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Carubbian Festival: a neo-baroque creation in Sunrise City

by Joe Fortin

Every Thursday there is something going on in San Nicolas, Aruba. Maybe for some it is a celebration of life, while for others it refers to a feast of forgetting sorrow. But what is this Carubbian Festival really?

First some facts. During this celebration there are several entertainment shows, music bands and local people selling food, snacks and cakes. This party is an invention in order to give this ‘ghost town’ an economic boost, because since the closure of the oil refinery there is almost no commercial activity in this town also known by the local population as Chocolate City. How different it was between the 1950’s-1980’s. San Nicolas was a real cosmopolitan city with different shops, bars and dancing halls. Because of its multi-ethnic population, San Nicolas was a real creole Caribbean town where you could hear different languages from all over the world and taste a variety of foods and drinks that the English West Indians brought with them. Nowadays the main street is almost desolated. However, you can still find some shops and bars and taste the wealth of an opulence past. During the daytime you can find groups of local men sitting and chatting in front of The White Star bar and some ‘chollers’ (addicts) looking for a car to wash for money; at night the prostitutes take over the street, while looking bored and void at possible clients.
Tourists can buy tickets to assist the Carubbian Festival. This includes transport in air-conditioned luxury busses, seats during the shows and masks so that they can participate in the festivities. When they arrive at the festival plaza, near the barbed wired fences of the abandoned refinery, which during the day, is a desolated parking lot, they are guided to their seats enclosed in a barricaded terrain. On the plaza there is a podium with musical instruments, a lot of movement, and people going up and running down from the stage. This is only a prelude that foretells that something is going to happen soon. On the main street, near the parking lot, local people are gathering in small groups, chitchatting and laughing feverishly. They are well dressed and perfumed and ready for the evening. Small merchants and people with local stores ‘shap’ are installing their food and their handicraft on small tables. Stiltwalkers from The Party Animals are entertaining people, while greeting and waving to their acquaintances and making publicity for the popcorn machine.
Meanwhile, the show-master is announcing the local stars that are going to entertain the crowd. There is a variety of steel drums, traditional Aruban music and dance, like the well-known ‘ribbon dance’ (baile di cinta) on Caribbean mazurka or polka. There is a limbo dancer that brings us back in time with his hypnotizing dance of fire and several other typical Carubbian entertainments.
After these performances, some tourists are invited on stage in order to participate in a dance competition. At this point the locals are gathering and getting closer to the stage. On stage a local couple gives a demonstration on how to dance merengue, salsa, caiso or calypso, and afterwards, it is the turn of the visitors to try to make the same movements with their hips and shoulders. The show-master gives them instructions on how to move the hips and incidentally advises them on how to improve their amorous life. However, their movements are always too late or too soon. The witty, sharp and hilarious remarks of the show-master are cruel but never offensive. We can consider this festival as a mise en abyme, an infinite reproduction of an image. The visitors who paid money to watch a show, become part of the show. Some of them become performers on stage, while the rest, sitting and watching the show, are part of the festival as well. They are sitting on the plaza and are being watched by local people. Between the local people, you can find other tourists, looking at the locals, gazing at the tourists, watching the show.
Now it is the turn of all the invitees to participate in the local tradition of self-exposure in a street parade. The tourists get off their seats while walking in groups in the direction of the brass-band music coming from the main street. The locals, on the other side, are forming lines on the sidewalks to watch the upcoming parade. As the brass band is getting closer you can see a group of locals dressed in carnival costumes dancing to the rhythm of Caribbean sounds. Behind this group, you can see the tourists, some of them dancing, others trying in vain to swing, but most of them just walking like they have been zombified. Some of them wear their masks, which were included in the evening package; others are holding it in their hands, somewhat clumsy and waving to the gazing public, which now are the locals.
Sitting in their air-conditioned busses, satisfied and exhausted and somewhat surprised by an evening outside their confident and comfortable hotels and restaurants, the visitors are ready to return to their luxurious life. However, this is not the end of the fete… Now the locals are taking over the plaza, while the bands keep playing their music; people are dancing, children playing and scabbed mongrels sniffing and looking for some leftovers. Will the tourist ever know that when they left, the feast just started for the locals?
Now the meta-text. Interesting about this Carubbian bash is that it inverts the traditional standards and values. Generally it is the tourist that gazes at the local, ‘exotising’ him. The local becomes an object of fetish for the visitor, because he is strange, ‘other’, has another modus in quotidian life. As a passenger you can feel free to observe the other at ease. But now, at the Carubbian Festival, the tourist is the exotic one and he is being fetishized as the other. The local is free to look shameless at the tourist and laugh at him. At the same time, the local forms a mirror for the tourist, so he can look at his own image. Just like in the mirror-stage of Lacan, first he does not recognize himself. He thinks that his reflection is another person, the other. But then, he recognizes himself in the reflection and becomes aware that he is the other. But this reflection is fragmented, so it creates a partial double of himself. The tourist becomes the local: their separated life now comes very close to each other.
The Carubbian Festival creates another reality, an illusion, and a simulacrum of the Aruban reality. According to Baudrillard, simulacrum is a construction of a world that seems like ours but in reality doesn’t exist. Simulacra are copies that depict things that either had no reality to begin with, or that no longer have an original.[1]This bash is a simulacrum because it is a creation of a reality that at first did not exist. The shows and carnival parade are being organized firstly to give the ‘ghost town’ San Nicolas a boost (commercial invention) and secondly to give the tourist alternative entertainment (festivity invention). On the other side, this festival is also a simulation: it looks like something known, but it isn’t. It is a simulation of the carnival parade in February, but now in another setting as an invention for every Tuesday evening. It depicts real life during a weekly celebration. It is an intertextual reference to the ‘real’ carnival celebration, because it creates an allusion that seems like carnival, but in a totally different frame. On the other side, we can say that this festival is also metafiction, because it refers to itself as a fictional construction that is aware of its functionality. The audience (local and tourist), the show-master, the participants and the musicians all know that they are part of a constructed illusion.
Besides, we can say that the festival is an inversion of the reality. According to Bakhtin ‘[i]n carnival, laughter and excess push aside the seriousness and the hierarchies of “official” life. […] In Bakhtin’s work, the image of reversal symbolizes his intellectual ideal of rethinking: finding multiple levels of meaning in words, images, and tone.’[2]But the Carubbian Festival is an inversion of an inversion, a double-inversion. Now the local is playing the tourist who is looking at the tourist masqueraded (literally and figuratively) as the local.  In this setting, even the prostitutes and the chollers can be seen as part of the show; they are no longer considered as aberrant as they contribute to the inversion of the inversion of the reality.
The Carubbian Festival is a neo-baroque construction: it is an artificial reality and everybody is aware of this counterfeit. But on the other hand it is a space where you can be yourself by acting like the ‘other.’ The festival is a fiction that proposes a hyper reality: a reality that is even more real than daily life.

Bakhtin, Mikhail.Rabelais and his World. Cambridge Massachusets: The M.I.T. Press, 1968.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Chiesa, Lorenzo. Subjectivity and otherness. A Philosophical reading of Lacan. Cambridge/ London: The Mitt Press, 2007.
Sarduy, Severo. Barroco. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamerica, 1974.
—. “Copy/Simulacrum”. In: Written on a Body. Lumen Books, New York, 1989.
Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction. Methuen, 1984.
Živković, Milica. “The Double as the ‘Unseen’ of culture: toward a definition of doppelganger.”
Facta Universitaties (121-128). Vol. 2– No 7, 2000.

[1]Robert Goldman; Stephen Papson. “Landscapes of Capital”, Information technology. St. Lawrence University, 2012.
[2] Shanti Elliot,  ‘Carnival and Dialogue in Bakhtin’s Poeticsof Folklore’, 1999.

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