In a normal year, this page would feature a listing of parades and other happenings that mark the coming of Lent around the world. Carnival is celebrated in so many places, with such a variety of entertainments, that any such selection is bound to be incomplete. While the rapid development of effective vaccines is a cause for optimism, 2021 is hardly a normal year, and public events are not the agenda.
Those unfamiliar with The Tradition might argue, that in light of the suffering, death, and financial collapse linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, quibbling about the absence of drunken street parties seems crass. This point of view, however, overlooks the fact that Carnival is itself an engine of economic activity; cancellation of the annual bacchanal has compounded the anxiety brought on by the virus itself. And of course, in any crisis, cherished customs provide a much-needed sense of continuity. So it is with sadness and resolve we offer this glimpse at the state of play around The Planet.
As the Carnival season kicked of in early 2020, the respiratory ailment that would soon ravage the world had already been identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The Communist Party leadership used its full authority to impose a lockdown, forcing nearly 12 million residents to stay home for months. Even this could not keep the disease from spreading. By February 1st, a case was confirmed in The Philippines. Two weeks later, the first infection was recorded in France. However, it was Italy that would rapidly become the European epicenter of the outbreak.
Events associated with Venice’s Carnevale started on the 8th of February were scheduled to conclude on the 25th. By Sunday the 23rd, the World Health Organization had tallied 78,810 infections and 2,462 deaths globally. Italy’s total cases were 152, with 3 fatalities. Luca Zaia, President of the Veneto region announced “From this evening, we plan to stop Carnival and all sporting activities”.
Initially applied to individual communities in the north of Italy, restrictions were expanded to encompass the entire peninsula. Bars and restaurants were closed, museums were shuttered and musical performances prohibited. With the support of The Vatican, religious ceremonies were suspended; except for a few essential industries, workers were sent home. Citizens who ventured out for food or medicine were required to maintain a “social distance” of two meters.
Similar mandates were soon adopted throughout Europe and other continents. Combined with the wearing of facial coverings, such measures undoubtedly saved lives and slowed the spread of the disease. In response to changing conditions, musicians and other performing artists used digital technologies to share their gifts.
In the home of Antonio Vivaldi and Pietro Longhi, of Barbara Strozzi and Andrea Palladio, one might have expected that the virtual sphere would have been employed in the service of creativity. Demonstrations of mask making, commedia dell’arte plays, and the Flight of The Angel in Piazza San Marco can be safely shown online.
This seems not to have occurred to Venice’s arbiters of culture. While other cities reluctantly cancelled their festivities for 2021, as late as November 28th the Carnevale Di Venezia website still promoted plans for business as usual. On the 5th of January, the official Twitter account admitted that “The program and modalities of the 2021 edition are being defined on the basis of the Covid-19 health emergency”. A follow-up tweet on the 21st announced a Carnival that would be “Traditional, Emotional, Digital”. Various streaming events were promised for children, teens and “seniors”, although details were still vague at the time of publication.
In the United States, the first death attributed to the virus was announced on February 26th. Given the patchwork nature of healthcare in the country, and the depraved indifference of Donald Trump’s administration, carnage spread quickly until the USA led the world in deaths and infections. Initially, the New York/New Jersey area was hit particularly hard. With three major airports and the nation’s largest city, this was not surprising. Yet when cases started to rise in The Big Easy, armchair epidemiologists were quick to blame New Orleans’ hedonistic heritage – an interpretation that fused revisionist history and rank hypocrisy.
Louisiana’s first Covid-19 case was detected on the 9th of March – nearly two weeks after Mardi Gras. The first fatality in the entire nation occurred in Seattle, almost 2000 miles from Bourbon Street. Yet national media castigated Governor John Bel Edwards and Mayor LaToya Cantrell for not having proactively cancelled Carnival.
As in years past, the festivities attracted visitors from all over the world. Once there, they mingled with locals, crowding the streets and bars, singing, shouting, making love. Such activities no doubt hastened the spread of the disease. In April, the Centers for Disease Control concluded as much. At the same time, their report also admitted that no guidance to cancel large gatherings had been issued, anywhere in the country, until the 12th of March.
The imposition of social distancing protocols was a bitter pill for a city so proud of its entertainment and hospitality sectors. Nevertheless locals, for the most part, adapted well to the new reality. Innovative venues and performers used technology to keep the rhythm beating in the hearts of harried residents. By the middle of May, new cases had fallen dramatically in New Orleans, even as they surged across southern and western states.
On November 17th, The Mayor’s Office announced that ongoing safety concerns would not be conducive to Carnival parades in 2021. The statement proclaimed that “Mardi Gras is more than just king cakes and beads. It is a religious holiday, a season of traditions that we celebrate every year, a time that the community comes together in formal, fun and unexpected ways.”
Even before Cantrell’s decision, New Orleanians were exploring the possibilities inherent in those “unexpected ways”. Krewes, those social organizations at the heart of the celebration, frequently host charity events or balls during the festive season. In recent decades, parades have proven their primary raison d’etre. Yet on November 6th, Sebastian Boegershausen, the captain of Krewe du Vieux said that in light of the pandemic, “it would be irresponsible” to hold their regular procession through the Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods. Rather, the group’s energy would be directed toward constructing art installations. The organizing theme “Krewe du Vieux Has No Taste!” – is a morbid pun on a common Covid symptom, and KdV’s penchant for pushing Carnival satire to the limit.
Compared to old-line krewes like Zulu or Rex, Krewe du Vieux, which formed in the 1980s, is a relative newcomer. Yet 2021 has seen the emergence of a new concept in Mardi Gras mirth – one that makes them seem almost conventional. In other years, residents leave their homes to watch dazzling and elaborate Mardi Gras floats roll through the streets. The same day the parade moratorium was announced, Megan Boudreaux launched a Facebook page designed to invert that equation. In a little over a week, The Krewe of House Floats had attracted over 5000 followers.
The idea was that the people of the Crescent City would decorate their dwellings, allowing their neighbors to enjoy a dose of Carnival color while walking or driving by in safety. City Hall approved, and digital maps were planned. Visual delight was the immediate impetus, but the new krewe (with more than 30 subkrewes in districts across the city) has also had a positive economic impact, providing work for the designers and fabricators who would otherwise been busy with more mobile creations.
Boudreaux, affectionately know as “Admiral B.” is not a professional in the bacchanal biz; she works as an insurance claims adjustor. The enthusiastic embrace of her idea demonstrates just how deeply cherished Mardi Gras is along the Gulf Coast. “We’re all just regular people, with regular jobs. We’ll figure it out somehow!”
PORT OF SPAIN
Like New Orleans, Trinidad & Tobago attracts revelers from all over. Yet in 2020, Ash Wednesday came and went, and the Twin Island Republic did not experience an explosion of infections anywhere near the levels reported elsewhere. World Health Organization guidelines were adopted and largely respected by the populace. By early May, an Oxford University survey listed T&T as the country best prepared to begin loosening lockdown restrictions.
Toward the end of June, Culture Minister Nyan Gadsby-Dolly announced that given “the current trajectory” Carnival 2021 was still in the works. However, she added that expectations must be tempered by the global situation: “The form of it – local, regional, international – is dependent on factors we cannot yet determine”. One proposal being vetted was a bacchanal that barred visitors from abroad.
However, by the end of summer, pandemic fatigue and community spread had taken their toll. On September 28th, Prime Minister Keith Rowley declared that it would be “madness” to hold public celebrations, saying “A Carnival, which is the perfect environment for spreading the virus, is not something we can countenance”. Dr. Rowley acknowledged this decision would cause financial hardship, but insisted the health of citizens was more important. “We can’t hope to gain on that swing” he said “and die on the merry-go-round”.
The country’s rich Carnival culture has expressed itself in various ways over the years. Bands of masqueraders stepping out are one manifestation, the busy cycle of pre-Lenten fetes is another. Most people understood that, under the circumstances, such physical events would need to be curtailed. But they also anticipated that their beloved musical heritage would help soothe the savagery of the pandemic.
For over a century, calypso and soca artists have released new tunes in December and January, in pursuit of cash prizes and bragging rights. Aficionados eagerly await the crop of new recordings, and the merits of each song are subject to fierce yet friendly debate. Throughout late 2020 and the start of 2021, singers and instrumentalists kept the vibes going. Naila Blackman and Lyrikal, Nadia Batson and Machel Montano, Farmer Nappy, Bunji Garlin and many others stepped up. Kerwin DuBois and Destra collaborated to offer the listening public an aural “Stress Reliever” while the legendary Patrice Roberts assured an anxious nation that “Better Days” were on the horizon.
Such artistry was undermined, to a certain degree, by bureaucracy. On December 29th, Winston Peters, chairman of the National Carnival Commission announced they would not be planning any virtual events, and derided the very notion of an online Carnival as “an oxymoron”. An umbrella agency responsible for planning and funding many events, the NCC has significant influence. Yet other organizations stepped into the breach.
Even before Peters’ proclamation, plans were in place for a virtual competition devoted to chutney soca, a genre incorporating Indo-Caribbean musical influences. On December 31st, The Trinbago Unified Calypso Organisation (TUCO) reiterated their commitment to a cyber presence in 2021.
In recent decades, the International Soca Monarch competition has emerged as Port of Spain’s most high-profile event. The NCC’s lack of support cast some doubt on its viability. But on January 18th, a re-imagined contest was announced for February 12th, a/k/a Fantastic Friday. The 2-hour televised event will be known simply as The Monarch. Despite the name change, artistes from other nations are still welcome to compete, provided they are present in T&T. It remains to be seen how that will be reconciled with the strict border controls necessitated by the pandemic.
On January 20th, the NCC’s Peters told Trinidad & Tobago Newsday that “There is no Carnival 2021, so the NCC won’t recognize any winner for any event”. Such pettiness is stunning, but paradoxically serves to remind us that The Tradition is bigger than any one entity. In the words of TUCO president Lutalo Masimba, who performs as Brother Resistance:
“Whether the NCC have or don’t have, that cool, that is their business. But it had Carnival before it had the NCC anyway, so that is not we problem. So I’m saying for Music, we are going to continue to make the music, and continue to present the music to the world.”
RIO DE JANEIRO
As Covid-19 spread from China to Europe and then to North America, there were relatively few reported cases in sub-Saharan Africa. This led some to speculate that hot climates might not be hospitable to the virus, and that the rate of infection may slow with the coming of spring.
Alas, such hopes proved to be wishful thinking. The first case in Rio de Janeiro was confirmed on March 6th. By the end of the month, the disease was present in every Brazilian state. Soon, only India and the USA surpassed the Federative Republic in total cases. Mass graves could be seen being dug outside Sao Paulo and other large cities.
Attempts to mitigate the crisis were hampered by the attitude of Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing politician who won the 2018 presidential election. Bolsonaro styled himself as a “tropical Trump” and his administration has proven to be at least as heartless as that in the White House. At one point, he argued that Brazilians possessed a natural immunity to infectious diseases. Even after he himself tested positive in July, the president’s rhetoric minimized the threat and sabotaged an effective responses.
Since the 1930s, the hillside favelas overlooking Rio have been celebrated as fonts of Afro-Brazilian culture and identity. The massive samba parades that are so emblematic of Carnival are energized by the participation of residents from these often impoverished communities. Yet governmental authorities have vacillated between neglect and brutality in their dealings with the favelas.
Escolas de samba – or “samba schools” – provide a sense of social cohesion and economic opportunity. It was therefore quite significant that in late September, the Independent League of Samba Schools, or LIESA, announced that in the absence of mass vaccinations, the parades would be postponed indefinitely. “We are looking for an alternative solution” said Jorge Castanheira, the president of LIESA, “something we can do when it’s safe to contribute to the city. But we are not certain enough to set a date”.
In the absence of parades, the escolas maintained a commitment to their members and neighbors. In other years, the vast headquarter of Unidos de Padre Miguel, in the Vila Vintem favela, would be abuzz with artisans sewing costumes, with marchers practicing their choreography or rehearsing their theme song. In 2020, vice president Wille Barocho, who is also a physician, helped transform the space. Rather than glitter and feathers, they produced medical gowns and masks for public hospitals. Coronavirus testing was available, and food kits were distributed to those in need.
“Carnival is important for the economy, for our happiness, for our regional culture. But more important is health and life” Dr. Barocho said, when speaking to a BBC reporter. “Everyone wants to go out. Yes, that is part of being from Rio, part of our people, our country. But we’re going to hold on a little longer”.
The resourcefulness and adaptability of samba schools in Rio, krewes in New Orleans and musicians in Port of Spain show that The Tradition is integral to those cities. The poor planning and tardy response by Venice’s authorities can be attributed to many factors, including the forces of history.
The Carnival in Venice is ironically one of the world’s oldest celebrations, and one of the newest. References to Il Carnevale date back to the late middle Ages, when the city was the center of a powerful independent republic. In 1797, forces under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Venice and banned the celebration. After Waterloo, the city passed under Austrian control before absorbed into a newly unified Italy. Yet public observances of Carnival would not be revived until 1979.
Demographic and economic changes mean most Venetians have moved out of the historic lagoon and now live in modern suburbs on the mainland. A city increasingly focused on tourism was ill-prepared to preserve the cultural needs of those living in areas where foreigners rarely venture. It is to be hoped that after 2021, community associations will take a more grassroots approach, fostering a decentralized Carnival that welcomes visitors but does not depend on them.
In any event, the city’s ancient patrimony provides us with a welcome perspective. Long before anybody ever heard of a coronavirus, Venice was repeatedly ravaged by the Black Death, or bubonic plague. Two of the most beautiful churches – Il Redentore and Santa Maria della Salute — were built to give thanks for deliverance from those epidemics. The “Plague Doctor” costume so often seen at masked balls, is based on the garb – an early form of PPE – worn by physicians as they treated victims of the pestilence.
The appropriation and reclamation of such macabre imagery says much about the nature of celebration in Venice and around the world. Carnival is so much more than a debauch where we forget our stress and escape from sorrow. It is a perennial act of defiance, a determination to laugh, to be joyful in the midst of pain.