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Tenerife: Carnaval in Santa Cruz

Wandering along the quiet lanes of Santa Cruz de Tenerife’s La Noria district, close to the waterfront, it’s hard to believe that the locals are busy gearing up for Carnaval, one of Europe’s biggest street festivals.

Tenerife: Carnaval in Santa Cruz

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It’s just gone noon. Despite this being January, the sun is beating down and the blue sky is scarred by only the barest wisp of cloud. Looking up at the open bell tower of the white-walled Church of the Immaculate Conception, then along the empty streets, I can’t help but think of those eerily quiet moments that precede gunfights in Westerns.

I’ve come here to visit the headquarters of one of Tenerife’s leading Carnaval groups, Afilarmónica Ni Fú Ni Fá. To me, carnival conjures up images of parades featuring colourful floats and people in glitzy, glamorous costumes. Apparently, though, there’s much more to it here. To los Tinerfeños, the people of Tenerife, Carnaval is also a time to party and enjoy entertainment provided by dancers, musicians and even poets.

Ni Fú Ni Fá is one of more than 100 groups that compete in front of 12,000 spectators to be named as the Carnaval’s best. The event is broadcast live on television and locals snap up tickets within hours of them going on sale.

Rivalry between the groups is intense. “There’s no money involved, only honour,” says one of the group members, as I look at photos of them performing, dressed like clowns. Preparations for this year’s shows, which have a Bollywood theme, started shortly after last year’s Carnaval closed — in the traditional manner, with a mock funeral procession for a giant paper sardine — at the beginning of Lent.

I’m told that the murgas’ songs are laced with humour and that it’s common for local politicians and news events to be satirised in their verses. One of the musicians picks up a trumpet and plays. Instead of the clarion notes I’m expecting, he blows a scale of distorted raspberries then laughs.

Locals clearly use this time of year to let their hair down. “People change completely during Carnaval and do what they’d never normally do,” says one of Ni Fú Ni Fá’s members, without any need of a nudge and wink to convey his meaning. “One-hundred-thousand people party on the streets. It’s very safe here and the biggest problem you can have is you’re a little drunk.”

I don’t even need alcohol to start swaying, as a group of drummers starts beating a samba rhythm out in the hall. Dreadlocked and dressed in orange, their leader asks me join them. “It’s easy,” he says, “I’ll show you what to do.”

The drum hangs from a strap around my neck and I have to half straddle it to hammer out a rhythm. Within five minutes, my initial self-consciousness evaporates and I’m rolling my shoulders as I play. Within 10, I can see why being at the parade must be so much fun.

“Come on, let’s give it a go outside now,” says the lead drummer. We manage to stay in rhythm, marching and laughing our way up and down the street. La Noria is now awake and full of life.