Cape Town New Year’s Carnival
The Cape Minstrel Carnival has been likened to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the Carnivale in Rio de Janero. One of the major differences is that the Cape Carnival is not linked to any Christian event.
The Cape Town New Year’s Carnival involving minstrel troupes, Malay choirs and Christmas bands from the working-class Colored community in and around Cape Town, is more than just a New Year's celebration. It is a celebration of life, a rite of renewal, and a festival of music.
For tourists and holidaymakers the most visible and spectacular aspect of the Carnival is the parade on 2 January every year when the minstrel troupes parade through the streets of Cape Town. This is only a fraction of what the entire Carnival entails, which for the Christmas bands starts on Christmas Eve.
Although the carnival begins on Christmas Eve with the first public appearance for the Christmas Bands preparation for the carnival begins months in advance. Members gather to rehearse, plan and socialize in eager anticipation of the next carnival.
On New Year's Eve the Malay Choirs march through the streets of Central Cape Town along the same route as that which will be followed by the Carnival on 2 January. This is only the beginning of the Carnival that will carry on through January, February and March when the troupes, choirs and bands will compete with each other at various stadiums and auditoriums.
Minstrel Troupe Member
Not all minstrel troupe members participate in the bands or choirs and many are ordinary members who love the Carnival and all of its traditions. The other members are either dancers, marching team members or just ordinary members who cavort through the streets carrying umbrellas and just joining in the fun. Each troupe has its own identifying colorful uniform specific to that troupe and membership is open to all ages and both sexes.
Last year more than 60 minstrel troupes took part in the parade on 2 January. Although some troupes may have as few as 200 members the largest troupes have as many as 1000 members although the number of members that actually play in the band, sing in the choir or march in competitions and attend rehearsals is much smaller.
Malay Choirs in Track Suits - New Year's Eve
Night Troupes - Malay Choirs
Malay choirs are choirs that traditionally have a substantial proportion of members from Malay descent. Many members of the minstrel troupes are also members of the Malay choirs. Unlike the minstrel troupes that dress up in brightly colored clothes, the Malay troupes dress in track suits during their march through the streets of Cape Town on New Year's Eve. During this march they are referred to as night troupes.
The songs performed by the Malay choirs range from old Dutch folk songs to American pop songs and comic songs, known as moppies. The strong Asian and Malayan influence can be heard in their singing styles. The choirs are accompanied by instrumentalists playing mandolins, banjos, guitars, the traditional ghoema drum, and sometimes other stringed instruments.
The Malay choirs dress in sober suits and ties when they perform in competitions.There are approximately 150 Malay choirs in the Cape Town region, each with an average membership of 75. Not all of these choirs take part in the competition.
Christmas bands perform a repertoire of Christmas carols, marches and hymns on Christmas Eve. The bands are composed of wind and brass instrumentalists who march through their own neighborhoods on Christmas Eve and stop to play at homes on invitation.
Membership is open to all ages and sexes and many of the minstrel troupe band members are also members of the Christmas bands. They compete against each other in stadiums scattered across the Cape early in the new year.
Their dress code is similar to that of the Malay choirs and they too wear suits and ties.There are between 50 and 60 Christmas bands in Cape Town and vicinity, each comprising between 40 to more than 100 members.
Variations of the name of the Carnival
The Carnival has various names but the most correct name is the Cape Town New Year's Carnival. Many people refer to the carnival as the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival but this name implies that the carnival only includes the minstrel troupes and not the Malay Choirs and Christmas Bands.
Others refer to the carnival as the Cape Town Coon Carnival but as the word "Coon" is seen to be derogatory this name is no longer used. Traditionally the name of "Kaapse Klopse" is used among Afrikaans speaking people and translated means Cape Town Clubs.
Video - Cape Town New Year's Carnival
Background on the Colored Community
The Coloured community are the largest segment of the Cape Town population and descend from indigenous African peoples, white settlers and from slaves and political exiles that were brought to South Africa by the Dutch and British colonizers.
The participants in the Cape Town New Year's Carnival are rich in culture but are mostly economically poor. Although the majority are Afrikaans-speaking they have a unique way of using the language, mostly being very expressive.
Minstrel Troupe Cape Town
History of the Minstrel Troupes
For both slaves and free in the eighteenth and nineteenth century New Year was by far the most important time of the year. In South Africa New Year is mid-summer and the slave-owning whites would traditionally go and visit family and friends for the Christmas and New Year holidays. The slaves would then be entitled to their annual holiday and this allowed the slaves to relax and enjoy life. The warm summer weather allowed them to take to the streets where a joyous and festive mood prevailed.
The music culture of the Colored population has its roots in these
times of slavery. Not only did they play for themselves but wealthy
slave owners took great pride in small orchestra composed of their
slaves. These enslaved musicians drew on African and Asian musical
traditions as they reconfigured and improvised on the music of Africa,
Asia and Europe.
In 1830 the slaves were freed on Emancipation Day and they took to the streets and started a tradition that was to be followed throughout the nineteenth century. The celebrating of Emancipation Day and New Year become one and by the end of the nineteenth century Cape Town witnessed informal Colored groups of musicians and singers promenading through the streets of Cape Town.
At about this time the Christy Minstrels from America visited South Africa and their songs, costumes and performance styles had a major impact on the musical culture of Cape Town as did many other American blackface minstrels. This is reflected in not only the names of some of the troupes and the manner in which they paint their faces but the largest influence was the introduction of the banjo to the minstrel troupes musical instruments.
The very first formal Carnival troupe took to the streets on New Year's Eve of 1887. They donned minstrel costumes, put on blackface make-up and marched through the streets. By the end of the century Colored musicians had created their own unique style of music that was called ghoema.
This music is the foundation on which the minstrel troupes and Malay choir has built its own unique style. The first Carnival competition was held in 1907 and have been held annually since. This was the birth of the Carnival as we know it today.
Costs of Minstrel Troupes
It can cost in excess of ten of thousands of dollars to run a large minstrel troupe. Many of the large troupes have corporate sponsorships and other troupes receive a small subsidy from local government. Besides the uniforms that cost up to $35 each other major expenses include rehearsal hall rentals, transportation, refreshments during and after rehearsals and if need be the hiring of professional people for coaching.
The making of the uniforms is a cottage industry in the
Colored community with a handful of tailors specializing in the making
of minstrel costumes which are never worn two year's in succession.
Link to a Photo Gallery of Cape Town Carnival Photos
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