This extract has been taken from the Bradt Guide to Angola. Buy your copy now for info on all aspects of living in and visiting Angola.
Luanda’s three-day carnival is the biggest cultural/social event in the Angolan calendar, attracting thousands of spectators every year. The carnival dates from at least 1857 and has always been heavily politicised, with carnival groups mocking symbols of colonial power. It was banned by the authorities several times during the 1920s and 1930s and again in 1961. The few carnival groups who dared to parade in 1961 and 1962 were beaten by the police and as a result, carnival was driven underground and mainly celebrated at private parties. A few years later the authorities resurrected carnival, but on their terms: masks were banned, groups of dancers were separated into smaller groups, and the parade was moved out of the back streets and onto the Marginal. Further political interference followed in 1978 when the president temporarily fixed the otherwise moveable religious date at 27 March to commemorate the retreat of the South African army in 1976. It thus became known as the Victory Carnival and colonial symbols were replaced with nationalist ones as the carnival groups recreated battle scenes using music and dance. The victory carnivals lasted until the 1990s. Today, the carnival has reverted to its religious date and a different political or social theme is selected each year.
Preparations are taken very seriously, with rehearsals and preliminary rounds taking place in the musseques months beforehand to decide which groups will go forward to parade on the big day. Traditionally, carnival groups are led by a carnival king and queen, followed by a whole range of musicians, including dozens of drummers – who only use traditional instruments – and then dancers. Each group also tends to include at least one nurse dressed entirely in white as a symbol of purity. Everyone wears colourful costumes and outrageous headgear, mainly in the national colours of red, black and yellow.
School groups take part too and inter-school rivalry makes it highly competitive. Not only do they yearn for the prestige of winning, they also need the prize fund to offset the enormous cost of costumes and to prepare for the following year.
Semba is the most popular dance during carnival and has won most of the dance awards – 27 in all, but Kabetula and Kazukuta dances are also popular. The União Mundo da Ilha carnival group is the most successful and has won 11 times. Celebrations begin with the dozen or so children’s groups (known as Class C), who parade along the Marginal from about 16.00. Class B follows the next day and is made up of over a dozen adult groups competing for the five places that give the winners the right to parade in Class A the following year. The combined prize pot for Class B is US$40,000 with the outright winner taking US$15,000. On the third and final day, Class A groups parade in front of representatives from the government including the prime minister and the President of the National Assembly. The day rounds off with a spectacular firework display in front of the Fortaleza. The winners are announced on Ash Wednesday and almost immediately afterwards, preparations begin for the next year.
Other carnivals are held across Angola, the most important ones outside Luanda being at Lobito (see page 196 of the guide), Cabinda (see page 178) and Lubango (see page 209).