that. Need to borrow a headpiece? The lady across the way rents them. Need a seam mended on your sequin bodice? So-and-so’s aunt does that. Need a crash course in dancing? Here’s last year’s dance winner.

Parade after parade, event after event, we danced, serrucho-ed, cheered, photographed and celebrated towards the culmination: Caraval weekend, March 1-4, 2014. The long-anticipated weekend, attracting tourists and professional pickpocketers from around the globe. Suddenly, arepa prices skyrocketed, the streets started filling with tall, Raybans-sporting pale people, and the carnaval music got even louder.

In rickety buses, overcrowded airplanes, air-conditioned shuttles and little taxis, the world converged on Barranquilla with juicy anticipation, ready to gozar the event of the year.

And that brings us to Friday night of Carnaval.

to be continued…



I’m an (unlucky) fisherwoman–and a poet!

Today, I took a break from lesson plans and meandered down to the pier. The 4 pm sun was strong as I stopped by the vegetable store to inquire about avocados (I’m gaining something of a reputation as an avocado eater). Lucky for me, they not only had ripe avocados but also fresh spinach! I think I confuse the vegetable men with my enthusiasm for green things, but they cheerfully bagged my purchases and said, “see you later, my queen!”

I took the quickest route–in front of the catedral–then cut to the back street to avoid the tourist hunters in the main plaza. Today, I just wasn’t in the mood to explain that a) I live here and b) I’m too poor for your chicken dinner this month. On the back street, I heard the waves as I passed behind the restaurant row. Between the plastic tables, I caught a glimpse of the old muelle. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the muelle used to be the longest, busiest pier in South America; today, it’s four stubborn slabs of broken concrete and steel, a shadow of the glorious railroad days and tourists’ pocketbooks that used to come from all over to witness the bustle. Now a days, the old men call it “the four piers of Puerto Colombia,” a sad joke before they take another pull on their frosty Aguila Lights.

I made a beeline for Amelia’s jewelry stand of woven bracelets and shell necklaces that tinkle in the gusty breeze. She’s always here, clenching a needle in her teeth as she threads shells onto fishing wire. I met Amelia a few weeks ago when I decided I was going to introduce myself to all the artisans on the pier so that they’d stop trying to sell me stuff. This afternoon, she lit up when she saw me, laying out a piece of heavy cloth for me to sit on. We tried to exchange New Year’s stories, but the vallenato music at the adjacent restaurant was too loud and she had customers. I left my avocado with her and headed for the muelle.

December is the month of breezes and “cooler” temperatures (around 80-85 degrees), and the strong winds almost blew me over as I walked out over the waves. On the right side, the open sea was choppy and high as it crashed into the cement; on the left side, the leftover wave fragments are still for a moment before recollecting themselves and rushing towards the rocky beach. In this still spot, Ramiro was fishing.

Apparently, Ramiro and I are neighbors, but I didn’t recognize him when I started chatting with him about the wind conditions. He recognized me, though. He started to tell me stories about when the muelle was whole and an island guarded the puerto. He used to work the international ships that came to Puerto Colombia and to the mouth of the Magdalena River–English, Spanish and American liners. Nowadays, he’s pensioned and fishes for fun, although I can’t imagine any exercise in patience to be enjoyable. He laughed when I said I had bad luck for fishing–then handed me the line. “Just for a minute, while I rig the other one!” he promised.

I got into proper fishing position: back to the wind, eyes squinting at the setting sun. Every passerby stopped to look at me, look at the fishing line, and look at the dying fish next to me.

La gringa pescadera! The white girl fisherman!” they murmured.

“His name is ‘Lunch’,” I shrugged back, deciding not to tell anyone that it wasn’t my catch to claim.

I watched the light turn pink on the foaming waves and  Ramiro sang in a sweet baritone voice, a ballad he wrote to the muelle for its 100th birthday. He sang about the view from the island; the tourists who used to come; the storms that broke it and its abandonment by the rest of Colombia.

For some reason, Ramiro decided that I’m a “beautiful artist”, and he talked about the music and the art and the beauty of the death of the muelle. He marveled at my travels and I realized that right here, on this hard piece of history, even those who stay in one place can understand the heart of a gypsy.


And then I went home and wrote a little poem, but it’s kind of in two languages, or Spanglish, or something:

El mar es mi hogar

pero falto las aletas o alas

para escapar de las olas

y me quedo en el muelle

contra el viento con ellas

The waves argue amongst themselves

against the wind

I lack feathers or fins to

fly over or under them

so I stay at the surface,

fighting the wind together with the waves.