Carnival begins this weekend

Carnival is here again beginning this weekend and continuing until next Wednesday, which is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

Although Carnival (Brazil spells it Carnaval) may seem like one big Bacchanalian orgy,  it has a religious origin: the Catholic church allowed this once-pagan ritual to precede Lent (the 40 days of abstinence, fasting, etc., that mirrored the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness). The thinking was that if people could expend their passions and debaucheries ahead of Lent, they would not mind the restrictions that followed. It’s kind of like the strange ritual of the Amish people: teenagers at the age of 16 are encouraged to get crazy before joining or rejecting the church and the Amish way of life (no zippers, cars, tv, alcohol, electricity). That is called rumspringa, the Pennsylvania Dutch word for “running around”.

For various reasons, Carnival has always been associated with Catholicism and never happens in Protestantism. Aside from the Italian carnevale, some of the biggest celebrations happen in the New World, especially in the Caribbean and in Brazil. New Orleans, the most African of U.S. cities, has the biggest and probably the funkiest carnival festivities here.

Today’s Rhythm Planet program focuses on 3 big celebrations: New Orleans, Trinidad and Tobago, and Brazil. For reasons of space and time limitations, I was not able to include Cuba, Aruba, Cucacao, the French Antilles (Martinique and Guadeloupe have big celebrations also).

We begin with the funky sounds of the Meters, one of the Big Easy’s greatest bands. I am probably remiss in not including Clifton Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas and other bands, but you’ll get the picture. New Orleans carnival is known as mardi gras (fat tuesday), referring to the final night’s pleasure binge before the fun shuts down with Ash Wednesday.

Trinidad and Tobago have huge celebrations. I love the steel pan orchestras. What genius it takes to fashion a 3 octave chromatic wonder, in both soprano, tenor, and bass ranges, from discarded oil drums? There is even a band that is named after the oil company: The Esso Trinadad Steel Band. Steel bands can play anything from jazz to Broadway to Chopin and Tchaikovsky. Yes, anything. Felix Walround does a version of “Send In The Clowns”. Brian Eno once told me that the most violent-sounding music was often associated with happy occasions, and mentioned steel bands. I wouldn’t say their sound is violent, just clangorous.

We go ashore from Trinidad & Tobago to Brazil, where samba schools (escolas de samba) compete in Rio’s Sambadrome. This is a lavish celebration, full of female nudity, for which the various schools prepare for a full 10 months in advance, devising themes, making elaborate floats and colorful costumes (there is a color code for the various schools; Mangueira, one of the big schools, is always pink and green. Gal Costa sings the unofficial national anthem, Aquarela do Brasil (Brazilian watercolor). This song was penned in the early 1940s by Ary Barroso and reached millions of American’s via a Disney cartoon of the same name, featuring Donald Duck (O Pato Donald) and Jose Carioca, a colorful parrot that embodied the Brazilian sensibility. Carioca is the name for a resident of Rio by the way.

Enjoy the music!

Here is a clip of the 2013 Rio sambadrome party:

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Next a street scene from Trinidad and Tobago’s 2013 festivities, with a lot of booty shaking and winding of waists:

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Finally, we come home to New Orleans: Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, the final day of Carnival. Click here for the parade schedule.

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Rhythm Planet Playlist: 2/28/14

  1. The Meters / Cissy Strut / The Meters Anthology / Rhino
  2. The Wild Magnolias / Meet The Boys On The Battlefront / They Call Us Wild / Sunnyside Records
  3. Professor Longhair / Mardi Gras In New Orleans / Rum And Coke / Tomato
  4. Jelly Roll Morton / Jelly Roll’s Background / The Complete Library Of Congress Recordings / Rounder Records
  5. Solo Harmonites / Tribute To Glenn Miller / Carnival Jump-Up / Delos
  6. Sonny Man / Lota La / Chutney Party Mix / MC Records
  7. Wilmouth Houdini / Rum & Coke / Calypso Carnival / Decca
  8. Gal Costa / Aquarela Do Brasil / Aquarela Do Brasil / Verve
  9. Luciano Perrone / Tamborins Envenenados / Batucada Fantastica #3 / Whatmusic
  10. Rogelio Duprat / Ai, Seu  Me (1921) / Historia Del Carnaval 1902-1952 / Ubatuqui
  11. Silvio Caldas / Na Baixa Do Sapateiro / Os Grandes Sambas Da Historia / BMG
  12. Caetano Veloso with Ile Aye / Um Canto De Afoxe / Beleza Tropical / Luaka Bop
  13. Pele Goal From 1970 World Cup Final / Musica De Futbol / Mr. Bongo
  14. Joao Nogueira / Samba Rubro-Negro / Musica De Futbol / Mr. Bongo
  15. Alfredo Del-Penho & Pedro Paulo Malta / Ai, Cachaca! Bebida, Mulher E Orgia / Cachaca Da Samba! / Deckdisc

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