13 February 2012

Carnival in Cádiz

It´s carnival time again, or carnaval as it is spelt in Spanish.   While this ancient tradition is celebrated all over Spain and indeed all over the world, the Carnaval de Cádiz is unique because of its musical agrupaciones with their combination of bawdy and satirical lyrics, irreverent parody and flamboyant, sometimes outrageous, costumes.

Gran Teatro Falla in Old Cádiz
The competition for the best singing groups is entering its final week at the Gran Teatro Falla.  It is known as COAC - Concurso Oficial de Agrupaciones Carnavalescas.   The heats are broadcast live on Canal Sur TV for those not lucky enough to get a seat in this magnificent theatre; people queue all night to by tickets when the box office opens just after Christmas.

The groups also perform outside in the street and in other public venues, and on the weekend after the grand final there are giant parades and free performances all round the city.

The dates for Carnaval change each year because it is linked to the date of Easter.  In 2012 it will be the weekend of 25-26 February, and in 2013, 16-17 February.  It is virtually impossible to park in the city over the carnival weekend, so if you want to visit, get the bus or leave your car at San Fernando and hop on the train which takes you into the centre of Cádiz.

The musical groups and the songs they perform take various forms:

The groups

The chirigota is the best-known kind of singing group. They train for the whole year to sing about politics, topics in the news, and everyday circumstances, and all the members wear identical costumes. Their songs are all original compositions and are full of satire and wit.  They sing in the streets and squares, at improvised venues like outdoor staircases or doorways, and in established open-air tablaos (tableaux) organized by the carnival clubs.

The choirs (coros) are larger groups who travel through the streets on open flat-bed carts or wagons, singing with a small ensemble of guitars, bandurrias and lutes. Their characteristic composition is the "Carnival Tango", and their repertoir alternates between comical and serious, with special emphasis on lyrical homages to the city and its people. Their costumes are the most elaborate of all.

The comparsas are the serious counterparts to the chirigotas. Poetic lyrics and criticisms are their main ingredients. They usually tend to have a more elaborate polyphony, and they are easily recognized by the typical counter-tenor voice.

The quartets (cuartetos), oddly, can be composed of five, four, or three members. They don't use musical instruments, just a kazoo and two sticks to mark the rhythm. They use set-piece theatre scenes (pre-written sketches), improvisations and music, and are pure comedy.

The oldest and most traditional carnival characters in Cádiz are the romanceros. A romancero is a single individual in costume who uses posters on an easel to help him illustrate his story, reciting humorous verses while pointing at aspects of the pictures and drawings with a long stick.

The names chosen by the groups are very much part of the fun. The same group of singers will have a new name each year, reflecting their theme. They often involve dreadful puns, e.g. "Puretas del Caribe" (Pirates of the Caribbean), with pureta (old geezer) instead of pirata.

The songs
The specific musical forms have evolved over the years. In the early days popular music was used, and tropical rhythms were mixed with European dances and songs; only the lyrics changed. Towards the end of the 19th century, the musical identity of the Carnival was already mature, and, although most of the names (tango, pasodoble, couplet etc.) are shared with other musical forms around the world, their melodies, rhythms, and character are unmistakably original.  The lyrics, or letras, are often sung in a heavy Cádiz dialect, making them hard for us guiris to understand, but copies can often be found on the internet or in printed leaflets.

The Presentation is sung first, to present the characterisation (tipo) of the group. The style of the music is free and unstructured. It can take the form of a well-known song, an original composition, or even a spoken-word recitation.

The Couplet (cuplé) is sung by the chirigotas, comparsas, coros and cuartetos. They are short satirical songs with a refrain that is always related to the costume and the characterisation tipo of the group.


The Pasodoble is a longer song without a refrain, and it is usually serious, criticising something that happened during the previous year or rendering an homage to someone. They are sung by comparsas and chirigotas.

The Tango, with its characteristic gaditano rhythm, is sung only by the
coros, accompanied by their orchestras.  The lyrics are mostly poetical compositions.

The 
Potpourri (popurri), sung by all the groups, is a medley putting new lyrics to the tunes of well-known songs.

Here are some of the semifinalists for 2012:


Mejó no Salgo - "I´d better not come out" (chirigota).  A group of singing foetuses tell us why they would rather stay attached to their giant pink placenta than be born into 21st century Cádiz.
Viva la Pepi (chirigota) - A pun on "Viva la Pepa", Long live the Constitution.  Pepi the cleaner and her friends describe the trials and tribulations of life in Spain during el crisis.

Los Hijos del ´78 - "The Sons of '78" (coro).  
While Cádiz celebrates the bicentenary of the 1812 Constitution, these guys take us back to the heady days of 1978 when the latest version was signed.
Los que hundieron el Vaporcito  - "The ones who sank the little steamer" (cuarteto).   The Vaporcito is the local name for the ferry between Cádiz and El Puerto de Santa Maria, but this three-piece quartet are complaining about the catastrophic management of their local football team, El Vaporcito FC.

Bollywood (coro).  A beautifully turned-out choir, with fine singing and choreography.  Topics covered in their songs include an attack on members of the aristocracy being rude about the good people of Andalucia. 
Llámame Jesús - "Call me Jesus" (comparsa).  "Suffer little children to come unto me"; from the mouth of Jesus Christ comes a fierce attack on paedophilia concealed in the bosom of the Church.
The Cádiz Gospel Choir (coro).   The Choir's final popurrí , a wonderful, rocking, boisterous celebration of their native Cádiz,  left the audience stamping its feet for more at the Teatro de Falla.  There is reputedly an Alcalá man in there somewhere!




El que está resfriao, que arríe las velas
"Let the one who's got a cold lower the sails."  (cuarteto).  Sorry, haven´t got a clue ... everything was sung with a bunged-up doze!

1 comment:

Randall St. Germain said...

Thanks for this post. Cádiz had me intrigued since the time I began researching a small Camino from there to Seville. I really enjoyed your photos also.