Minstrel Carnival

Nowhere in the world can any carnival or Mardi Gras be compared with the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival in its splendour, gaiety and unmistakably Cape flavour. In order to understand this exciting blend of cultures, we need to go back in time, to the dark days of slavery and domination. The time when slave masters violently abused and oppressed slaves.
Then it was customary for the slaves to be given a holiday on New Year’s Day, which they in turn transformed into a day of celebration, entertainment, feasting, visiting friends from house to house, wearing of fanciful attires, and revelling in music and dance.
This tradition of New Year celebration continued after the emancipation of the slaves to the accompaniment of street parades and bands. Indeed, from the 1820s, street orchestras and singing societies became regular features of these performances.
Minstrels from America first visited the Cape in 1848. This was ten years after the British government had abolished slavery (but years before emancipation in America).
The American minstrels were white, but they blackened their faces with burnt cork. The inverse of this behaviour became popular with the local former slave population who, being dark skinned, whitened their faces instead and wrote songs to mock their former masters.
The sailors and musicians brought with them American Coon songs to add to the excitement of the festival. In early American minstrel songs, “coon” was a reference to a raccoon. Many of the lyrics make humorous allusions to local figures.
By the end of the nineteenth century these singing groups and bands began to be associated with particular sports clubs and were usually costumed in special attires distinguished by peculiar emblems. Every year, they competed with one another in songs, in dances, in parades, and in the wearing of colourful outfits, as they marched through the streets and suburbs of Cape Town.
The first attempt at organised celebration was on January 1, 1907 when the Green Point Cricket Club brought all the competitions and singing groups together in a grand competition at the Green Point Track stadium.
This was repeated in 1908 and 1909, but was discontinued until 1920 and 1921 when Dr. A. Abdulrahman, the leader of the African People’s Organisation (APO), organised two successive Grand Carnivals on Green Point Track.
From the early 1900s and over the course of the next half-century, other elements, local and foreign, ranging from African American religious hymns to classical European musical forms and from Mexican Cattle Stampers to stilt dancers of West Indian inspirations, came to enrich the ongoing creolisation of the festival.
Lekker Links
In Search of Coon Songs – Racial Stereotypes in American Popular Song Minstrel; Missionaries & choirs; Marabi; Kwela; Mbaqanga; Jazz; Kwaito.
Western Cape
Climate in Cape Town
The social and political pressures associated with the formal institutionalisation of apartheid led to the inclusion of songs in Afrikaans in the Coon Carnival repertoires from the 1940s. Other changes followed as dances disappeared and brass bands gradually replaced string bands.
In spite of every effort by the Apartheid government to suppress the carnival through the restrictions and forced removal of the Group Areas Act and other apartheid measures, its survival is indicative of the resilience of the coloured community and the permanence of their claim to the possession of Cape Town.
As Denis-Constant Martin aptly puts it, ‘the Coon [festival] was the locus of a brutal but disguised confrontation; he could not be a fighter; but he survived and with him survives, in the new South Africa, a discourse on one communal identity continuing to express pride in belonging to a group that survived all attempts at denying the humanity of its members, as well as anxieties regarding what the future has in store for them.’
Former President Nelson Mandela endorsed the minstrel event in 1986 and is now a patron of the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival Association.
Today up to 13,000 minstrels in whiteface take to the streets garbed in shockingly bright colours, either carrying colourful umbrellas or playing an array of musical instruments.
The minstrels are grouped into klopse (‘clubs’ in Cape Dutch, but more accurately translated as troupes in English). Participants are typically from Afrikaans-speaking working class ‘coloured’ families who have preserved the custom since the mid-19th century.
Although it is still called the Coon Carnival by many Capetonians, over recent years it has been renamed the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival.
The festival begins on New Year’s Day and continues into January. Festivities include street parades with singing and dancing, costume competitions and marches through the streets.
The minstrel parade on January 2nd  is a must-see for everyone in Cape Town, local or visitor, as it reflects the heart and soul of vibrant Cape Town and beyond.
Private groups such as the Matabele Warriors and the Zulu Warriors also jostled for recognition along with Christmas bands and Malay Choirs as they selectively adopted and innovatively adapted pop music to assume new significance in the Cape local environment.
‘Our songs come from our forefathers and their fathers before. They were oppressed when they came. They came here as slaves you know and they were always the oppressed and so the only way they could express themselves was putting it in words, singing, dancing, making music and being jolly. So that the next one would think we are happy. In the meantime we are expressing our feelings about certain things’

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