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December 29, 2010

The Cape Minstrel Carnival: A celebration of freedom in the Mother City

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The Cape Minstrel Carnival is open to all ages. Photo: Cape Town Tourism

Countries and cultures across the world have renewal rituals, parades and performances, carnivals and revelries that bring in a new season or new year, from Mardi Gras in Rio de Janeiro to the Lantern Festival in China.

The Mother City is no different, with the Cape Minstrel Carnival, the city’s longest-running street party led by the Kaapse Klopse (Cape minstrels).

The celebration is rated the city’s favourite festive season attraction on Facebook, and attracts hordes of participants and interested spectators every year.

Historically, January 2 was the one day Cape slaves were given off every year, and was marked by merrymaking and music.

Called Tweede Nuwe Jaar (“second new year”) and celebrated to this day, the annual carnival sees minstrels and dancers making music down the streets of the Mother City.

Melvyn Matthews, director of the Kaapse Klopse Karnaval Association (KKKA), gave a explanation of this festive celebration in an interview with Mbali Vilakazi on Radio Workshop, a Children’s Radio Foundation programme broadcast on SAfm every Saturday.

Matthews explained that the carnival is an expression of freedom that has withstood two world wars and apartheid, and that the uplifting music played symbolises a new beginning: “You go into this sense of freedom, relief and renewal. This was a renewal carnival in that whatever’s happened in the past, this is a new year, tweede nuwe jaar, and a chance to start all over again.”

The carnival is an act of reclaiming the city, even if only “for a short while”, said Matthews. “As soon as you hit the streets you feel this euphoria and this sense of everyone belonging.”

Cape clubs, choirs and music groups typically start practicing up to six months before the carnival.

John Edwin Mason, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, has written extensively about the early 19th century in South Africa, especially the history of slavery, and has now turned his attention to 20th century South African cultural and political history. His book, One Love, Ghoema Beat: Inside the Cape Town Carnival details the roots of the new year’s celebration.

In his research, Mason notes how slaves were an important part of the Cape Town music scene. Even though slaves played European classical and popular music for their masters, they also performed for themselves, “drawing on Asian and African musical traditions”.

“These enslaved musicians were in the process of creating a unique musical culture that borrowed from, reconfigured, and improvised on the music of Asia, Africa, and Europe,” says Mason.

The first official carnival competition was organised by the all-white Green Point Cricket Club, says Mason, and was held at Cape Town’s Green Point track on January 1, 1907. This competition was known as the Coloured Carnival, and provided the foundation for the minstrel troupe competitions of today.

The 2011 Cape Town Minstrel Carnival will take place on Saturday, January 1, and will see more than 10 000 performers marching their way through Cape Town, celebrating their heritage, and competing for various awards, some of which include the most flamboyant performance, the best dressed troupe and the best band. Please note that there will be road closures on the day of the carnival. Click here for further details of the road closures.

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