Monday, February 19, 2007

Oruro's world-famous festival

Many people had recommended taking a trip into the mountains to the mining town of Oruro to see its annual Carnaval (Mardi Gras) festival of dance and music. Every town has its own version of Carnaval, but Oruro’s is famous in Bolivia for its ancient dances and traditions.
It’s a 40-minute plane flight to Cochabamba and then a winding four-hour bus ride up to 12,000 feet and Oruro. It lies at the foot of the mountain that still yields tin and other mineral riches. I went with about 15 other people, mostly Bolivians but one Russian, two Chileans and a French couple.
It was worth the trip for the pictures I got. The spectacle is impressive. Some 28,000 dancers and 10,000 musicians start making a circuit at around 5:30 a.m. and go for 20 hours. The United Nations has recognized the dances and traditions as Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

What the dances mean depends on whose history your read. The 24-page special section in the local paper, La Patria, traces this particular Mardi Gras fest to Feb. 2, 1789, when the Virgin of the Grotto appeared to a mortally wounded thief named Nina Nina and saved his life.

It’s a feast of the Virgin, then. And then she is also connected to a Robin Hood-like character named Chiru Chiru. What’s clear in reading the histories of each of the dances and the origins of the 40-some dance troupes is that there are numerous explanations for the meanings of particular dances and costumes and traditions.

Here is what the United Nations website says about the Oruro festival’s origins: “[It]
was an important pre-Columbian ceremonial site. It was refounded by the Spanish in 1606 and continued to be a sacred site for the Uru people, some of whom would travel from far afield to perform the rituals, especially for the big Ito festival.
“The Spanish banned these ceremonies in the seventeenth century, but they continued under the guise of the Christian
liturgy: the Andean gods were concealed behind Christian icons and the Andean divinities became the saints. The Ito festival was transformed into a Christian ritual, celebrated on Candlemas (2 February). The traditional "lama lama" or "diablada" dance became the main dance in the Oruro Carnival.

“The Carnival now takes place once a year, before Lent. It lasts ten days and gives rise to a whole panoply of popular arts expressed in masks, textiles and embroidery. The main event in the carnival is the procession "entrada", which combines Christian elements and borrowings from the medieval mystery plays.”

So it’s a mixture that is difficult to sort out. Arguing about what’s authentic and pure seems kind of pointless, but people get passionate about it.

Even modern choreography, despite written dance notation forms, is very much handed down person to person. And when you consider the difficulties modern choreographers have in maintaining some consistency in movement and meaning over just one generation, you have to imagine that these dances have been transformed over the past 20 generations by the individuals who performed them.

A sideshow was the battles between those armed with globos (little water balloons) and cans of espuma (foam). I tried to identify myself as a noncombatant by refusing to wear a long plastic poncho that many spectators wore. Mostly I suffered only collateral damage from nearby bombardments, but one globo exploded on my chest when I got caught in a crossfire.

We had great seats in a grandstand along the main drag. Vendors hawked Bolivia’s best-known beer, Paceña, for 60 cents a can, and a lot of people were drinking, but I didn’t see anyone really drunk. I watched and shot pictures for about five hours and then the sun got to me. It’s particularly strong at that altitude, even when you have a wide-brimmed hat and long-sleeved shirt. My exit was delayed for a minute as President Evo Morales and his vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, crossed the parade route to take their seats in the celebrity box. I got a good look at close range but a mob of journalists blocked my attempts to snag my own picture.

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