What floats your boat? Cape Town Carnival

As I enter the workshop in Woodstock dedicated to building the carnival floats, a dreadlocked guy warns me, “This is a workshop; it’s dangerous; enter at your own risk.” Everywhere neon signs declare the omnipresence of “Danger!” My favourite reads: Don’t bleed on the floats. Sparks fly from screeching tools and the smell of oil fills the air. As I sit on a chair, a broadly smiling Rastafarian approaches and says, “You’re the first girl who’s come to visit; we miss that.”

From here, nine vibrant, memorable floats will emerge. Like birthday cakes, floats form the centrepiece of carnival celebrations. Subtlety has no place in float design, and each one must express the theme of the group that they represent. However, while the floats will dazzle with bright colours, clear outlines and flashing lights, right now they are in the skeletal phase, with their bones exposed. The African Mama float stands in one corner like the innards of an oversized lampshade. I can’t resist climbing the ladder to the seat where the woman chosen for the fiercely contested role of African Mama will sit, perched at three-and-a-half metres. I rip my skirt in the process, but it’s worth it to get a sense of how exhilarating it will feel to be paraded around the streets of Cape Town from such a lofty height.

Everything about the Cape Town Carnival shouts larger than life, except, perhaps its budget. To put it in perspective, at the mother of all carnivals in Brazil, Brazilians can spend the equivalent of our entire budget on one single float. Their floats are double or triple the size of ours, which have a maximum width of five metres. MostThey are motorised, whereas ours are people-powered. But creative director Brad Baard is not complaining. With his shoulder-length hippy style hair and background in building flammable structures for the annual AfrikaBurn festival, he seems right at home with the challenge of making something fabulous out of not very much. Everything in the carnival is re-used and recycled. Humility rather than extravagance rules the day.

While Aloes and Flamingos (accompanied by the flamenco dancers from Gugulethu

Khayelitsha) are straightforward representations of the Cape-to-Cairo theme, other floats are more abstract. For example, the Black Gold float represents the phenomenon of mineral exploitation in Africa that has led to rapid wealth in countries such as Angola. As oil and gold spurt up through funnels, scantily clad revellers party on board. “It’s a very sexy float”, says Brad, grinning. “And the one that I’d most like to be on.”

Dancing in the streets

“You better be moving or I’ll send you to the back with the aunties,” choreographer Bheki Ndlovu tells the young dancers who are leading the Mama Africa procession. The aunties that he refers to are the sangomas at the back who are bringing up the rear. They hold sjamboks rather than the South African flags that the others wave, and accentuate the rhythm of the dance with ankle bells, made from rows of bottle tops sewn onto a leather band.

This is the first year that the carnival has had a choreographer, and Bheki brings a new element of discipline. Previously, when the dancers were tired they would start walking and looking at the crowds. This year, while the emphasis is still on fun, feet and eyes are expected to keep moving and looking forward.

Bringing the 2500 performers who make up the 45 groups (which in turn make up the 11 academies) that will be on parade is a daunting task for community facilitator Angie Petersen. The members of each group are deliberately chosen from different communities to encourage getting to know people from different backgrounds. Rehearsals are held in varying locations, so that people from Bridgetown will get to see how people in Khayelitsha live, and vice versa. But when you see the performers linking arms and mingling to the chorus of “let the sunshine in”, the effort is certainly worth it.

According to Angie, the joy that the carnival generates has immeasurable value. Many of the participants face relentless difficulties in their everyday lives, but these disappear as they find carnival spirit. For some, performing on the night is the most joyful occasion in their lives. One woman compared the night before carnival to the eve of her wedding.

“I want to see the fun and the joy,” instructs Bheki, going up and down the rows of performers. That’s easy; it shines from the face of each performer.

The Cape Town Carnival took place on 24 March in 2012. It’s an annual event
Mar 15th 2012, 12:54

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