Presenting and Interpreting Culture / Spotlights

Carnival Costumes

Social Commentary in Celebration

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Carnival dances and bailes cantados (“sung dances”) are established family traditions that usually enact historical and cultural events of regional significance.  Dancers wearing masks and elaborate costumes act out stories about difficult topics such as slavery and the abuse of women of African descent during the colonial period, for civic and religious street celebrations.

In Colombia, carnival is identified with the town of Barranquilla on the Caribbean Coast, but the earliest ones started in Mompox, one of the most active colonial trading ports on the Magdalena River. Mompox is the home of the music and dance group Don Abundio y sus Traviesos. Samuel Mármol, known as Don Abundio, is not only the director and a musician of the carnival troupe, but he is also a dancer and costume maker. Don Abundio proudly states, “I have inherited these dances from my ancestors and now my family is heir as well.” Their biggest celebration is the Carnaval de Barranquilla. Each year this festival draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the country and the world. It is a chance for Don Abundio y sus Traviesos to showcase everything they have been working on for the past year and bring the spirit of Mompox to a bigger stage.

Carnival is a time for people to come together. It is a celebration where you can be anything you want to. Women dress as men, men dress as women, people become animals, the poor become rich, and everyone celebrates together. Some of Don Abundio’s favorite carnival dances and bailes cantados (sung dances), as some are called, include El baile de los coyongos, Las pilanderas, El son del negro, and La cacería del tigre. Each of the four dances has distinctive costumes. These dances are accompanied by the lively and frenetic rhythms of drums, reed pipes, gaita flutes, and occasionally accordions.

El baile de los coyongos

Don Abundio describes El baile de los coyongos: “We want to present to you today the ‘Dance of the Coyongos’ so that you can appreciate how mankind has destroyed this beautiful species of birds. This is a Momposino Depression tradition. The dance is featured in Mompox carnivals. Let me describe our costume. Each coyongo represents a bird. The verses in this dance describe how a hunter killed the coyongos, but we don’t want the species to be destroyed.” According to Don Abundio, the best way to convey the message of this dance—to preserve the species now so that inhabitants of the area can enjoy them in the future—is to become the bird. The costumes for the Baile de los coyongos are made from iron frames covered with fabric and a beak made of wood. The fabric coverings have very long sleeves that are meant to resemble the bird’s wings in flight. The other characters in the dance are the hunter and the shark.

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The defining feature of the costume is the pico de madera, or the beak made of wood, which also serves as a musical instrument. Don Abundio constructs the beaks from a local river wood called guácimo (bay cedar). He uses material from the environment and produces items locally while communicating a message to the audience about protecting the environment and the native species.

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Coffee Production

The costumes of las pilanderas consist of parasols and bandanas. According to Don Abundio, the loose dresses keep the women cool while cooking, the parasols help block the sunlight, and the bandanas absorb the sweat that falls into their eyes while preparing the bollo. Photo by Jeanette Gaida