Festivals come in all shapes and sizes, from small jungle jives to rowdy street carnivals. But one thing is certain - they're all damn good fun
Paint your face & purge your sins
This flamboyant alfresco fiesta, resounding with the mass beat of drums, began life as a pagan knees-up. In the 13th century a small group of Malay Datus, fleeing Borneo, landed on the Panays and were sold land by the local Ati people. To celebrate, the Datus painted their faces black with soot to look like the tribe – and the ritual has stuck. Over the years it has evolved into a Catholic feast for Santo Niño, and a chance to atone for any sins – which is just as well. Once the insistent rhythm of revelry begins, you’re swept up in a three-day, dance-mad, face-painted, home-brewed booze fuelled street party, so you may be in need of a spot of redemption.
Further info: To get there, fly from Manila to Kalibo or Caticlan (www.ati-atihan.net)
Or… Groove with griffins at Vogel Gryff, Basel, Switzerland (www.vogel-gryff.ch); find your Highland roots at Celtic Connections, Glasgow (www.celticconnections.com); or cheer ecclesiastically at Timkat, Ethiopia
Get down by the riverside
Celebrate the sounds of West Africa on the banks of one of its key rivers. For one weekend only, the charming riverside town of Segou hosts huge processions of puppets and masked dancers, while bands belt it out on a floating stage. And you’ve never seen a roused audience until you join a crowd of ecstatic Malians getting down to the music. By night this magical setting comes into its own, with a procession of fire-lit pirogues (dugout canoes) sparkling on the water. As the full moon sits low in the sky, bats weave in the air to the beat from the main stage.
Further info: Segou is a three-hour bus ride from Bamako (www.festivalsegou.org).
Or… Dance with the troupes at the Recife Carnaval, Brazil; check out the Unesco-listed Binche Carnival, Belgium (www.carnavaldebinche.be); hear Swahili ‘Sounds of Wisdom’ at Sauti za Busara, Zanzibar
Songs of the southern seas
See the whole South Pacific in one city at this flower-garlanded extravaganza. The cultures of far-flung Fiji, Samoa, Kiribati and other islands descend on New Zealand in a riot of dance and song. Wander the mini ‘villages’, selling everything from woodcarvings to hula-style flax skirts, and feast on fresh coconuts and earth-oven-baked goodies. Then sit back and watch the stages pound to the crashing drums, thumping feet and raw power of the Pacific’s passionate peoples.
Further info: www.aucklandcity.govt.nz
Or… Watch world music Down Under at WOMADelaide, Australia; bust some Hispanic moves at Calle Ocho Carnaval, Miami, US (www.carnavalmiami.com); ride with Sumbanese warmen at the Pasola, Wanokaka Village, Indonesia
Vive la USA!
Know your Cajun from your Zydeco? Your Ragtime from your Dixieland? No?
Then hot-shoe-shuffle down to Ole New Orleans – the Katrina-hit city is back in full swing (and jazz, and blues), and the French Quarter Festival is the best way to see, and hear, it. Lesser-known than headline-grabbing Mardi Gras, this sax-sounding, trumpet-blowing street party is played out in the historic – and relatively unscathed – Vieux Carré section of the city, where you can soak up the mix of music, the zingy Creole cooking and a shot of bourbon or three.
Further info: www.fqfi.org
Or… Party in lederhosen at the Germanic Windhoek Carnival, Namibia (www.skw.com.na/wika); combine tunes and cherry blossoms at the Takayama Festival, Japan (www.jnto.go.jp); get drenched with the locals on water-bomb-mad Laos New Year
Saints & sinners
Starting life as a humble one-day pilgrimage to the shrine of Isidore – the Spanish capital’s patron saint – this fiesta has become far fatter, expanding from its roots on 15 May to fill nearly a month with traditional processions, open-air concerts and general in-the-street merriment. And nowhere knows how to let loose like Madrid – this is a 24-hour party city on a school night, so just imagine the noise when it’s official festival time. Whether you listen to spontaneous jazz in Vistillas Park, catch some flamboyant flamenco in the Plaza Mayor or just take it all in while chomping your way between tapas bars, you’ll be unable to resist the Madrileño madness.
Further info: During May (www.aboutmadrid.com)
Or… Eat and be merry with the Kalash at Joshi, Pakistan; chill out to folkloric tunes at the Summer Festival, Mount Abu, India; wiggle your hips at the San Francisco Carnaval (www.carnavalsf.com)
A load of old bull
In late June tens of thousands of Brazilians flock to the pocket-sized town of Parintins on Tupinambá Island in the middle of the Amazon for Latin America’s wildest party after Carnaval. Boi Bumbá is a vibrant pageant that celebrates the triumph of poor and indigenous Brazilians over a tyrannical landowner or Coronel. It’s performed by two opposing teams – Garantido and Caprichoso – modelled on samba schools from the Rio Carnaval and who perform the show in a 40,000-seat purpose-built stadium called the Bumbódromo.
It’s an incredible spectacle – hundreds of dancers barely dressed as Indians leap and gyrate in front of brilliantly coloured four-storey-high floats shaped into jaguar heads, Amazonian river dolphins or indigenous mythical effigies. A stentorian master of ceremonies in a sparkling sequin suit conducts the pageant itself – calling characters onto the stage, cajoling the supporters and orchestrating the vast bands and drum troupes in and out of the arena.
The energy from the pulsating crowd, which roars, cheers and dances in the warm, rainforest night is overwhelming. The pageant tells the story of Pai Francisco and his wife Mãe Catirina who steal a prize bull from the Coronel they work for, kill it and eat it. The Coronel discovers this and threatens to kill them if they can’t resurrect his bull before midnight.
Being Brazilian the couple don’t despair but employ the talents of a Catholic priest, an African-Brazilian witch doctor and an indigenous Shaman who work together to call upon supernatural forces to bring the bull back to life. The principal of these is the Cunhã-Poranga – the spirit of Amazon fertility (played by a beautiful young girl). The bull is resurrected – in an explosion of frenetic dance, music and fireworks – and the poor peasant couple triumph over the rich landowner.
Getting to Boi Bumbá poses a challenge. There are no roads within hundreds of kilometres of Parintins and the only way in or out is by a two-day boat ride along the Amazon or a 30-minute flight from Manaus. As there are only two hotels in town, accommodation is on hammocks on the riverboats or in private houses.
Further info: End of Jun (www.boibumba.com)
Or… Find music in the medina at the Fès Festival of Sacred Music, Morocco (www.fesfestival.com); party with Nessie at RockNess, Scotland (www.rockness.co.uk); light a fire for mid summer at Jaanipaev, Tallinn, Estonia
Tunes in the trees
“Awimbaway, awimbaway, awimbaway-ooooh!” There may not be any sleeping lions in the mighty jungle that backdrops Borneo’s annual celebration of world music, but try telling that to the thousands who sang along there last year. Set amid traditional longhouses at the foot of Mount Santubong, this most photogenic of festivals features a gloriously diverse mix of acts from around the planet. Expect anything from Polish Celt-funk to Malagasy roots-rock, while during the day Dayak musicians demonstrate the haunting sape – a key element of Sarawak’s indigenous culture that the festival has helped to keep alive.
Further info: www.rainforestmusic-borneo.com
Or… Party at the Exit Festival, Novi Sad, Serbia (www.exitfest.org); chill at Reggae Sumfest, Montego Bay, Jamaica (www.reggaesumfest.com); enjoy the colour at Bali Arts Festival, Denpasar, Indonesia (www.baliartsfestival.com)
Bold & brassy
For 51 weeks of the year, Guc ˇa (pronounced Goocha) in south-west Serbia is a sleepy market town with alpine-style dwellings and rolling farmland. However, usually in August, about 250,000 people descend on the place for the Dragacˇevo Trumpet Festival for five days of riotous dawn-to-dusk eating, drinking and dancing to a seemingly endless stream of brass bands.
On arrival, it’s difficult to imagine surviving days of constantly blaring brass. The whole thing resembles a cross between an Eastern European Notting Hill Carnival – with R’n’B and reggae replaced by brass bands, and spit-roast pork taking the place of Jamaican patties – and Glastonbury. Many revellers spend their few sleeping hours in tents pitched on the surrounding hills or in temporary accommodation with locals; the attraction of Guc ˇa is so great that some visitors are even willing to live in their cars.
So what incites the fervour? The festival, first held in 1961, is actually a nationwide competitive event, with bands progressing through regional heats to win the right to compete in the play-off between 20 trumpet orchestras on the final afternoon.
However, the most fun and wildest atmosphere is generated by the various bands – both those in the official contest, and others who swarm the town for the week – plying their trade up and down the streets and in the many makeshift bars and restaurants erected on the pavements. The well-refreshed patrons pay the bands (mostly Gypsy) to blast out their favourite songs. The result is an unofficial battle of the bands: the livelier the atmosphere, the more money the exuberant punters will part with. Band members can earn more at Guc ˇa than in the rest of the year.
Roma musicians have brought a free-wheeling, jazzier style to the staid Serbian songs. But the songs aren’t just manic, they can be mournful and haunting in their passion. The musicians are extremely versatile and as well as playing the traditional-style numbers, they add their own magic touch to everything from Latin rhythms to reggae to Glenn Miller-style swing, and even Roll out the Barrel.
On the first morning after the festival, the town reverts quickly to its normal, languid self; it’s easy to get disoriented – and a bit glum – in the empty streets cleared of the stalls, bars, crowds and parping, whooping brass.
Further info: Guc ˇa is a three-hour drive from Belgrade (www.guca.co.yu)Or… Camp in a volcano at the Westman Islands Festival, Iceland (www.visitwestmanislands.com); drink Guinness, French cider and Spanish wine at the Inter-Celtic Festival, Lorient, France (www.festival-interceltique.com); perfect your didgeridoo skills at Garma, Australia (www.garma.telstra.com)
A step back in time
Damascus, Palmrya, Aleppo… the names of the venues of this whirl of music, dance, art and sports tickle the feet of even the most reluctant traveller.
The three Syrian cities were once some of the most important trading posts on the famed Silk Road, bustling hubs where fabrics where bought and sold in atmospheric souqs and where headscarved traders rested in comfy caravanserais after long slogs across the surrounding deserts. Today the camels may be gone, but the relics and ruins of that evocative age now host performers from cultures across the Middle East and Central Asia, bringing some of that exoticism back to life.
Further info: Late Sept (www.syriatourism.org)
Or… don a grass skirt at one of the Aloha Festivals in Hawaii, USA (at different times in Sept; www.alohafestivals.com); mingle and match-make at the Imilchil Wedding Moussem, Morocco (three days in Sept); spin your sombrero at the Mariachi & Charrería Horsemanship Festival, Guadalajara, Mexico (ten days in Sept; www.mariachi-jalisco.com.mx)
Catch a star
The Lake of Stars Festival is fast earning Malawi a reputation as a laid-back place for a weekend of music. It’s the location on the shore of Lake Malawi, the third-biggest in Africa, that makes it so memorable.
The party takes place on the clean, sandy western beach in the grounds of Chintheche Inn. A wood-and-bamboo main stage plays host to a curious mix of UK DJs and stars of the local music scene. Unlike South Africa, Mali or Senegal, Malawian music has virtually no international profile, so it’s an excellent opportunity to sample the country’s sounds. At this year’s opening ceremony, the Deputy Minister of Tourism concluded his festival speech with a song – he used to sing in one of Malawi’s best-known Gospel bands. However, the headliner was Lucius Banda; he’d been scheduled to appear the previous year, but had ended up in jail thanks to some songs criticising the President. Banda, with his dancers dressed like soldiers, is an imposing figure, and could take his place alongside any of the better-known singers from Africa.
The festival was started by British DJ, Will Jameson who happened to go to Malawi for his gap year, and since 2004 has been increasingly occupied with Lake of Stars and charity events for Malawi. “I love the idea that you can come to this magical location and listen to a huge Malawian star with a 12-piece band and dancers, followed by a single beat boxer from Nottingham. And both of them keep the crowd and the atmosphere going.”
The audience is about 1,500 people – a lively and youthful mix of backpackers, expats and locals, many of whom have travelled long distances. Accommodation is on a well-maintained campsite with decent toilets and showers.
A chilled weekend discovering the hidden delights of Malawian music is a fine conclusion to hiking in the highlands of Mount Mulanje.
Or… Let your hair down at the Cirio de Nazare, Belém, Brazil (two weeks in Oct; www.ciriodenazare.com.br – in Portuguese); gorge yourself at the end of Ramadan at Eid al-Fitr, Damascus, Syria; watch the annual cow-fighting trials in Martigny, Switzerland (one day Oct; www.martigny.ch)
Gather with the gauchos
For a week in November the Argentine pampas echo with the warble of gauchos singing, guitars twanging and horses snorting.
Don a red neckerchief and a pair of fetching bombachas (baggy trousers), and join them in the country’s great folk festival, culminating on the 10th with meat-laden feasts and horsy spectacles to mark the anniversary of the birth of national poet José Hernández.
Or… Swirl in the sand at the Pushkar Camel Fair, India; be merry on the banks of the Mekong at Bonn Om Tuk, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (three days during the full moon in Nov); powwow at the Canadian Aboriginal Festival, Toronto, Canada (late Nov; www.canab.com)
Heritage & hornbills
The Nagas certainly know how to tell a good story: brave warrior hero – check; dreamy heroine – check; convoluted plotline with battles, tortured love scenes and tragic ending – check. Squeeze in a rich repertoire of ancient folk songs and vibrant dances, some exquisite costumes, set it all against a sublime backdrop of emerald valleys and frosty peaks, and you’ve got a spectacle that almost makes a Bollywood blockbuster look dreary.
The Hornbill Festival was created in 2000 by the Government of Nagaland in an attempt to bring together all the traditions of the 16 major tribes of the region and to celebrate and preserve the richness of the Naga heritage.
Each year the town of Kohima becomes the stage for a colour-splashed series of cultural displays. The Naga people need little excuse to celebrate, so buy yourself a hornbill headdress, practise your moves and join in the fun.
Further info: Fly into Dimapur then take a bus to Kohima (www.north-east-india.com)
Or… skip round a maypole with a difference at the Festival de Santo Tomas, Chichicastenango, Guatemala; shimmy with the locals at the Junkanoo, Nassau, The Bahamas (www.junkanoo.com); hang with the desert people at the Oasis Festival, Tozeur, Tunisia (throughout Dec)