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The history of Mindelo's carnival

· Travel

I recently got asked for an interview with a New Orleans radio station interested in speaking to people about different carnival celebrations around the world. During a first conversation, I realised I knew little about the origins and history of Cabo Verde's largest carnival celebration, and carnival in general. Mindelo's main carnival parade is tomorrow, so it's time to take a look at the past.


According to Wikipedia, Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the day Lent starts for followers of the Christian church. Traditionally, this involved eating foods such as pancakes and meat, before starting a period of fasting.


The Portugese word of Carnaval comes from a Medieval Latin term called carnelevamen. Many Cabo Verdean traditions are related to the Christian church, and the occupation of the Portugese, which lasted until 1975 when Cabo Verde became an independent country.


The history of Mindelo's carnival goes all the way back to 1916. It's when people first started to hit the streets of the city, with masks on their face as a way to celebrate the last day before Lent.


These celebrations evolved into something a bit more organised with the first known formation of a carnvial group, in 1920. This group was called the Florianos. It was made up mostly of public servants, and they were known best for their private parties in Mindelo. Something we still see a lot of today.


The thirties saw a few more carnival groups being formed. This time more tied to the neighborhoods where they were first created. Popular carnival groups in those days were groups from neighborhoods such as Ribeira Bote and Monte Sossego. Monte Sossego has continued its strong tradition, and still competes in the yearly parade.


Mindelo carnival started to make a name for itself, and grew bigger and better with every edition. But it was only in the 40's and 50's that the carnival took the shape it has today. With a larger carnival celebration, came a growing rivalry between better organised groups, fighting for tthe title of best carnival group of the year. This competition improved the overall quality of the event.


Today, we see a rivalry that is mostly between groups representing different Mindelo neighborhoods. This places even more of an emphesis on the competitive aspect of the carnival. People dream of winning first place. The winner gets to go on one more parade on Wednesday, this time from the city center to their 'HQ' in their own neighborhood.


But why Mindelo

The competition does not end in Mindelo. In the last few years, we've seen a growing battle between islands and cities. It makes sense that the islands of Sal and Boa Vista are trying to build larger carnival celebrations to cater to their high number of foreign visitors. But it also makes sense for capital city Praia to invest in a carnival that can challenge Mindelo.


Praia is home to nearly a third (!) of the entire Cabo Verdean population. Half of Cabo Verde's population lives on the island of Santiago. Mindelo clearly loses based on the numbers, and Praia can also leverage a better financial position. But tradition, culture and quality can't be bought.


If there is one sentence that I've written most on this blog, it's this one: “Mindelo is Cabo Verde's cultural capital.” Famous Cabo Verdean author Germano Almeida explains where this comes from and why it's still true today in one of his novels. It goes back to the early days of the city.


Almeida writes about the difficult conditions on the island of São Vicente. Compared to Santo Antão, São Nicolau and Santiago, São Vicente was dry and therefore practically inhabitable. What the island did have was natural deep waters around the bay of Porto Grande. This made it a perfect spot for a harbour. The city of Mindelo grew out of the activity around this port.


Most visitors came for work and left within days. But not before having a little party. Mindelo made a reputation for itself, as it became Cabo Verde's number one party town. And why not? People came for work and business, closed it off with a party and went home. What happened in Mindelo stayed in Mindelo.


The island of São Vicente is home to Cabo Verde's second largest city. But because of the conditions Almeida describes in his book, it was the last of the 9 islands to become permanently habited. The stories Almeida tells in his novel are from many years ago, but the people in Mindelo still have the same spirit. They love a good party. Something they show off with pride each year around carnival.


The future 

Carnival in Mindelo goes back more than 100 years. So many people have contributed to make it what it is today. Still, I strongly believe there is a very bright future ahead for the city and the largest and most colorful festival of the country.


With the addition of an official carnival organisation, called Ligoc, things will become more professional. City Hall has stated many times that the carnival needs to become much more of a product. Although some developments can take away a bit of the charm, Mindelo deserves an even bigger and better carnival open to many more people.


3 years after the last edition, carnival in Mindelo is back to provide you with an unforgettable experience. First, with tonight's special Samba Tropical nightparade. Tomorrow, it's time for the spectacular carnival competition. If you're missing out, make sure to be there for the 2024 edition.


History tells us it will only get better from here. Bom carnaval pa tud gent.