Cape Town Minstrel Carnival

Cape Town Minstrel Carnival

Festival Country: South Africa
Festival Type(s): Street Parade, Cultural

The carnival has its roots in the creole culture that formed at the Cape over hundreds of years from the interaction and intermingling of indigenous African groups, European settlers, Muslim slaves from the Indonesian archipelago, and people from a variety of other backgrounds. Freed slaves in Cape Town developed their own cycle of festivals in December and January, among them the Tweede Nuewe Jaar (Second New Year), which is celebrated on January 2nd and is a kind of independence day for the coloured community. When American minstrels arrived at the Cape in the mid-nineteenth century, the styles and sounds of vaudeville were incorporated into local celebrations, and the Coon Carnival was born. The word coon was borrowed but its pejorative and racial connotations were ignored, so that it came to refer to a member of a minstrel troupe and nothing more.

Today, the minstrels continue to borrow from a variety of cultural sources. One of this year’s favorite troupes, for example, is called the Pennsylvanians; another is known as the Fabulous Mardi Gras. And while the minstrels’ repertoire largely consists of folk songs, they also perform Broadway show tunes and dance to hip-hop and Latin tracks as they parade through the streets of the city.

It is perhaps ironic that a festival formed from so many varied and cosmopolitan influences should remain so local in character. Yet this is part of the charm of the Coon Carnival. Each troupe is made up of members from a particular neighborhood of the city, and each is expected to parade and perform for its local community in exchange for booze and tables full of delicious Cape cuisine. Of course, the local character of the carnival also means that the carnival reflects some local problems. Many of the city’s gangsters join the minstrel troupes, for instance, and tensions sometimes spill over into violence at the stadium. But rather than exacerbating the problem, the Coon Carnival often provides an opportunity for peace and co-existence within the community. Look, said one elderly minstrel in the green, yellow, and red of the Elsies River Community Entertainers, waving his arms over a dancing sea of colorful umbrellas. All the gangsters from the Cape Flats in one place. And no guns. Everybody’s happy. It just goes to show you.

Under apartheid, the Coon Carnival faced enormous challenges. Segregation, forced removals, and discrimination made the troupes and their performances more difficult to organize. The government often placed the best stadiums off-limits to the coloured community, and where the carnival was able to perform it had to do so in front of segregated audiences. Now, in the New South Africa, the government is lending its support to the carnival, and Nelson Mandela himself presided over the carnival’s opening in 1996. Academics have begun taking notice as well, with a groundbreaking study of the Coon Carnival being published in 1999 by the French academic Denis-Constant Martin. And with tourism quickly becoming a pillar of the local economy, city officials talk about turning the Minstrel Carnival into a celebration that will rival festivals in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro.

As exciting and ambitious as that may sound, some of the minstrels themselves are apprehensive about opening up the festival to the world. There is a widespread fear that organizing the Coon Carnival to appeal to foreign tourists and commercial sponsors would mean taking it away from the local communities that have kept it alive for over a hundred years, in effect reserving the best seats for tourists just as they were once reserved for whites at the segregated stadiums. And there is an enduring ambivalence in Cape Town about coloured identity and whether it is something that can or should be embraced and celebrated. If Capetonians are unsure about how to respond to a parade of blackface minstrels, the feeling goes, how might the rest of the world react?

Mr. Trotter, for one, has made up his mind: the Coon Carnival is a lot of fun, even if wearing blackface might be seen back home as a provocative act. I think it would be challenging to explain this to Americans, because we have abandoned these things, he says. But one group’s cultural taboos are another’s celebration. In Cape Town, as in other creole cities around the world, it seems that pushing cultural boundaries is what the party’s all about after all.


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