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.
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.
The dance of Las pilanderas is a dance that refers to the practice of women gossiping with one another as they work on grinding corn. The center piece is the pilón, or wooden mortar, used in many Afro Colombian communities for grinding corn for traditional specialties such as arepas, mazamorra, chicha and bollos. However, the dance uses this domestic scene to comment and poke fun at colonial as well as today’s society. The pilanderas are portrayed by men costumed in fashionable dresses and parasols which were likely to be worn by society ladies in colonial times. The “gossip” voiced in the lyrics may incorporate remarks on contemporary social situations.
El son del negro
El son del negro is also a dance that airs grievances, but the characters depicted are of African descent who mock and criticize Spaniards for oppressing them during the period of Spanish rule. According to Don Abundio, the focus of their criticism is on Spanish women, who they ridicule with an exaggerated European style of dancing. The main characters in this dance are the Spanish woman, the nymph, and the African dancers. With Don Abundio y sus Traviesos, the Spanish woman is usually played by one of the female group members, Dania Felizolla. The nymph is a man dressed as a woman, and the remaining members dress as the African dancers.
For this dance, the performers wear elaborate hats and black pants with red, yellow, and green bottoms. Since this is a dance of African descendants, Don Abundio y sus Traviesos use carbón vegetal, or charcoal, mixed with water to create a black paint-like mixture that they apply to make their skin appear darker. They also apply a bright red food coloring to their tongues to exaggerate the contrast with their dark skin. In addition, they use bright red lipstick to make themselves appear more feminine, mocking Spanish women.
La cacería del tigre
The last dance, La cacería del tigre, like El son del negro, is also based on African traditions. It depicts a time when African descendants were free from slavery, but were still ruled and oppressed by the Spanish. The former slaves developed new lives farming on the land of Spanish landlords who required them to hunt for tigers that were a threat to their livestock and land. While hunting the tigers, they made up songs to pass the time. This dance illustrates one of those songs. One dancer plays the tiger while the others play the hunters. Props are carried that depict the machetes the Africans used to cut down the grass in search of the tigers.
The masks and props are the key elements of the dancers’ costuming. One dancer wears a mask resembling a tiger that Don Abundio made from papier-mâché. The machetes the other dancers carry are also made from papier-mâché.