Canary Islands are a small place with a rather small population, small wine production, small goods export… The one thing they think big around here is Carnival. Especially the one in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. It’s the great party, a sort of recurrent grand finale, the hype of the year that everybody looks forward to with excitement.
“Christmas is the event that comes before Carnival” is the joke in Tenerife. But it’s not a joke: the celebration can be as passionate and wild as in Rio or Venice. The events go on for weeks and weeks and the entire population is part of it.
The program of Tenerife’s Carnival
It all starts a few weeks before the actual Carnival day. There are various events, some of which live on TV. The most famous are the queen of the Carnivale election, the contests for the best murga and the best comparsa.
The queen of the Carnival
Technically, we should talk of queens, because there is more than one. But there’s a main one, usually a young beautiful lady, often a wanna-be model or actress. The contest doesn’t elect the girl per se, but her Carnival costume, which is a sort of cart with (hidden) wheels connected to her dress. She’s supposed to walk dragging the entire structures around. In reality, she wouldn’t be able to do so for a long time. So besides the actual day of the contest, the girls are usually loaded with their big costumes on carts and take them around.
During the contest, every candidate walks on stage, turns around a couple of times to show off the beauty of the entire costume and a jury selects the best one. These dresses/costumes are so big and complex most of the time there are sponsors and supporters to pay the price of design and manufacture.
The other queens are chosen in the very same way. There’s a senior queen, a junior queen and so on.
Murgas: what are they and why are they connected with Carnival?
The election of the best murga is an event live on TV for various days in a row. The participants are choruses with fancy dresses. The groups sing 2-3 songs for a total of 20 minutes on stage each. Most of them sing almost a cappella, with the support of some drums and a kind of kazoo.
The songs chosen for the contests are usually covers of fairly known pieces, adapted with brand new lyrics written on purpose for the contest. The main topics are recent news, politics, gossip… with a satirical twist and a comedy style. For instance, the 2020 main theme would have been (if the contest had taken place!) the pandemic, how the government dealt with it, tales of people buying tons of toilet paper, the beginning lack of masks, remote working with the children at home and so on!
The murgas that make it to the final evening perform one last time and then the winner is elected. The finalists have the honour to sing during some of the Carnival events and to participate in the parades.
I want to mention that the concept of murga has been pretty much unknown in the rest of Spain until one of these choirs won the “Got Talent España” in 2019.
As for murgas, there’s a contest for the best comparsa, which is a sort of dance group with percussionists (including maracas, tambourines and similar instruments). The dancers are dressed up with Carnival fancy dresses, with a clear preference for wide and colourful feathering.
Coordination and choreography are the focus of every performance, since with all those costumes it would be pretty impossible to aim for wild acrobatics!
I’m used to seeing colourful and noisy Carnival parades and here in Tenerife there are 3 main ones: the cabalgata anunciadora, the coso apoteosis and the entierro de la sardina.
The main difference between these and the ones I’ve seen in my life is the almost complete lack of “carts”, Rio de Janeiro style, just to give you an idea. In Tenerife the attention is on people, musicians, groups, dancers… The carts are at the very end of the parade, and they are frankly quite poor, not very pretty and often without any clear theme.
The cabalgata anunciadora
The cabalgata anunciadora is the official opening of the Carnival celebration in the streets of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. It’s therefore the first of the parades and it happens on the Friday evening before Carnival day. All the winners of the previous days’ contests participate at the cabalgada, together with whoever books a spot in the long walking queue. It lasts for hours and hours, it feels like a never-ending parade! I abandoned after 4 hours, but I know it went on for another 2 or 3!
The coso apoteosis
The coso apoteosis, or simply coso, is the parade of the actual Carnival day. It happens during the afternoon and it’s basically identical to the cabalgata anunciadora, with the very same participants and a similar route around town. As the first one, then it lasts for hours and hours.
The entierro de la sardina
This is probably the most bizarre event of the entire Carnival in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. It’s the funeral of the Carnival itself and it indeed happens on the evening of the day after Carnival. On that day, Ash Wednesday, Lent starts, leaving the celebrations of Carnival behind and any party “forbidden” until after Easter.
The entierro is a parody of a funeral where Carnival is represented by a huge paper-mache fish, a sardine. The dummy procession ends with the sardine cremation.
The costumes are funeral themed, with crying widows, priests and cardinals, sad and desperate figures and so on.
Other events and town celebrations
Carnival celebrations are definitely not limited to these 3 parades. Santa Cruz organizes tons of live events, with multiple stages in the main town squares. Murgas and comparsas perform almost every single day, and there are also other concerts and music until late at night.
The city center is filled with street food, drink and sweet stalls and a temporary funfair for the young ones open every day for many weeks.
The last hours of the night (or the first of the morning) remind me of the Gentse Feesten in Gent, Belgium: 10 days of music and life shots drawn in beer.
On Carnival nights, Santa Cruz de Tenerife becomes an open-air huge bar where beer and spirits flow like a river. The only difference between the Gentse Feesten and this canary celebration is that every single one of the participants to the latter is dressed up for Carnival. From the youngest to the oldest, The amount of people with carnival costumes is impressive. Even the laziest has at least an accessory. All this gives a very surreal atmosphere to the entire event!