Carnavál Fireworks: Behind the Scenes

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Mike Toth on the right, our connection Ted Allen on the left

I just love how social media and blogging work. Somebody commented on one of my photos of this year’s spectacular Combate Naval fireworks, saying, “My friend is down here from Canada helping with the show.” Really? How cool is that?! So I wrote back, “Please introduce us, and I’ll interview the person.”

Turns out that  Mazatlán’s annual fireworks show, put on when Raúl Rico is head of CULTURA by Lux Pirotecnia (Jorge Márquez) of Mexico City, involves not only Canadians but a German expert as well. Want to know the story?

Mike Toth, the gentleman I interviewed, works for Big Bang Fireworks out of Calgary, one of Canada’s top five fireworks outfits, owned by Dan Roy. Mike’s pyrotechnic journey started out like many of us; he lit off backyard fireworks that gradually gained in size and grandeur. Eventually he had to take a one-day safety course and become licensed. That was ten years ago, and he’s been learning on the job ever since. In Canada his fireworks job is pretty much May through September, plus Christmas and New Year’s.

He tells me the crew here are like brothers to him; they have a whole lot of fun together. They stay in touch throughout the year on WhatsApp and Facebook, despite huge language and culture differences. Two of the crew, Mauricio and Ramses, speak English (as do the three team leads), but most do not. Rodrigo comes from Durango: he’s a cowboy through and through, and César is evidently quite the comedian. Mike shared a few snapshots of his visit with me, below. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Mike’s technically not down here in Mazatlán working, but rather on vacation—hanging out with the pyrotechnists who are. But he did bring down with him a bunch of equipment: $40,000 worth, more or less. He brought seven panels and even some modules. Why? Well, fireworks equipment is expensive, especially the computerized kind that syncs music and explosions. Thus, Lux and Big Bang often collaborate in order to pool their resources and put on bigger and better shows.

Jorge (Lux) and Dan (Big Bang) are good friends; Jorge’s equipment often helps out during Canada Day (when Big Bang might have 30-40 shows in one day) or Edmonton Klondike Days (10 straight days of fireworks), and Dan’s equipment supplements shows in México during events on Constitution Day, Independence Day and Carnaval. I love fireworks, I’m all about collaboration, and this story is intercultural, so I find this trifecta of my passions very cool!

dsc_0211How does a fireworks show—our Combate Naval, for example—come to be? Jorge designs the show and its accompanying music and scripts it on paper, indicating the type and size of each firework, it’s color combination and time delay. I’m sure CULTURA is involved in some way at the design phase, too, though of course Mike doesn’t know about that. The shells are fixed into a string of ten or so and then put carefully into mortar tubes. There is no wasted space. Inside is an electric match; when the button is pressed, it launches.

Lux Pirotecnia is responsible for four major shows during Carnavál: the three coronations in the stadium, and the Combate Naval on Saturday night. I forgot to ask Mike about the crowning of the King of Joy. The fireworks are stored on a rancho just north of town.

Combate Naval 2017, for the first time ever, involved five barges; this allowed us to see the fireworks closer than we would if shooting exclusively from a ship in the bay. To me it was a HUGE improvement in the show! Unfortunately, however, one barge flipped over before the show due to the heavy waves. We ended up seeing fireworks from four barges or platforms. The barges are first put into position, then the pyrotechnicians go out in small boats to wire them up and turn them on. There was also a ship out there—yes, a real ship. Mike tells me they set up what looked like a helicopter landing platform on the deck of the ship, and from there the fireworks are launched. The capsized barge was rescued after the show, though of course the fireworks were ruined.

Wide-angle shot of Combate Naval

Wide-angle shot of Combate Naval

The main fireworks panel is just above where the Queen and the VIPs sit: at the Pedro Infante statue. All the music is precisely choreographed to each burst of the show, as we all know and so thoroughly enjoy each year—it’s computerization converting gunpowder into beauty for all our enjoyment.

Just how many people are involved in Mazatlán’s Carnavál-related fireworks? There are the three bosses: Jorge, Juan and David, from Lux. There are ten shell crew members, and ten one-shot crew members. There are also three drivers: two trucks and one van. I get a total of 26 fireworks technicians involved in Carnavál. How much does such a show cost? Again, Mike doesn’t get involved in that, and he can only quote Canadian pricing, which averages $1000/minute.

And where does the German connection come in? That would be Klaus Ulrich, the flame expert. If you attended any of the coronations in the stadium, you felt the heat as the  flames reached from the front of the stage towards the sky. That was Klaus’ work. We also experienced the heat of Klaus’ flames from the barges in the bay during Combate Naval.

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Innovative round or wheel-shaped fireworks: crane wheels, with some of Klaus’ flames coming off two of the barges in the bay.

While I love my photos of multiple bursts at once—sort of the panoramic view, Mike’s favorite photo of mine, he says, is that of the crane wheels. Crane wheels? He explained to me the names for some of the effects that we saw in Mazatlán during Carnavál 2017:

  • The most common fireworks effects are often called by flower names, just as they are in the original Chinese and Japanese:
    • Peony (most common)
    • Chrysanthemum (peony with a spark trail)
    • Dahlia (peony with fewer and larger stars)
  • There are also a couple of effects named after trees, including:
    • Palm: Rising tail that bursts at the top with large tendrils.
    • Weeping willow: long-burning stars in a dome-shaped, weeping willow-like arrangement.
  • Aquatics: fireworks that fly into the water and then blow up. Mike says everyone has them. Jorge’s are 8-inch Kamuro shells: a dense burst of silver or gold stars that leave a glitter trail.
  • Camaros: double dome-shaped weeping willow with twinkles that fall to the water or ground.
  • Crane wheels: a one-shot wheel that can shoot sunbursts or a wheel shape. About one meter round, clamps to a plate. One set of fireworks is set at an angle to rotate the wheel, the others are set for the display.
  • Fountains or Gerbs: a thick-walled tube with a narrowing in the tube that produces a long-lasting jet of sparks. We saw these in the stadium and during the Combate Naval.
  • Horsetails: heavy long-burning fireworks in the shape of a horse tail that only travel a short distance from the shell burst before free-falling as glitter to the ground. They’re also known as a waterfall shell.

    Horsetails over Mazatlán

    Horsetails over Mazatlán

  • Rings: launch into the sky and burst into circles, smiley faces, hearts, clovers…
  • Roman candles: long tubes containing several large stars which fire at regular intervals. This Carnavál they used roman candles up to 4 feet tall anchored to a wooden frame, mostly arranged in fan or crisscross shapes, at close proximity to the audience. We see these on the beach during Combate Naval, and also during the coronations.
  • UFOs: one of my favorites of Combate Naval, the best way I can describe it is a spinning top that launches into the air, leaving a twirling vertical tail. Ours then burst at the top to result in a palm tree-like shape. Mike says that in Canada they usually use a round plastic frame, but here in México it’s bamboo. Bravo for México! Our UFOs had 4 herbs to push up and 4 to rotate.

    Slowly rising fireworks that felt magical and looked like palm trees: UFOs

    Slowly rising fireworks that felt magical and looked like palm trees: UFOs

Below I share some of the terms Mike used during the course of our interview, in case you like getting inside the world of a pyrotechnist as much as I do.

  • One-shot tubes: just like the name sounds.
  • Cake: multiple tubes connected by a fuse. When connected they look like a box.
  • Shells or mortars: during Carnavál we saw 3 to 8 inch shells. They are round and look like bombs, which is probably why, in Spanish, they are called “bombas.”
  • Racks: stands that hold multiple fireworks tubes. These include:
    • Flat racks
    • Half moon racks
  • Panels: the computerized panel of buttons that controls the show.

He explained to me that a firework has a lift charge. The fuse wraps around a ball, and a couple of sticks are timed as fuses. That’s how they set timings. The pyrotechnicians can then launch a firework, it goes into the air with the lift charge, and in four seconds, or six, at the height of its trajectory, the secondary fuse sticks will fire and the effect will explode.

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We all know that here in México people build fireworks. They do so in the USA also. But Mike told me that in Canada it’s against the law to build fireworks! The country’s last firework maker was Hands Company. One of Mike’s dreams is to work in Lux’s shop in Mexico City for a few weeks, so he can have the experience of building fireworks.

Another huge difference that stands out for Mike is, of course, safety. The hand-held bottle rockets that lead every parade in Mazatlán would never be permitted up north, nor would allowing people to sit so closely to the fireworks. He was amazed that people hang their legs off the malecón during the Combate Naval, for example, and loved hearing that people here consider ash burn lucky, just like bird poop. In Canada to launch fireworks you need insurance and permits (which I believe you need here in México as well, at least for the large ones), you have to launch on private property, and you can not shoot fireworks near a lake or river because it upsets the fish. I know fireworks are environmentally hazardous, but they definitely light up my soul.

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July 3, 2016 on the Lake Michigan waterfront in Milwaukee

We love Juan José Ruiz of Mazatlán Fireworks, our local expert. He and his guys put on a beautiful 45-minute show for our wedding anniversary party that thrilled all the kids who got to push the buttons on the panel. Juan José tells me that his firm has often done Carnavál Fireworks, also, but that he tends to be asked to do them when the PRI is in charge of the government.

I got hooked on fireworks as a child in Wisconsin, and deepened my love for them living for over a decade in Japan. Mike told me about a couple of fireworks competitions that I need to add to my bucket list, including GlobalFest in Calgary and Montreal’s L’International des Feux Loto-Québec, the world’s biggest fireworks festival. During my research I also found the Tianguis de Pirotecnia San Pablito Tultepec, which is coming up March 4-11 right here in México—we all remember seeing video of the huge explosion in a warehouse there last December. Frequent winners of the international competitions are, of course, Disney, and also Zambelli Fireworks out of Pennsylvania.

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Fireworks over Lake Tichigan, Wisconsin, July 2, 2016

Next time you attend a fireworks show, stop and think about all of the people, time, preparation and work involved in delivering the performance you are enjoying. You just might find yourself appreciating the spectacle even more!

Combate Naval 2017

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Our annual Carnavál fireworks spectacular, the Combate Naval, which recreates the attack by the French right here in our port, was better than ever last night! The show was breathtaking—with 20 land-bound launch locations and five platforms in the bay, we were surrounded by explosive light.

It was a clear, calm night in Olas Altas, perfect for fireworks viewing. Just before 9pm we saw fireworks from near the Plazuela Machado. They wound their way into the Carnavál zone in Olas Altas, making their way down to the deer statue, where they recited this year’s poem roasting the “Mal Humor.” For the second year in a row, the Burning of Bad Humor was of Donald Trump, this time with his wall. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

 

Over the next hour hundreds of thousands of people crowded into the zone, waiting the arrival of the queen. Once she, city and state officials and VIPs had taken their seats by the Pedro Infante statue, lights in the zone were dimmed: promptly at 10:30pm.

 

The show included several new types of fireworks, including round ones that looked like wheels, and some that launched so very slowly into the air it felt like magic. There was a whole lot of gold sparkly, and the colors of the Mexican flag for good measure. Briefer than usual at 20 minutes, the shorter version gets my vote because it was so very beautiful! My heart didn’t stop racing for nearly an hour afterwards.

 

The entire show, as usual, is choreographed to music. My favorite part was when the fireworks took a 20-second or so break for the smoke to clear, and once we heard Juan Gabriel singing “El Sinoalense” the fireworks resumed big-time.

The grand finale was an unforgettable capstone on a wonderful evening.

 

Congratulations and thank you to CULTURA Mazatlán, city and state government for allowing us to enjoy such fantastic entertainment!

Miss Universo Carnavál 2017

16729547_1868731800012115_2132236453093537905_n.jpgPlease block this Wednesday evening, February 22, for a wonderful show filled with joy and excitement that will benefit two children in desperate need of surgery. Belleza con Causa—Beauty with a Purpose, holds this annual event, a beauty pageant for the Drag Queen of Carnavál. I am very pleased to be judging for the second year in a row, along with other expat representatives Susie Morgan Lellero, Luis Ramírez, Ginger Borman and Shilo Downie.

The pageant will take place at Castillo de LuLu, Aquiles Serdán 60 (the same street Immigration is on, the salón is just farther down the street, off Carnavál) in Playa Sur, starting after 8pm. The event is BYOB, bring your own drink, though a lady there will be selling soft drinks. Entrance usually costs about 50 pesos, and all proceeds go to support the two children.

There will be loads of singing and dancing, flirting, whooting and hollering. The event usually includes a couple of star performances, and the pageant includes the queen aspirants modeling both cocktail and evening dresses, and answering a question. Three queens will be crowned: Miss Universo, Señorita, and Rostro Carnavál/Face of Carnaval.

Get your party on and come on out! Below are a few pics from last year; click on any photo to enlarge or view a slideshow.

 

We All LOVE Our Monigotes!

dsc_0430We love Carnával, and it’s widely acknowledged to be the third largest in the world. I would posit it the best, as it’s so accessible to everyone, involves the entire community, and is HUGE.

About ten years ago, CULTURA started to put up papier-mâché statues on the malecón. The very first year, at least to my memory, these statues were egg-shaped. While the originals were a meter or so high, over the years, they have grown in size and they now tower over our fair city. One year they were soldiers from around the world—warriors, humongous guardians of Mazatlán. In 2013 they were movie stars, from Marilyn Monroe to Elvis, Cantinflas and Pedro Infante. The monigotes, or giant statues, are made by Jorge González Neri and his artists in their taller. I love taking a peek every year just to see what’s coming up.

Well, it’s obvious that you love the monigotes, too! The first couple of years, my photos got a few “likes” on Facebook. Those likes have steadily grown, and as of tonight you have shared my monigotes 2017 album over 3000 times! Some of the individual photos have themselves been shared over 500 times! It gives me such joy to read how you think this one is a Pokemon, that you live in that block and it’s “your” monigote, or that one is your favorite. Kudos to CULTURA and to González’ taller; they only get better. Now we hope the carrozas or floats do as well, because we still miss Maestro Rigo Lewis in that regard….

There are 11 giant statues this year, unless you count the two in the Plaza República. Those two went up first, and tantalized us for well over a week while we waited for the others. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow. I’d like to give a MAJOR shout-out to Greg, who accompanies me and makes sure I don’t get hit by a car or bike or something else while I’m peeking into my camera! Often times he finds the best shots, too.

I like to take photos as soon as I’m able to after the monigotes are up. Thus, most of the photos don’t have the titles yet; CULTURA puts those in white lettering on the black stand of each of the statues. Sometimes they also make changes or additions. For example, the awesome-looking snail below had a papier maché rider added to it the day the queen was crowned. It’s in front of Valentino’s/Fiesta Land and was one of the first to be made; Greg and I saw it in the workshop, finished and waiting. Then by chance we were able to come upon it as the CULTURA workers hand-pulled it all the way from Playa Sur to its home at the north end of the malecón. It’s called Carrera del Tiempo or “Time’s Race.”

Coming south, the next monigote is where Insurgentes intersects Avenida del Mar. It’s pretty scary looking, if you ask me, and is called Dragón Polinesio or “Polynesian Dragon.” Of course, the theme of Carnavál this year is “Alebrijes y Dragones.” Alebrijes are those hand-carved wooden animals from Oaxaca with all the little pieces, and dragons are, well, they fly and look fierce. The giant statue at the top of Insurgentes is a dragon alebrije. I waited for a pulmonía to come by, just at sunset, so we get a bit of Abbey Road al Mazatleco action going on:

Next up is the one in front of Las Gavias. It looks very much like a Carnavál clown, and is called Carnavál en Babuchas. “Babuchas” is a word for those Oriental or Arabic-looking slippers with the long curly toes.

Just south of that one, in front of SECTUR—or La Botana, or Franki Oh’s, depending on your preference— is a really cool dragon with a person on top. It’s one of my favorites. It’s called Elegancia Alada, or “Winged Elegance.” The monigotes of course look good during the daytime, with our bay as a backdrop, and they are lit up at night, so gorgeous then, too. I’m confident that shortly CULTURA will add a title to each and every one.

Where Avenida de los Deportes meets Avenida del Mar—the Aquarium street, where the liquor store/Cava del Duero is, we can see a monigote that is just the reverse of the last one. This one is a person with the dragon on top. Night lighting is not yet working on this monigote. The name of it is Pio Cabeza Madame, or “Pious Head Madame.”

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You know that Mazatlán is “land of the deer” in Nahuatl, and on the malecón facing the Lola Beltrán statue (The Vue condos) is a monigote with a deer on top. It’s called Carnavál del Sol, or “Carnaval of the Sun”:

Continuing our journey south you’ll see a giant ostrich, on the malecón in front of Hotel Aquamarino, on the corner with Banjército, beside the pulmonía monument. She is called Una Diva con Patas Largas, or “Long-Legged Diva.”

At the Fishermen’s Monument you’ll find a Viking-looking guy riding a pogo-stick dragon, and it’s appropriately called Cabalgata Vikinga or “Viking Horseback Ride.” It’s creative, even if it’s connection to the Carnavál theme isn’t exactly self-evident.

Next comes another favorite of mine, Pio Cabeza Gato, or Pious Head Cat. People tell me this one seems to be based on the Pokemon character “Meowth.” Personally, he looks straight out of “Where the Wild Things Are”/”Donde Viven los Monstruos.” I love where this monigote is located, as you get the pangas/fishing boats and a good shot of the bay in the photo. It’s where Belisario Dominguez intersects Paseo Claussen.

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From here you can take a detour into town and see the really cool alebrije statue in the Plazuela Machado. I love that in the past few years CULTURA puts a monigote here, as it’s where the original Carnavales were held in Mazatlán, and it’s a gorgeous spot for partying. I tried to photograph the giant statue with landmarks in the background: Casa Machado and our original hotel. The name of this gorgeous monigote is Equilibrio Frágil, or “Fragile Equilibrium.”

Ok, I’ve left the BEST FOR LAST!!!!! The southernmost monigote is in front of my BELOVED and screaming for restoration Casa del Marino. And is it every whimsical! I call it “fish cycle,” but CULTURA calls it Un Alebrije de Oriente or “An Alebrije from the East”:

Not that we need an excuse to walk, roller skate, jog or bike the malecón, but now is most definitely the time! Oh… don’t forget your camera or cell phone!

Miss Universe Carnavál Mazatlán

5442_1701570033394960_4368600050915917126_nIf you support diversity, particularly LGBT causes; if you would feel good about helping a talented eight-year old girl who is very sick; or if you’d just enjoy a terrific old-fashioned drag queen show and contest, you are in for a treat! It’s part of what Carnavál is all about!

Miss Universo Carnavál Mazatlán will be held tomorrow night, Tuesday, February 2nd, starting shortly after 8:30 pm. The pageant will take place at Castillo de LuLu, Aquiles Serdán 60 (the same street Immigration is on, the salón is just farther down the street, off Carnavál).

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I attended this event last year, and we had a whole lot of fun! The people are wonderful, and it’s for a great cause. A lady will sell sodas at the venue, but the good news is that the event is BYOB: bring any drink you’d like and enjoy!

The group Belleza con Causa/Beauty with a Purpose does charity work and teaches acceptance, tolerance and diversity. Of course I LOVE what they do! They conduct this annual event and dedicate the proceeds to charity. In 2016 the money will go to help eight-year old Vidacsi, who is very ill and who, I am told, will sing at the event. According to Susie Morgan, “They have the biggest hearts of anyone I know. PLEASE come and show your love and support!”

I am honored and excited to have been asked to be a judge tomorrow night. The event usually includes a couple of performances, and the pageant itself includes the queen aspirants modeling both cocktail and evening dresses, and answering a question. Three queens will be crowned: Miss Universo, Señorita, and Rostro Carnavál/Face of Carnaval. Miss Universo Carnaval Mazatlan 2015, Fany Hernandez, and Miss Barrios Mazatlán 2015, Hanya Montiel, will be present.

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Tickets cost 50 pesos and are available at the door. I hope to see you there! Please know that Belleza con Causa is also available for parties and events; yet another option in our very talented city.