Jazz and masks: that’s how the carnival connects Ascona and New Orleans

While in New Orleans the “Mardi Gras” is celebrated with parades and Creole dishes, Ascona celebrates Shrove Tuesday with the traditional risotto in its main square. But there is much more...

Masks by Hitesh Choudhary

We could first of all speak about the two rivers. On one side there is the Mississippi and on the other the Ticino region and its river, which in a certain sense is the canton’s Delta. We could speak about jazz, the music that has united New Orleans and Ascona for almost 40 years. But today we want to speak about the carnival. And it makes sense to do so.
While New Orleans celebrates the “Mardi Gras with music, parades and Creole dishes, Ascona celebrates "Martedì Grasso" with the traditional risotto and luganighe sausages in its main square. Tuesday is the climax of the carnival, the last day to really party and the last night of celebrations. After that comes a short break - just enough time to cover one’s head with ashes like is demanded by the catholic observance before starting the season of Lent - and this while waiting for the festivities to start all over in places where the Ambrosian rite is celebrated: in Tesserete, Biasca, Brissago…
Ascona does not have a historical carnival but it’s participating in the mix of events that bring Ticino to life around January and February each year and whose epicenter has always been Bellinzona. There is no history in Ascona: the “Rabadan” in Bellinzona is the most important carnival, even though it’s not the most ancient: it started only in 1874, about 40 years after the “Mardi Gras” in New Orleans.
The carnival is a pagan festival which has its roots in the late Middle Ages and recalls ancient Roman and Greek rites. It was born in a mostly Christian Europe as a subversion of rules and hierarchies: it establishes a temporary “counter-power”, which is usually represented by a King - a figure that we find both in New Orleans and in Ticino-.
The carnival has spread from old Europe to some cities in the New World, from Rio De Janeiro to New Orleans, where the similarities go well beyond the “tin crowns”. The Mardi Gras celebration has been imported to Louisiana by the first French settlers. As early as 1699 we find the mention  in a document of a carnival festivity held at the mouth of the Mississippi. Towards the mid-eighteenth century there are testimonies of masked parades in New Orleans that were first forbidden but later allowed.
The first festival called “Mardi Gras” dates back to 1833 when a French landowner raised funds for the festival. Two years later the historian James Creecy wrote: “Sirens, satyrs, beggars, monks and thieves parade on foot, on horseback, with big and small carts, carriages, shouting wildly, singing and laughing".
Gradually the "Mardi Gras" became more organized: the "Mystik Krewe Comus" group was formed in 1857 and it created a torchlight procession with allegorical floats inspired by the classical mythology and literature.
And here is another element that unites New Orleans and Ticino. Carnival groups in Louisiana are called  “krewes” (of which the Comus is the most ancient): they are partnerships of people, more or less exclusive, who self-tax in order to promote events, balls and parade floats. In Ticino we also find associations, each one with its own King, and groups with dialect names that organize floats with allegorical themes.
One more parallelism is the big phenomenon (borrowed by the carnival in Basel) that goes by the name of “guggen”. This is perhaps the element that most directly links Ticino and New Orleans. The guggen are brass and timpani bands often linked to the philharmonic tradition in the city and are very similar to the “brass bands” which from military fanfares became the first popular jazz laboratory in New Orleans