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A short History of carnival with a touch of Africa

CarnivalIt is a common assumption that carnival traditions were brought to colonies in the New World by Europeans. It is partly true of course, but the inspiration flowed even stronger from another part of the world. When looking at today’s street carnivals it is quite clear that ancient African traditions have had a very strong influence. The history of the carnival can be viewed from different angles, but one thing is sure: it is a result of a cross-cultural exchange that started centuries ago.

CarnivalOne track back in time will lead us to the countries in southern Europe, which have had masquerades and processions as part of their catholic traditions since Middle Ages. The carnival was connected to religious events, but the church and rulers had their trouble controlling the masqueraders from acting immoral (read: “they shouldn’t have too much fun”). In a period of time it was even strictly forbidden to wear masks at the carnival in Venice. Still today many carnivals are held in February, which traditionally is the time of Lent (the word “carnival” means the equivalent of “goodbye to meat”). The carnivals in Venice, some parts of Germany and Holland are still celebrated in the European style.

African dance and drums at the CarnivalMost summer carnivals however seems to have other roots even further back in time and from another continent. Listen to the rhythms; view the colourful the street parades, the masks and feathers – this can all be traced back to ancient African festivals, of which many are still being celebrated. Similar ideas seem to have evolved in different parts in the world: an event that breaks the daily life with music and costumes. Like in Europe, the festivities originated from religious events, celebrations of harvest or in honour of spirits and ancestors. Where European masks often were meant hide a person’s identity, the African masks have another purpose: to represent and bring alive some kind of spirit.

CarnivalThere are many more differences and equalities between the African and European mask/costume celebrations, but South America and the Caribbean are the places where traditions finally met and merged to some degree. Descendants of slaves kept the African traditions alive to keep in touch with their roots. Europeans brought their religious festivities and masquerades and added the common label “carnival”. Some places like the Bahamas actually use their local name “Junkanoo” which surely has more of an African ring to it. The world map of the greatest carnivals quite clearly points out where the catholic Europeans settled and met with slaves from Africa: Brazil, Barbados and Trinidad for instance. Another example is the Mardi Gras in Louisiana (USA) where French settlers also met with people of African descent.

The carnival certainly comes from a mix of cultures and still develops like this. It is a way to get in touch with our roots and a chance to get in touch with each other.

© Text and photos: Jacob Crawfurd (May 2004). This article has been published in:
Coloured Pictures Magazine, issue 02-07, 2004
Africa Positive, issue 14, 2004
Mano Vision, Issue 33, 2004
Photos has also been published in Djembe Magazine no. 44, 2003


SambaThe pictures on this page are from the Copenhagen Carnival, which was revived in the 90’s with a new and ambitious profile. The big parades, the children carnival and various concerts and dance competition are the high points of the free annual carnival, which surely has Afro-Caribbean roots. The Copenhagen carnival has also become the best world music festival in the country. See pictures from the 2007 carnival in Copenhagen. Many other cities in Europe are having carnivals during the summer, the largest probably being the Notting Hill Carnival in London taking place in August.


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