Carnival, Festival Or Fiesta?

Different meanings apply to the words ‘carnival’, ‘fiesta’ and ‘festival’, but these are not always apparent in their day-to-day usage. The cultural, religious and indeed sometimes class-related nuances of these words influence decisions about what is appropriate for whom. But this may not help us to see that ideas of ‘excellence’ are not necessarily at all the same as the notion of ‘elitism’. Nonetheless, this distinction is very important, and never more so than in cities such as Liverpool, as they strive to re-invent themselves.
When is a series of celebratory perfomances a ‘Carnival’, when is it a ‘Festival’ and when is it a ‘Fiesta’?
My curiosity about these words was first aroused in the early 1990s, when we began to talk about resurrecting the Hope Street Festival in Liverpool. There is a tradition stretching back many years of Festival events in Liverpool – not least the Hope Street events (in some of which I was involved as a student) in 1977 for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and in the city as a whole through several decades before then.
Changing expectations
What rapidly became apparent when we began to talk with people in the 1990s however was that there were several very different undersandings about what a contemporary ‘Festival’ might be – and that most of them did not at all equate to my previous expectation that a Festival in Liverpool would be something along the lines of those in Edinburgh, Harrogate or, say, any of the Three Choirs cities.
Liverpool does indeed still have an annual ‘Festival‘, but that is a competitive event, mostly for children and amateur groups, and originally driven by a number of determined local citizens, such as the late Dennis Rattle, father of Sir Simon, and members of the Rushworth family (who had a music shop in the city). This performing arts competition, though in a fine British tradition, is neither a festival in the sense of a programme of formal professional events, nor a ‘fringe‘ in the sense that, say, Edinburgh has one.
Rather, it seemed that what people across the city expected from a modern festival around Hope Street was something in my mind more akin to a fiesta or carnival, perhaps along the lines of the event which has subsequently developed in Liverpool’s Mathew Street.
The formal definitions
These different understandings, which took a while to draw out from discussions, sent me off to look for the dictionary. What I found is interesting. The respective Oxford Concise Dictionary definitions are:
Carnival ~ festivities usual during period before Lent in R.C. countries; riotous revelry; travelling circus or fair; festivities esp. occurring at regular date
Festival ~ feast day, celebration, merry-making; periodic musical etc. performance(s)
Fiesta ~ religious festival in Spanish-speaking countries; festivity, holiday
All the terms I investigated arise from religious events, and usually Roman Catholic ones specifically – an interesting piece of background information in a city such as Liverpool, with in some parts its strongly Catholic, working class traditions.
Festivals are what you make of them
This has set me thinking. There is perhaps a tension here between what people in different places, with different previous experience, expect from a Festival. For the people of Liverpool, the large majority of whom have probably only a passing acquaintance with Edinburgh, Harrogate, Worcester, Salisbury, Cheltenham or other cities which host formal Festivals, the expectation is that celebratory performance will be community-based and, indeed, probably actually conducted on the street. A good example of this is the events offered by Hope Street Ltd, an arts training organisation in Liverpool.
Likewise, when the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra decided to start a summer concerts series some years ago, it chose to do so under canvas and on the waterfront, on a ‘Pops‘ basis. (Since then, the event has taken a course which means that the RLPO is scarcely involved at all.)
Expectations can be important
There are however potential dangers in this apparent democratisation of performance art. Firstly, if people in a city are not encouraged to expect Festival performances by visiting artists such as we might expect in Edinburgh, Cheltenham or wherever, they are unlikely to value them; and the message that ‘excellence’ (both indigenous to the city and offered by visitors) is not the same as ‘elitism’ may be lost.
And, secondly, Liverpool will in 2008 become the European Capital of Culture. We in Liverpool may well have much to show visitors from Europe and beyond about how to engage local (largely working class) communities in arts performance – and I am genuinely eager that we should. But it is unlikely that visitors from further afield will be impressed by this if it is not backed up by evidence that we can also provide what many of them, from their previous experience, may expect in addition – which is a fine array of first rate professional offerings very visibly supported by the local populace.
In other words, there is still a lot of audience capacity building to be done in Liverpool before 2008, if we are to impress our very welcome visitors as we would wish. And time is short. Carnivals and fiestas are great; but they need to be nurtured alongside festivals of the sort offered by other sophisticated and ambitious cities, if we in Liverpool are to take maximum advantage of the possibilities now on the horizon for our Year as European Capital of Culture.

Posted on March 5, 2006, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Equality, Diversity And Inclusion, HOPES: The Hope Street Association, Liverpool And Merseyside. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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