Every foreigner in Buenos Aires has been there: turning a street corner and stumbling upon some sort of al fresco activity, getting caught up in crowd spirit with no clue as to what’s going on. These hidden gems and endless free events might be what made us fall in love with Buenos Aires in the first place. But we’ve been here for a while now, we want to appear a bit more argentinizado, and we want people to stop asking us if this is the first time we’ve tried mate… so for those who want to appear more in the know, here’s all you need to know about Argentina’s pre-Lent previa, aka Carnaval, and what to do this year.
Get hyped: Flores’ Murga, Los Mismos de Siempre, performing a couple of years ago.
Why celebrate it in the first place?
In a country that holds Customs Officials Day and Travel Agents Day as legitimate cause for celebration (August 20 and April 27, in case you were wondering), it almost feels in bad taste to ask Argentines to provide an actual reason for celebrating something. But if you insist…
Ahem… Carnaval seems to be a remnant celebration that has roots in pagan Rome, when people across the empire used to celebrate Bacchus by drinking and letting their hair down a bit. The tradition evolved into a collective pre-Lent booze fest throughout Europe by the time the Portuguese and Spanish settled the new world. One possible source of the name Carnaval could be the Italian term “carne levare” which translates to “removing meat,” in reference to the 40 day period leading up to Easter when the Catholic Church made everyone give up meat.
Throwing a big party before you are forced to go weeks without meat has a certain logic in the beef capital of the world come to think of it.
In more recent history…
Carnaval Monday and Tuesday were declared public holidays in 1956. This was then abolished during the military dictatorship in 1976. Luckily Cristina Kirchner decided to reinstate it as a 2-day feriado back in 2010. So essentially, the history goes: not-really-carnaval-as-we-know-it, carnaval, no carnaval, carnaval again – thanks CFK.
Context is cool, but how do I get in on the action?
The key ingredient to any Argentina carnaval is singing, dancing, loud outfits and louder chanting, but they vary from place to place…
The Rio de Janeiro of the Argentine festival is Gualeguaychú, the most important festival in the country which kicks off its weekend celebrations in January and don’t stop the party till March. It’s so important in fact that it calls itself “the Carnaval of the Country,” and takes place in one long catwalk essentially, in the city’s Corsódromo.
For tickets and general information for the Gualeguaychú Carnaval, click here.
Tilcara, in the province of Jujuy, hosts their own decadent festival. This is one is pretty cool, combining the traditions of the conquistadores with local indigenous culture, in true Andean style. As such, they pay tribute to the Pachamama (or Mother Earth) and carry out a ritual symbolically digging up the devil and burying him again a week later. I also thought I’d include this particular Carnaval for an excuse to mention this advert again…
More information here.
The city of Corrientes calls itself the National Capital of Carnaval, as well as the cuna – meaning cradle – of Carnaval. Its corsódromo has a capacity of 30 thousand people. It’s not a far cry from those well known Brazilian carnavals, and it showcases many a jewel-studded, sequined and feathered outfit.
More information here.
The Buenos Aires counterpart is much less sequins and body glitter, and more drums and spray foam. There’s still plenty to do though, in the form of neighborhood street parties organized in the many barrios across the city. One of the largest is The Lovers of La Boca. If you see people around with top hats and suits, it’s a tradition dating back to indentured servants and slave workers dressing up to mock their “masters.”
For more information on the different carnivals around the city of Buenos Aires, and indeed the rest of the country, click here.
And finally, the carnaval lingo:
There are some words that crop up in any talk of carnaval, and it’s no easy feat telling your murgas from your corsas, so we’ll help you out:
- Murgas – technically a form of Uruguayan musical performance theater, but the Argentine version is more dance than song focused apparently. Anyway, the word is most commonly used to refer to the band of percussionists and people dancing the murga.
- Comparsas – again the group of people who are singing, dancing and tapping away on musical instruments during carnaval, usually followed by floats or carriages.
- Batucadas – a sub-genre of samba, an Afro-Brazilian dance and percussion style.
- Corso –this is the event, or procession itself, and used synonymously with the word carnaval.
- Bombo con platillo – a kind of drum with a cymbal, which Spanish immigrants brought over to Argentina.
- Rey Momo – traditionally the King of Carnavals in Latin America. It’s more of a thing in Brazil and Colombia, but you may see him crop up in Papier Mache or puppet form this carnaval.