Festivals of the world

Lisa Barrington, Heidi Aho, Mari Shibata 1 July 2009

May Balls might be the biggest events in Cambridge, but as TCS discovers, there’s a whole world of amazing parties and events out there!

El Carnaval de Ororu

I don’t know about you, but the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear “South America” and “carnival” in the same sentence is that Brazil song accompanied by an image of sequins and so much leg it would make the bouncer at Cindies blush. And to some degree Carnaval de Oruro fits the stereotype. Once a year, Bolivia’s folklore capital is transformed into a cultural playground as 28,000 dancers and 100,000 musicians hit the streets in flamboyant costumes, with festivities lasting a total of 3 days and 3 nights. But this is much more than a party. Rather it is the child of a weird and wonderful syncretism of Incan and Catholic ritual, epitomising a culture that’s been churned through 16th century imperialism and come out with old identity still intact, but new traditions shaped by the experience.

The carnival was originally the Ito festival of the Uru people, held to celebrate Pachamama, Mother Earth, and Tio Supay, Uncle God of the mountains. After their conquest of Bolivia in 1533, the Spanish allowed the festival to continue, but cast a new Catholic light on the occasion. However legend has it that the Virgin Mary only came into the picture after the appearance of a life-size image of her in a mineshaft filled with silver in 1789. It was then that Pachamama was definitively usurped, and it is now the image of the Virgin Mary on floats of the parade being driven round between the dancers and trumpeters. Similarly, Tio Supay is now identified as the Devil, and masks representing this figure, resembling what would happen if a dragon and rainbow were to have babies, are one of the main attractions of the carnival. As are the traditional dances – which range from skirt swirling, to drop kicks in exaggerated superman/toreador suits.

A few YouTube videos would be enough to convince you that this carnival deserves the acclaim given to it by UNESCO (in 2001 they declared it as one of Mankind’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity). Bolivia’s Carnaval de Oruro is so much more than Rio de Janeiro’s oft-forgotten little sister.

Turin Cioccolato Festival

Every year, Turin, the ‘chocolate capital of Italy’ opens its doors to chocolate enthusiasts from all over the world in a ten day festival of culture and all that is cocoa. The seventh annual Turin Cioccolatò festival took place in March this year. The event, at which 30,000 kilos of chocolate are thought to be consumed, is held just before Easter each year to coincide with the Easter increase in chocolate production.
The festival is centred on the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, one of the largest open squares in Europe in the famous city of Turin in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. Turin has a long and prestigious connection with the cocoa bean and today makes 60% of Italy’s chocolate.
Each festival adopts a theme, and this year’s event, which coincided with International Women’s Day, focused on the connection of women with chocolate. Prominent female chefs and chocolatiers were featured. Literary and musical activities accompany the sampling of the finest chocolate in the world.

The festival sounds like heaven on earth to many people and is a symbol of our special relationship with the cocoa product often described as more than a food but less than a drug. Brought to Europe by Cortez from Central America, it used only to be served in liquid form mixed with sugar and vanilla. This changed in the nineteenth century when a Turin inventor created a machine to mix the ingredients into solid form. Fans of Nutella may be interested to know that the product has its origins in Turin. Gianduiotti, for which the town is famed, was invented in the mid 1800s due to a cocoa shortage. Locally abundant hazelnuts were instead roasted and ground and mixed with chocolate. Even outside of festival time tourists can still get their chocolate fix by purchasing a special ‘chocopass’. Over three days you can use your pass to experience the many delights of the town’s skilled chocolatiers.

Cattle drive across the Niger

Mali’s cattle crossing is a cause for celebration. Every year in the town of Diafarabe, thousands of people gather to watch herds of cattle swim the Niger river on their way from northern to southern grazing. The event is marked by a vibrant festival at which families are reunited for a brief spell between pasturing periods.

When the December dry season turns the northern lands of Sub-Saharan Mali to dust, the Fulani herdsmen take their cattle South to the rich grass left by receding flood waters. To do this they must cross the River Niger, which divides southwestern Mali from the rest of the country. The date of the crossing is not known until a day or two before the event, announced by the government when waters are deemed low enough for a crossing. A number of cattle crossings take place along the Niger, but the peninsula town of Diafarabe, located to the North East of Mali’s capital Bamako, witnesses the first and largest. It is here that the Niger and the Diaka tributary narrow enough to permit the first crossing.
Cattle are chased into the cold water in groups and they swim across, accompanied by their herders. The most spectacular place to watch the crossing is at a break in the cliffs where the cattle squeeze through a bottle-neck and ascend to Diafarabe from the river floodplain. Small cattle are carried in boats. The Diafarabe crossing is a UN World Cultural Heritage Event and is the main festival for the Fulani people, the world’s largest nomadic group. People gather in large numbers wearing bright new clothes and decorating their houses with clay and tapestries. Prizes are awarded for the fattest cattle, and a peanut goes to the herder of the thinnest cattle. It is an emotional event marking the return of the herdsmen from a long period away from their families. Young boys between the ages of ten and sixteen, taken pasturing for the first time, are reunited with their families. It is also a time for engagements. The gathering allows vaccination records to be checked and feed quotas for the coming year to be estimated.

Dragon Boat Festival

This is not just an Asian, dragon-themed May bumps. Yes, it does consist of a boat race held in June, but let’s not let the Cambridge bubble distort our world view too much. For there is more to this festival than boat-race alone (and in any case, the boats are different and resemble large canoes). “Dragon Boat Festival” is the name given to Chinese festival Duanwu Jié by the English, who in the 19th century descended upon Hong Kong and observed that one of the prime activities of the festival, held during summer solstice, the longest day of the year, consisted of dragon boat racing. However there are also many other traditions tied to the occasion, such as eating zongzi, glutinous rice dough stuffed with a variety of fillings (“a rather adventurous alternative to strawberries and cream”), hanging up icons to ward off evil spirits and taking long walks (not to Grantchester).

The Dragon Boat Festival is one of the oldest and most widespread festivals in East Asia, with similar celebrations taking place in Korea, Japan and Vietnam around this time of year. There are numerous legends concerning its origins. The story goes that the festival was initiated by the death of a poet, Qu Yuan (340 BC – 278 BC). He was accused of treason and exiled by the reigning king, and drowned himself for fear of being handed over to hostile political powers. His poetry was so loved amongst the people that they paddled, in boats, in order to rescue his floating body (hence the tradition of the dragon boats). Meanwhile, they threw rice into the waters to distract any hungry fish avid to eat their idol, which gave birth to the tradition of eating zongzi. Alternatively, the festival was meant to cheer people up before the inevitable onslaught of heat-induced disease, which would explain why many of the traditions are affiliated with preventing disease (such as the carrying around of talismans and fragrant silk pouches). The festival could also be evidence for past dragon worship, with the food thrown in the rivers beings offerings to a dragon god, and the boat races an emulation of the dragon’s power.

UN International Day of Peace

Since 1981, the International Day of Peace is observed each year on the opening day of the United Nations General Assembly in September, marking the purpose of the UN: the maintenance and development of friendly relations across the world. The day marks a universal desire for peace, which developed after the Second World War.

The annual celebration for peace features Nobel Peace Laureates, world leaders and internationally known celebrities and musicians represent the UN Messengers of Peace; Dr. Jane Goodall, Michael Douglas, George Clooney, Pierce Brosnan, Yo-Yo Ma, Charlize Theron, and Elie Wieselare among many. They also present multicultural dance and music performances, talks and theatrical presentations, in addition to a ceremony that takes place near the Peace Bell.

The Peace Bell, cast from coins donated by people from some 60 countries, is a gift to the United Nations by the United Nations Association of Japan. It is located in the West Court Garden on the front lawn of the UN Secretariat building. The United Nations Secretary-General delivers a special message before ringing the bell, calling upon people throughout the world to reflect for a moment in silence on the universal goal of peace. Following the moment of silence, the President of the Security Council makes a statement on behalf of the members of the Council, before the delegates of the General Assembly stand for a minute in silence.

In other countries, the most common way of commemorating the Day is observing a moment of silence. Local civic groups and schools also hold special events and ceremonies to mark the Day, include peace walks raising the UN flag and flags of the countries around the globe, singing peace songs, conducting group meetings, visiting hospitals and nursery homes, volunteering at recycling centres, planting trees and making new friendships. The true meaning of the Day lies in the participation of people around the world, who gather together to think about the commitment and the meaning behind peace.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is an annual balloon fiesta that takes place during early October in the town of Albuquerque in New Mexico USA. The fiesta lasts for nine days and involves around 750 balloons. The event is the largest balloon fiesta in the world, as well as the most photographed.

The balloon fiesta began in 1972 as the highlight of a 50th birthday celebration for KOB Radio. Radio station manager Dick McKee asked Sid Cutter, owner of Cutter Flying Service and the first person to own a hot air balloon in New Mexico, if he would fly his balloon, “Roadrunner,” as part of the festivities. Balloonists from Arizona, California, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Texas also took part. In addition to the race and World Championships, there are other special events such as the Fiesta Challenge, America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, Flight of the Nations Mass Ascension, all of which challenge the pilots skill, control and speed of the air balloon.One of the biggest events of the fiesta is the Mass Ascensions, where all participating balloons launch in two waves and fill the sky with hundreds of balloons at once, including uniquely shaped balloons. Some of the most famous shapes include a milk cow, a wagon coach, twin bees, and many others like soda cans and animals. This is the most popular part of the event as families can see how balloons can be all different shapes and sizes.

The Balloon Fiesta has grown each year. The number of registered balloons reached a peak of 1,019 in 2000, prompting the Balloon Fiesta Board to limit the number to 750 starting in 2001, citing a desire for “quality over quantity”. On any given day during the festival, up to 100,000 spectators may be on the launch field, in addition to the countless more people who gather at landing sites all over the city to watch incoming balloons.

Lisa Barrington, Heidi Aho, Mari Shibata