Carnival in Aruba is filled with the sounds of steel drums, marching bands, and Calypso-inspired tunes marching through the streets. The carnival season is characterized by its frenzied weeks of queen elections, street marches, grave and calypso contests, parties and parades, followed by the illuminated parade and grand parades in San Nicolás and Oranjestad.
Thousands of tireless carnivalists linger in the parades, for hours, under the sunlight and the starry sky, sporting sequined ornaments, feathers, glitters, ostentatious costumes and creative hats.
The music of the Carnival is irresistible. Originally from Trinidad in the late 18th century, the Calypso uses a variety of poetic elements in his humorous comments about life and love, developed by men with nicknames such as Mighty, Lord, and King. The marches through the streets have catchy melody and lyrics and movements presented in unison.
Dera Gai (burial of the rooster) is the result of a festival that began in Mexico combined with the festival of San Juan el Bautista. As an offering to the gods, the pagan Indians light bonfires to clear their lands of the vestiges of other crops. This cleansing ritual marks the end of one season and the welcome of a new one. Men compete with each other by jumping over the fire. The winner is awarded with food and drinks. The custom has spread to Aruba and other countries, becoming part of their local folklore.
Located in Central America according to elaineqho.com, Aruba has been celebrating Saint John’s Day for more than two centuries. It is said that it is the only country in the world that celebrates it with music and dance. The women dance and wear colorful costumes of the bright yellow of the flowers, as a symbol of a good harvest. And for their part, the musicians wear a yellow or red band around their chest and wear dark pants.
The men’s eyes are covered, they are turned until they lose their way and then they must try to break a pumpkin with a stick, the pumpkin represents the head of the buried rooster, this amuses the audience a lot. This practice is accompanied by presentations by folk groups referring to the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. A special melody is sung to the accompaniment of a drum, violin, drum (small drum), and wiri (a metal percussion instrument).
The rapid rhythm achieved by the guitar, accordion and raspa (percussion instrument) and the rhythm of the drums heralds the entry of a group of Dande or traveling musicians every New Year in Aruba. The word Dande means to party, rebel, or simply have a good time. This celebration began after King Willem III of the Netherlands declared slaves free. The traditional song is performed by a group of people who go door to door singing songs of peace, happiness, goodwill and prosperity for the new year. The choir repeats “ai nobe” (New Year) happily in this melody. It is an African rhythm, like that of the Curaçao tomb.
In each house money is collected that is shared by the whole group. Some districts have their own Dande groups that continue to perform even after the new year. Since 1971, the festival has been held on the last Saturday of the year and the king and queen of the Dande are elected.
As December approaches, the harmonious rhythms of the bagpipe groups remind that the holiday season begins. Gaita is the name of a Venezuelan folk rhythm descended from indigenous rhythms and that came from Maracaibo. It took this form in Aruba in the 60’s and it became popular 40 years ago. Over time it has been influenced by other musical genres such as salsa and merengue. At first, only Christmas songs were performed, but today the lyrics of the songs speak of love, romance and other topics. The original fourth, drum and wiri instruments are accompanied by piano, drums and trumpets.
Gaita groups are made up of 18 or 20 musicians who arrange their songs months in advance, between June and July, and begin recording from August to October. These groups make public and private performances from the beginning of November to December 25. They are also part of the entertainment of downtown shoppers. The music is captivating and everyone who hears it is touched by the holiday spirit.
On December 25 we enjoyed another musical tradition called Aguinaldo or Serenal. It is a celebration adopted from Venezuela where it is called “Noche Buena.” This musical genre can be compared to Christmas carols. The musicians announce their arrival through a song that seeks to gain entry to the homes of families and friends by telling the story of the birth of Christ and sharing his message of peace and goodwill to all men.