Tusic doesn’t come any more joyous. Music doesn’t come any more determined to make you dance and shout and sing. Music doesn’t come any more conceived to make you lose yourself entirely in its shameless excess.

This is the music of Carnival, and although you rarely hear it at 35,000 feet, it’s not for want of the musicians trying. All this month the splendid celebration of Carnival is taking place all over the world, and its music is crashing in the ears of its revelers.

Americans know the ritual best through Mardi Gras and its boisterous parades. But Mardi Gras is only one slice of Carnival, and its music only one distinctive segment of the whole street-style symphony of sound.

Its genre is “world music,” which has been bursting with popularity in recent years. There’s a simple definition of that term, according to Dan Storper, founder and president of music label Putumayo World Music: international music with tribal origins. It sounds exotic, but much of it is surprisingly accessible. And irresistible.

And why shouldn’t it be, with Carnival’s lusty history? Most accounts point to the ancient Greek spring festival honoring Dionysus, the god of wine, as a prototype of Carnival. The Romans continued the idea with Bacchanalia and Saturnalia, festival days when slaves and their masters would exchange roles. These pre-Christian celebrations are thought to have been adapted by the Roman Catholic Church for the period preceding Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Before the 40 somber days of Lent, when Roman Catholics abstained from eating meat, a party was definitely in order.

E-mew, not E-moo

Not everyone can go to Carnival, but the good news is there are ample recordings available. Putumayo World Music ( and The Rough Guides ( both have numerous compilation CDs (one of the best ways to explore new music) that include a range of artists and styles, accompanied by comprehensive liner notes. I recommend Putumayo’s Brasileiro, Caribbean Party and New Orleans, and The Rough Guide to the Music of Brazil: Bahia, The Rough Guide to Samba, and Calypso & Soca from The Rough Guides. These are widely available at local retailers and from

No source lists all the carnivals in the world, but is a good place to start for the major ones, and each month Global Rhythm magazine lists as many festivals as its staff knows about.—T.M.

In the New World, in areas colonized by Catholics, Carnival became more a story of the local people reflected in music than a religious holiday.

“Carnival, especially in the Americas where it was adopted by African Americans, is an expression of freedom and release,” says Jacob Edgar, ethnomusicologist and vice president of artists and repertoire for Putumayo.

“It was traditionally the one time in the year when slaves and the impoverished were free to express themselves and celebrate,” he explains. “So at its core, Carnival is a communal expression of the hope and desire for social freedom. After all, how many times a year can you wear only body paint and giant feathers, drunk out of your mind, acting like a total idiot, and have it be a perfectly acceptable thing to do?”


Flamboyant celebrations, overflowing with music and parades, became popular throughout towns and villages of the Americas, with large ensembles in which “nonprofessional musicians and dancers can get together and strut their stuff,” Edgar says. People created music out of whatever they could find, including tire rims and frying pans in Cuba, steel drums in Trinidad, and conch shells (which American Indians and then African slaves used before they had trumpets and other brass instruments) throughout the Caribbean. “If you can bang on it or blow into it and make noise, it is fair game,” Edgar says, with each country and even region laying claim to unique musical contributions.

To me, as a lover and ardent follower of world music, there are three key styles of this music: the Brazilian, heavily influenced by samba; the Caribbean, particularly the Trinidadian, which is unsurpassed for its sheer energy; and the New Orleanian, the last to develop and the most modern in its use of brass.

T arnival is one of the driving forces of music in Brazil, with the requirement that only new songs can be entered in Rio de Janeiro and So Paulo’s samba competitions each year. Rio’s processions are the best-known, centered in the city’s huge stadium, where each samba school, or neighborhood group, parades and has its own song. Music still plays as prevalent a role as it did more than 100 years ago when samba was born, the result of traditional European music mixing with that of the local population. Martinho da Vila and Clara Nunes, the first female Brazilian to have a gold record in Brazil, are two great sambistas. So was Antonio Carlos Jobim, the brilliant songwriter whose music first came to prominence as part of the soundtrack of Black Orpheus, a film set during the riot of Carnival.

In Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, “it’s total madness,” says Dan Rosenberg, who produces world music compilation CDs for U.S. and international audiences. There the celebration is very different from Rio’s, with the music and parading in
the streets, and the unmistakable beat of Bahian drumming. They are led by “blocos Afros,” large percussion ensembles, and “trio electricos,” performing on top of huge trucks wired with loudspeakers. Olodum, Il Aiy and Timbalada, led by Carlinhos Brown, are some of the biggest and most important names.

The Islands
Tn most Caribbean countries, Carnival is a diversion from life,” says Patricia Meschino, a contributor to Global Rhythm magazine. “In Trinidad, life is a diversion from Carnival.” She repeats a popularly held view.

Trinidad’s notable contributions to world music have included the steel drum (or pan, as it is known locally), made from oil drums—“one of only a handful of acoustic instruments created in the 20th century,” says Rosenberg—as well as the creation of calypso. This powerfully rhythmic style functioned as “sung newspapers” that brought news of the day through socially conscious and often political lyrics.

A recent derivative of calypso is called soca (the soul of calypso) and emphasizes dance. “There’s something about soca music which gives you the feeling that you want to get up and dance. Forget whatever troubles you have,” said Montserrat native Arrow in an interview for The Rough Guide to World Music 2: Latin and North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific. Arrow’s credentials are impressive: He wrote the international soca hit and Carnival classic “Hot, Hot, Hot.” The title well describes soca. Other notable soca musicians include Andre Tanker, David Rudder and Xtatik, all of Trinidad, and Krosfya of Barbados.

The Big Easy
Tn the United States, there’s Mardi Gras, which even children know to associate with revelry. Exuberance of this order needs a music, and the marching band style of New Orleans suits perfectly. Like so much in this great port with its colorful history, its Carnival music is a true blend, a gumbo of styles. When you listen to someone like Kermit Ruffins, you hear the great martial marches of European courts adapted to a libertine purpose. But there’s also zydeco—accordion-driven dance music developed mostly by Louisiana’s “Creoles of color” and typified by Clifton Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco, Queen Ida and Her Zydeco Band, and Boozoo Chavis. There’s also Cajun, brought originally by the Acadians, with its furious fiddles and dulcet harmonies, played peerlessly today by Bruce Daigrepont, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, the Jambalaya Cajun Band, and Beausoleil. And the only reason I won’t mention the blues is because one thing the music of Carnival is usually not about is anyone’s pain.

Is it possible to play favorites with Carnival? Nigel Hewitt certainly does. The 37-year-old Brooklyn native, whose parents were born in St. Vincent, goes to at least four Carnivals each year, and has been to almost 100, including lesser-known ones in New York, Miami and Toronto, where many people emigrated from the Caribbean.

Carnival photos
His favorite is in Trinidad, where he often parties “until the sun comes up,” sometimes going for three days with a total of 10 hours of sleep. He knows people, he says, who begin working out months before Carnival season to get in shape for the extensive partying—a diet and fitness program we’d like to know much more about.

But the draw goes beyond partying. Carnival is an important part of his heritage,
Hewitt says, a way to stay connected to his roots. He has even founded, hoping to encourage other people’s interest.

Asked about his favorite music, he immediately names Machel Montano performing his fusion soca in Trinidad. “The speed of the music is breathtaking,” Hewitt says. “It’s more than a concert. It takes you to a whole other level. It’s truly incredible.”

So here’s to Carnival, wherever it’s being celebrated!

World music enthusiast Tanya Mohn lives in a suburb of New York City, but her heart resides in Rio.


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