Out with the New, in with the Old – Carnival 2014
Colourful floats, dancing queens, bright costumes, entertaining re-enactments – all will be there at this year’s Carnival. But there will also be much more besides. From the return of satire to the wandering farce qarċilla, this year’s Carnival will include a number of novelties – most of which hark back to the past.
In Malta, the roots of Carnival can be traced back to the early 1400s, although it was the Knights of the Order of St John that endowed the national festivities with spectacle and pageantry. Such a venerable tradition means that much that is new in this year’s Carnival is also – in fact - old.
For the first time in 40 years, Carnival will be held in St George’s Square, bringing the festive atmosphere to the heart of the old capital, where it was held up to the early 1970s. Between 1972 and 2010 the hub of the organised activities was in Freedom Square, but this was stopped when the new parliament building project started in 2011. The year after, Carnival was held at the Valletta Bus Terminus while, for the past two years, it has been held at the Floriana Granaries.
The return of satire, too, is a novelty with its roots buried in the past. Carnival parades during the British period, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were noted for their biting satirical themes, and many of the intricate floats were designed to poke fun at popular figures and unpopular government decisions. In the 1920s and 30s the caricature of political figures often led to tense situations that induced the government to ban such customs from future editions of Carnival. Political satire was essentially banned as a result of a law passed in 1936.
The qarċilla or wandering farce – which also makes a return this year – was still held in the Valletta Carnival up to a century ago. A man dressed as a notary read out a marriage contract in rhyming verse full of witticisms - some verging on the obscene - to a bride and groom.
The first known qarċilla was written for the 1760 Carnival by the poet Fr Feliċ Demarco. This year’s qarċilla, penned by Trevor Zahra, will be performed by a number of actors, including Joseph Galea. They will wander around the streets of Valletta on Saturday evening, re-enacting a parody of a wedding ceremony.
Saturday evening is also when the Carnival festivities will reach their climax. This year – another first – they will also run through the night, in a non-stop celebration. Yet another first is the twinning with Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s largest festival of popular culture.
A Caribbean Carnival in Britain, Notting Hill Carnival takes place on the streets of North Kensington in London with elements that include musical bands, sound systems, masquerade bands, singers, musical and artistic competitions, Caribbean food stalls, street fashion, sound stages and dancing spectators following bands through the streets. The Notting Hill Carnival attracts on average of 1.5 million people over its two days in August each year.
Sureya John, the UK Universal Carnival Queen, will be headlining the first ever presentation of the Notting Hill Carnival in Malta. Another Carnival Queen, from the Elimu Paddington Band, will also perform with the Notting Hill Group.
And to highlight that Carnival is all about diversity and inclusion – and, ultimately, joining in the fun - this year a group of dancers from the Adult Training Centres of Agency Sapport will present a dance at the National Carnival. Other novelties include the artistic direction by Carnival director Jason Busuttil for the first time, a People’s Choice Award which will be selected by televoting, and contacts are also being made with Viareggio Carnival.
All this is apart from the dance competitions, float defilés, swarming streets and exuberant costumes that are so much a part of Carnival. For a few days Valletta is in party mode. Streets are transformed, children everywhere are in fancy dress, gigantic floats push their way through the crowds. Year after year, Carnival arrives, changing the mood of the capital. And while much around us changes, some traditions remain.