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Cape Town New Year’s Carnival

Updated on March 15, 2015

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

Image Courtesy : Clarism_4 Flickr
Image Courtesy : Clarism_4 Flickr

Minstrel Troupes

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

Image Courtesy: Anastacia Haddon - Flickr
Image Courtesy: Anastacia Haddon - Flickr

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

Image : Courtesy Freelenz - Flickr
Image : Courtesy Freelenz - Flickr

Christmas Bands

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

Courtesy : Wikipedia Commons
Courtesy : Wikipedia Commons

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.

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    • Laura du Toit profile image
      Author

      Laura du Toit 6 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for posting Jonathon. If you read the entire article you would have seen that I did mention that the Carnival goes on through to March with the various groups competing against each other.

      Lekker bly en dankie vir die kommentaar!

    • profile image

      jonathan cupido 6 years ago

      hey friends, thanks for spreading our culture and sport to the world, there is however more to this then what is presented on this page, we have also competition that runs in conjungtion to this event.. it all is part of our history and take much time in planning, practicing, and participating in this event that is also a very costly event, we are indeed proud of the turm coloured for that is who we are, we are not so called blacks or whites but coloureds deriving from the bushmen, strandloopers, khoi and the san groups of africa then mixed with the slave groups entering africa but mainly from the groups mentioned above, we have indeed a rich history yet not well known even to our own children for its not added to the curiculem of education to our children, we use this events to teach our kids bout who we really are and where we really came from, we thank you for your time in posting this post on behalf of us thousands of minstrels, we thank you, ons se baie dankie, shukran... of soos ons sal se in ons kaapse kombuis taal, duidlike post, gevaarlik, ek lyks it...(uitstekende pos, die beste, ek hou vreeslik van dit)

    • Laura du Toit profile image
      Author

      Laura du Toit 8 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks Duchess

    • profile image

      Duchess OBlunt 8 years ago

      very informative hub, lots of history behind the fun. Good job!

    • Laura du Toit profile image
      Author

      Laura du Toit 8 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for the advice Paradise - Unfortunately that is the official name of a race classification in South Africa. They have a culture of their own. They are definitely not our African Black people nor would they like to be referred to as Africans, and nor are they White South Africans. They have their own identity and they are proud to be Coloreds. It is not meant as a derogatory term it is who they are. "Coons", "Kaffirs" "Hotnots" are derogatory terms in South Africa. Colored is not.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 8 years ago from Upstate New York

      This was a LOVELY hub. Great pics, great video. I love that accent, sounds almost Dutch.

      One little bit of info for your future edification, Laura: in the US, the word "coloured" is considered to be perjorative, though I know you didn't mean it that way.

    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Woo Hoo, Cape Town my city! Hey, you can link to my hub on Cape Town, the city that has everything as I have many cool pics that should get the tourists coming!

    • Laura du Toit profile image
      Author

      Laura du Toit 8 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks Zsuzsy - Honored that you came by to read my hub. Glad you enjoyed discovering what we in Cape Town, South Africa do over New Year.

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 8 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      Laura, thanks for sharing I love to read about event like this from around the world.

      Great hub as always

      kindest regards Zsuzsy

    • Laura du Toit profile image
      Author

      Laura du Toit 8 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for coming by!

    • profile image

      lynnechandler 8 years ago

      Looks like loads of fun thanks for sharing.

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