Ten hours after I arrived in Buenos Aires with my friends, I jumped onto the carnival bus not knowing where it was taking us.
It might be the happiest bus ride I’ve ever experienced. Men and women were singing and laughing aloud, drinking from the same pail of wine, clapping and flapping the bus ceiling for drumbeats.
Musicians took out their harmonicas and saxophones to accompany the chorus. And then everybody started to wave, dance and whistle to greet the little kids on streets who were greeting them back in the same way.
It was February 10th, the second week of Murga Porteña, Buenos Aires’ annual Carnival. Groups of performers ride on the buses and tour around the city neighborhoods with songs and dances every weekend throughout February. They are celebrating the festival, culminating in the Carnival holiday weekend on Feb.24-25 this year.
“It’s still a celebration of the poor, joking about and criticizing the rich,” said Martin Clavell, singer and percussionist of Atrevidos Por Costumbre, the kind-hearted Murga (carnival performing group) that took us in with them on their bus.
Clavell, a full-time sociologist, has been working in the social security field for 10 years. He was born and raised in Palermo, Buenos Aires, in a family full of musicians.
Carnival provides a combination of enjoying the arts, pursuing happiness, debating politics and putting aside struggles.
“People here are a mix of Native American, European and African ethnicities,” Clavell said, “Murga goes through social classes but always stand by the people.”
Murga’s celebration of the Buenos Aires carnival dates back to 1869 and it has always been about satire and mockery.
“Social order during carnival was altered. Poor people entered wealthy people’s houses and washed them with rotten water. Then people started to organize groups of singers, percussionists and dancers to parade or play during carnival,” Clavell said, introducing the origin of the festival.
Luckily for photographers, paraders today no longer pour water on each other. Instead, kids equipped with foam sprays usually spray around indiscriminately.
The bus stopped around 7:40 p.m. after a half-hour ride, at Barracas, a neighborhood in the southeast Buenos Aires city center.
Performers got off the bus and scattered but all in great order, wearing similar yet different colorful handmade costumes of white, green and violet, decorated with sequins. Each one carried the props for the performance.
It’s not hard to learn about the personalities of the performers through their costumes, as I quickly located some young Frozen fans by the Elsa faces stitched to their suits.
The group Atrevidos Por Costumbre has a costume designer, but what’s on the suits are always customized. “We all use appliques of what we like and what we are,” Clavell said.
“You could find a person’s name, a Simpson figure…” and former Argentine president “Peron”, former first lady “Evita,” the Argentine national flag, the shape of Islas Malvinas [disputed territory between Argentina and Britain], and “whatever comes to a Murguero’s [performer’s] brain.”
The performance started shortly, treating us with a feast of sounds – drumbeats, cymbals, chorus, whistles, claps, laughter. You need to shout to another person’s ears to make yourself heard.
It was such an environment of freedom. I saw a little boy concentrate on playing a huge drum right next to the percussionists three times taller than him. I saw young men and women dancing with their arms and legs fully extended, demonstrating great power. I saw little girls performing as expertly as their bigger sisters. Boundaries of ages melted away.
The performances continued for almost two hours, but that was not the end of it. The group still needed to visit another neighborhood before heading home.
“There’s another group coming. It won’t end until midnight — you should stay and watch,” said Mingkan Wang, a Chinese-Argentine friend I made at the parade. “They’re really good. You should stay and watch,” he stressed again.
Wang had been living in Buenos Aires for more than 20 years. He owned a small supermarket around the corner, and he was watching the parade with his little daughter.
“So, these groups are performing in different neighborhoods and it’s a competition. The final competition is on carnival weekend.” Wang double checked with a local audience standing next to him and continued, “yesterday we have another group here, and they held a concert. I stayed until 1 a.m.”
According to Clavell, it is not exactly a competition because there will be no winners or losers. It is more about the ranking “that determines which murgas get more performances next year.”
“There are four categories… and [groups that get] “A” get more performances.” Clavell said. His group had been getting “A”s for a few years, with some “B”s thrown in.
The results come out in a few weeks.