Although the Carnival of Barranquilla Foundation recognizes that the birth Harlequins Devils of Sabanalarga was in 1930, Harlequins Devils of Sabanalarga are just about forty years old. Mr. Apolinar Polo,[i] creator and director of the Harlequins Devils, says he invented them in the early 70s. Sabanalarga, home of the Devils, is a municipality in the center of the department of Atlantic and it is located about 50 kilometers from Barranquilla (capital). It is a large traditional village with a church and park in the center, and a small housing development, which contrasts with a comprehensive rural development of ranches. It is a town of festivals, carnivals and “peak ups” where different symbolic dances of the Caribbean tradition were born and that are actually part of the Carnival of Barranquilla. Among all the manifestations that were born in this municipality, the Harlequins Devils dance and the Dance of the Goleros (black vulture) are set apart. In these dances the former Red Devils were also involved. With pride locals have at homes books and pictures of all the devils.
Tradition tell us that the Devils Harlequins were born in the colony as an expression of mockery against colonization, and that it was born thanks to the mixture of Indigenous, African and Spanish traditions. Spanish are said to cast a spell on Indians by means of mirrors; those mirrors that devils war now on their 'masks,' which actually serve as hats. It is also said that Spanish conquers frightened people by fire throwing from the mouth, wearing spurs on the boots and jumping over glass bottles, holding machetes, and using castanets that produced a lovely music. However, Apolinar Polo, the "the owner of the devils" as people recognized him, tells another story. He says that he was inspired by the devil and the stories of the colony to create the dance, but he did not want to create a bad devil, a devil with horns and tail, a black and red devil. He wanted festive and carnival devils. That is why he set himself a task of searching for imaginative, colorful, cheerful, and playful characters, and he found in the dictionary the meaning of 'Harlequin' and the envisioned a colorful clown-faced devil.[ii]
He invented the Harlequin Devils by taking a bit of the tradition of the Red Devils using the colors and the rattles of the harlequin garment, he painted the faces white and red and made a red mask where he attached little mirrors and drew eyes and devil horns on. He have assembled a group of 30 boys who jump bottles, dress boots with spurs, play castanets. The dance, which is performed only by boys, initially starts around a fire and by moving slowly and then, while the boys juggle, increase the speed by following the puya rhythm of Vallenato, and the dancers go back and forth, make turns, jumps and perform acrobatics and throw fire from their mouths. The dance accompanied by the tamora (bass drum), el tambor alegre ('happy' drum), el llamador ('caller'), el guache, maracas and flutes of mijo (millet).
People say that the devil that inspired Apolinar was Hector Diaz, know as the Red Devil and his wife know as the Goler. Hector, a few years older than Apolinar says that harlequins dancing devils are false, that they are not truly red devils, and the the idea was stolen and turned into "something that has nothing related to a devil", and that is why he has nothing to do with it. When the Carnival used to go from house to house, Hector uses to dress like red devil with Gregorio Romero, and they played as if one were going to pull away the cloak of the other, and danced around all the village while the fight each other as demons. There were also the goleros who presented a dance inspired by those birds, and where the supposes the wife of devil was involved. All these was time ago when the carnival was for the people, when it was small and people dressed up and danced to celebrate and used to raise money for "rum." Héctor says he is the true devil because, since being child, he liked the devils that danced with castanets and spurs, and jumped. He used to wear a worn, dull and gloomy red shirt, and played castanets of 25 cents. His wife, wearing a black vulture mask, used to recite poetry. They have not participated in the Carnival anymore.
Many years after the disappearance of the Red Devil and the appearance of Harlequin Devils, the traditions of Sabanalarga arrived to Barranquilla transformed in great parades and dances. Apolinar says that because he wanted to participate in the Carnival of Barranquilla on behalf of the municipality, he created a dance that was born much later that Columbus and the Spanish conquers, but that in the popular imagery of Carnival is believed to be more than 500 years old. In the Tower court, at la Cordialidad, close to the road that goes from Sabanalarga to Cartagena, Apolinar created this story. Despite of not being considered "immemorial" by some inhabitants of Sabanalarga as well as by folklorists, the Harlequins Devils dance are regarded now as one of the most representative dances of the tradition of Carnival of Barraquilla and of Sabanalarga, and are one of the most beloved dances by the people.
Since 1992, Apolinar and later his son Gaston, who now leads the Harlequins Devils dance, participate in the biggest carnival of the Colombian Caribbean. The travel from he municipality to Barranquilla in a bus, and the stay in that city during the days of Carnival taking art of the parades and presentations. The rest of the year, they assist to local festivals in Atlantic and Cordoba departments, and in the Mompox (Bolivar department).
- Estefanía González
[i] Interviews to Apolinar Polo, Gastón Polo, and Héctor Díaz. April 2009. Sabanalarga (Atlántico).
[ii] Arlequín: (Del it. arlecchino, y este del fr. ant. Hellequin, nombre de un diablo).1. m. Persona cuyo vestido en un espectáculo o fiesta remeda el de Arlequín, personaje de la comedia del arte, que llevaba mascarilla negra y traje de cuadros o losanges de distintos colores