Spectator or Participator? The Choice is Yours!

Fiesta… fête… jam session…street party… however you’d like to describe it, Carnival is an annual festival that is celebrated throughout the Caribbean islands that promises to deliver sparkle and pizazz, with lots of vibrant colorful costumes, rhythms and beats that captivate your body and give you a liberating sense of uninhibited fun.But as lively and exuberant as Carnival is, it also is a key tradition that arose from the region’s colorful history that is deeply entrenched in the people and culture of these islands.

Typically taking place in the days prior to Ash Wednesday, Carnival dates back to the 19th century when people celebrated the end of the plantation’s harvest and a “last hurrah” of sorts before the period of Lenten quietude. But upon closer observation, Carnival has always carried a far deeper meaning. While the European plantation owners celebrated with their masquerade balls, the slaves were allowed to celebrate in their own way as well.  They took to the streets covering themselves in molasses to portray the “blackest”, “most African” version of themselves. Playing the forbidden African drums and chanting and gyrating with the purpose of scandalizing the gentlemen and ladies of society, Carnival became a means of disrupting the colonial status quo. It was the slaves’ moment to celebrate their African heritage, and in so doing, resist their cultural suppression and oppression.

Fast forward to 200 years later, this festival of disruption has transformed into a celebration of the African culture and how it has so seamlessly blended with the other cultures throughout the Caribbean despite its painful past. It is a testimony to the harmonious diversity of these islands and the way in which we have all converged into a single, unique culture that is “the Caribbean”.Curaçao is no stranger to this phenomenon. Carnival, (or Karnaval as the locals would call it), has emerged as the most important festivals on the island. This annual event displays a vibrant and creative cross-section of the many different nationalities here on the island.  

The Curaçao Tourist Board plays an active role in promoting Karnaval on an international level. It highlights the aspects of this local festival and what makes Curaçao Karnaval so unique.  I sat down to chat with Jacqueline Held, Regional Manager at the Curaçao Tourist Board. She quite rightfully noted, “As the parade has progressed [through the years], it has become more inclusive, catering to all nationalities, ages, and tastes.” With groups of revelers depicting creative interpretations of our local story, this festival embraces the rich history of the island, and yet still pays a reverent bow to the past.  

Indeed, this is what separates Curaçao Karnaval from other carnival celebrations in the region. This island has always paid exceptional homage to its history.  As the careful preservation of the historical city of Willemstad suggests, Curaçao values its antiquity and has successfully retained many aspects of its historical past. Karnaval too, has managed to preserve its traditional music called Tumba. This music is unique to the island, with its rhythms originating from West Africa, and unlike many of the other Caribbean islands that have fallen under the spell of the modern-day soca music, Curaçao has given a nod to the past. It has held its historical music close to heart and Tumba remains a central focus of the festival. As Jaqueline, an avid Karnaval fan herself, describes it, “You’re so surprised at how engaging and captivating the [Tumba] music is.”

Another key ingredient that entices visitors from the furthest corners of the globe to experience our unique version of this festival, is that Curaçao Karnaval has evolved into a celebration that is equally fun for both the spectator and the participator. Held on the Sunday and Tuesday night before Ash Wednesday, (with additional days marked for Kiddies Karnaval, Teener Karnaval and the Horse Parade), it invites everyone to take part in this amazing street party. With the parade route lined with public and private stands that cater to the onlooker, anyone of any age can enjoy the festivities. In fact, many people prefer to celebrate Karnaval in comfort and style with the freedom to come and go at their own pace. Oftentimes, the stands themselves turn into parties with their own DJ’s, food, drinks, and amenities available.  

Many of the larger companies and organizations on the island host stands to give spectators the opportunity to experience the excitement.  In fact, the Curaçao Tourist Board also hosts a stand, and welcomes all visitors from around the world to join the party.  And as the bands of revelers pass by, one can appreciate the full impact of this colorful explosion of art, song and dance. 

But… some say once you participate in the parade, there is no turning back.  Joining one of the Karnaval groups and catching the Karnaval fever gives you an indescribable feeling of pure abandon.  You often find yourself getting in the Karnaval mood from as early as January 1st . There are Jump Up parties as a prequel warm up to the main event. Estreno Carnival Group, one of the largest Karnaval bands, hosts the biggest Jump up and features a spectacular launch into the Carnival season to get everyone hyped up and ready to hit the road!  

And then, when the big day has finally arrived, it’s as if the rhythm of the Tumba music, mixed with other catchy ‘younger’ beats, energizes you and makes you want to just dance!  

Then add in all the glitter and sequins of your elaborate costumes, and this transports you into a fantasy world that makes you want to dance some more! Then as the parade continues and you are having so much fun with all the people around you, you feel a sense of belonging to this wonderful group of friendly smiling faces, you just want to dance all together and never let the good times end!  After having a long chat with Tirzah Statia, PR Coordinator for the Estreno Carnival Group, she described the Karnaval spirit perfectly. Tirzah has been a participant in Karnaval for “more years than she can remember,” and paints the picture perfectly as she says: “Sometimes you can’t describe it with words.  It’s a feeling that you get… of such love and freedom and national pride. [Karnaval] is simply a time to express yourself.” 

So, some say it’s more fun to be a spectator, and others insist that the fun is in the parade as a participator. The debate continues… Which one are you? Come decide for yourself!