Cigar in hand, Fidel Castro dances alongside Michael Jackson and a group of transvestites strut down the street not far from a gaggle of children who look as though they’re on their way to an audition for The Wizard of Oz
The Santa Cruz Carnival in Tenerife is one of the biggest and most spectacular events of its kind in a country famous for its fantastically colourful fiestas.
Every February, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the capital of the largest of the Canary Islands, hosts this historical carnival, attracting around a million people either participating or observing.
Although loosely connected to Lent, unlike other Spanish fiestas this amazing celebration has little religious meaning and is simply an excuse for an enormous party.
It boasts the most outlandish costumes, spectacular dancing and sensational music from locals who stop everything to abandon themselves to ‘carnival desire’.
Preparations begin months in advance, with the festival itself taking place in the week up to and including Ash Wednesday, but in total lasting around three weeks.
The events throughout the month include the election of the Carnival Queen, a cabalgata (horse parade) and the ultimate impressive parade that blends such themes as ‘Caribbean’ and ‘European’ into a garland of colour and spectacle.
After more than two weeks of competitions in which almost a hundred bands take part, the curtain goes up on the main show with the street as the backdrop.
The Tenerife Carnival is a celebration of great glamour and style. The wild revelry and hedonistic street partying is said to rival the carnival of Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras - and its history is just as exciting.
It has been the main festival in Santa Cruz de Tenerife since the 17th century and families have faithfully passed the tradition down through the generations.
In the early 19th century, newspapers began reporting about the city’s high society balls as well as popular celebrations for the less well-off masses in the local theatre. It was around this time, according to historians, that the camelladas were first celebrated, the forerunners of the present-day cosos and cabalgatas - the carnival parades.
A group of riders would parade around the old quarter on camels carrying Chinese lanterns and raining blizzards of confetti over onlookers.
A century later, revellers started the tradition of choosing the carnival queen, a young attractive woman who presides over the carnival’s many events.
For a number of years following the Civil War, General Franco banned carnivals all over Spain. But that didn’t stop the partying people of Tenerife, who rebelled by masquerading the celebration as a ‘Winter Festival’.
Wearing their disguises, the mascaras (masked people) paraded and danced in the streets often hotly pursued by the police. But the locals’ love of the carnival meant that they offered refuge to the persecuted revellers in their homes.
However, one year the number of people arrested was so high that the substantial province prison was full and the fun-loving mascaras were rounded up and flung into the biggest building the police could find – the bullring.
These days nearly all the inhabitants of Tenerife participate in the festivals in their towns, with the biggest being held in Santa Cruz.
Tenerife’s carnival showcases the magic and charm of music and dance from around the world, and there are many traditions and numerous additions that have evolved over the years, making the carnival a unique international celebration.
These traditions include the famous comparsas, murgas and rondallas.
In the 1960s, a group of Santacruzers started a small carnival imitating the famous Ecolas do Samba (Latin dancing groups) of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival in Brazil.
Now, 11 different comparsas take part in the Santa Cruz Carnival and compete to present the best and most flamboyant disguises and the most perfect choreography.
On Carnival Saturday, the first big night of the festival, the comparsas dance in a parade along the beautiful tree-lined Anaga Avenue, which stretches along the harbour.
Music comes from world famous Latin bands playing on the different stages set up in the open air.
The murgas or charagas are large satirical singing groups that keep alive the humour brought to the island on the Laya gunboat in the early 20th century. These bands of witty locals perform parodies, making fun of politicians and VIPs and reviewing the year’s events.
The carnival in Santa Cruz de Tenerife also features rondallas, lyrical choral and string instrument groups who perform the works of renowned national composers. Some of them represent century-old Tenerife societies or clubs.
In the afternoon on Carnival Friday you can feel the excitement mounting in Santa Cruz as thousands of participants begin to rehearse their routes through the streets of the central district which is almost entirely closed to cars. Mascaras head for Avenida de Belgica, the meeting place for the carnival’s organisers.
Then groups will meet for the Inauguration Parade at the Plaza de España area by the sea. Soon after, fireworks announce that the Carnival has begun and the dancing, singing and parading kicks off.
Saturday is the night of the spectacular comparsas contest.
By contrast Sunday sees the refined face of the carnival opera including choirs and solo singers as well as the rondallas and the fregolinos. These consist of the bel canto that hold two main concerts at noon on Carnival Sunday and Tuesday at the bandstand at the Principe de Asturias Square as well as singing in the parade.
In addition to the fregolinos, other groups including La Zarzuela or Los Románticos perform on the different Carnival stages.
Not surprisingly, Carnival Monday is a bit of a ‘rest’ day, which finds some people back at work, but more likely preparing for Carnival Tuesday, which is an official holiday in the city.
The night between Carnival Monday and Tuesday it seems as though the entire the city is sleepless. Hundreds of thousands of people dance in the open air and many will stay up to watch the sun rising over the harbour, and then they will go for the traditional breakfast of chocolate and churros (Spanish fried cakes).
Some dedicated party animals will carry on until noon around the area of Numancia and in the neighbouring area of Garcia Sanabria City Park.
One of the most important events takes place on Carnival (Shrove) Tuesday with the coso (procession in the afternoon).
Many thousands will begin lining the pavements in Anaga Avenue and Maritime Avenue, along the seafront and in the harbour for the big parade that starts promptly at four o’clock
The parade lasts for several hours when the floats, comparsas and mascaras parade like it’s their last. This is a part of the event that attracts the highest number of visitors from around the world.
The day culminates in a spectacular firework display over the harbour.
The carnival officially finishes on Ash Wednesday with the entierro de la sardina, the ‘burial of the sardine’, where a giant effigy of the fish is laid to rest.
But the celebrations still don’t stop there. During the weekend following Ash Wednesday there is the Piñata, (a piñata is a pot filled with sweets and gifts that is suspended in the air).
On the Saturday afternoon the children’s carnival parade takes place, and on Saturday night the adult celebrations continue with the drag queens’ contest enjoyed by visitors from all around the globe, both gay and straight, who flock to the town to partake in the cross-dressing event of the year. There’s hardly a person to be seen who isn’t dressed as their opposite sex.
On Sunday the day begins with a parade of vintage cars through streets and avenues of the city ending at Guamasa, about 12 miles inland. The cars’ drivers and passengers enter into the spirit of the carnival by dressing in period costume.
Later, the day continues with shows and street dances. At around 22.00 hrs a firework display near Plaza de España signals the start of the final night of the carnival.
The whole show is offered up by the people of Santa Cruz themselves. There are no professional entertainers involved, just locals for whom practically all their free time revolves around preparations for the carnival.
The hallmark of the Tenerife Carnival is its people’s great festival spirit, the warm welcome given to visitors, and in particular, the Carnival motto: ‘Do it tomorrow - it’s carnival today!’
Thanks to its people, Tenerife’s masked festival is an island celebration now known all over the world.
2004 carnival dates
Monday February 2 - Presentation of candidates
Tuesday February 3 - Junior murgas 1st round
Wednesday February 4 - Junior murgas 2nd round
Thursday February 5 - Junior murgas 3rd round
Friday February 6 - Bands
Saturday February 7 - Junior murgas Final
Sunday February 8 - Election of the junior queen
Monday February 9 - Adult murgas 1st round
Tuesday February 10 - Adult murgas 2nd round
Wednesday February 11 - Adult murgas 3rd round
Thursday February 12 - Election of the ‘third age’ queen
Friday February 13 - Adult murgas FINAL
Saturday February 14 - Comparsas competition
Sunday February 15 - Costume competition/Rondallas contest
Monday February 16 - Festival of choreography
Tuesday February 17 - ‘Fregolinos’ rondalla group
Wednesday February 18 - Election of the carnival queen
Friday February 20 - Opening parade
Saturday February 21 - Comparsas ‘rhythm and harmony’
Sunday February 22 - ‘Fregolinos’ rondalla group and Nifú-Nifá
Monday February 23 - Carnival Monday - dances
Tuesday February 24 - Main carnival parade
Wednesday February 25 - Burial of the sardine
Thursday February 26 - La Zarzuela festival
Friday February 27 - Rondallas festival
Saturday February 28 - Piñata – children’s parade
Sunday February 29 - Piñata – Nifú-Nifá – La Zarzuela