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

dsc_0211Our 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!

Fireworks Extraordinaire!

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FIREWORKS
By now if you read these pages you know I love fireworks. In Mazatlán we are blessed with displays most every weekend, sometimes almost every night. People launch fireworks at weddings, quinceaños, birthday and anniversary parties, restaurant grand openings… you name it. During Christmas and New Year’s we’ll see even more. I’m living in the right place! On Thanksgiving last week we enjoyed two wonderful, unexpected shows, and last Friday I counted five different fireworks shows that I could see just from our house. Since many of them take place over the ocean, it’s a site to behold.

Annually our two best city-wide shows are, of course, the Combate Naval and the Festival de la Luz ; click on either link in the highlighted text to see photos of previous editions of those events. If you love fireworks or photography like I do, you might also want to look at some pics I took over the summer while visiting relatives in southern Wisconsin: fireworks on Lake Michigan and another set on Lake Tichigan.

FESTIVAL DE LA LUZ
This year was the tenth anniversary of the Festival de la Luz, an annual show put on by the Tres Islas Hotel Association on the Saturday night between events of the Gran Maratón del Pacífico. To me it’s my favorite fireworks display of the year, because the whole bay of Mazatlán lights up, with around 50,000 people along the four kilometers of the malecón all getting a clear and joy-filled view. Combate Naval, held in conjunction with Carnavál, is a wonderful show, but the Olas Altas area gets so very crowded that viewing it takes lots of planning and effort. It’s not an event for the elderly, the differently abled, or the faint of heart, while Festival de la Luz is accessible to everyone. Click on any photo below to enlarge it or view a slideshow. Yes, I think Torre M’s marketing department needs to give me a call. 😉

The hotel association built up our anticipation that the tenth anniversary show would be the best ever in Mazatlán, that there would be new sorts of fireworks that we’ve never seen, and that what might seem like an error would really be a surprise. There were 15 launch points set up around our bay, 10,000 fireworks to shoot, and the show was supposed to last 30 minutes. Needless to say, I was PSYCHED!

PHOTOGRAPHING FIREWORKS
To take good fireworks photos, I’ve learned that a key is to scout a location ahead of time. Having a good foreground (e.g., beach, boats, people, scenery or reflections in water) gives perspective. I feel you need to choose whether to shoot the fireworks close-up or far away, as doing both requires too many changes in settings, and the shows don’t allow you the luxury of time. I suppose there are those who use two cameras, with two different settings, but I’m not that multi-dexterous. I’ve also learned that you can not guarantee good shots as there are so many variables out of the photographer’s control: the wind (never know which way the smoke will blow), the clarity of the air (Mazatlán’s salty air clouds photos taken at a distance), the quality of the fireworks show itself, and, of course, luck—if you happen to catch that one incredible launch or not.

The location from which I took photos last year wouldn’t work this year: it was now right under one of the launch sites, and I decided that the light from the fireworks would be too bright, and at unpredictable distances, for my shots. There was also much more ambient light there as well this year. Greg helped me find a new location where we could get the panoramic views we wanted. It took some negotiation, but we got permission to shoot from there, and a friend and I set out early that evening to set up.

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Photo from 2015 set up

2016 FESTIVAL
Well, instead of the advertised 30 minutes, the show this year lasted about 18 minutes. We didn’t have the flyboarders, not that I missed them, and I sure didn’t see anything so new and different that we haven’t seen here before, so I’m not sure what the surprise was. There was quite a wind blowing out the shapes of the fireworks very quickly. Thus, the show didn’t quite meet the 10th anniversary hype; that happens. My disappointment, however, was the apparent lack of coordination between the launch locations. What’s so great about Festival de la Luz is that you’ve got so many launches around the bay choreographed into a mesmerizing overall “WOW!” factor.

While I went out to take photos, Greg stayed home to watch the fireworks from a closer venue. He said there was only one man working the display in front of our house (one of the 15 launch locations), and it seemed the wind kept blowing out his torch. You may have seen the fireworks on the beach; they are hand-positioned and hand-lit. Nothing much seems computerized. The pyrotechnicians at different spots seem to have radios to coordinate their actions.

In 2015, you might recall, we had perfect fireworks conditions: a hurricane on the weekend of the marathon had cleared the air and the night was perfectly still, making it ideal for photography.  That same hurricane took out at least one of our fireworks launch locations, but fortunately the rest were saved. This year we had very salty air, lots of humidity, and combined with the wind far from ideal conditions. Below I’ll post some photos from 2015 and from 2016, to give you a feel of the difference. Click to view them larger and see which year is which. Let me know what you think.

I contacted José Manguart at Tres Islas to ask him about my perceptions, but so far I haven’t heard back from him. If I do, I will update this post with his comments. I’m not sure, therefore, if all went as planned, or if there were snafus. Either way, it was still a spectacular show, easily accessible, and free for so many thousands of people! Any disappointment is only because we are incredibly spoiled!

We are so blessed! I thank the Tres Islas Hotel Association for doing this for us every year. The Noroeste said there was 100% hotel occupancy over marathon weekend, and I know lots of friends were able to rent out rooms as well. It’s so encouraging to see Mazatlán hosting events that promote health and fitness, and also bring economic boom. Do let me know what you thought of the show, and the photos. Thank you!

Our Beloved Malecón de Mazatlán

We all love the malecón, Mazatlán’s oceanside promenade. While Tourism sometimes says our malecón is 21 km long, that length would have to include the Zona Dorada as well, which is clearly not malecón. But from Valentino’s to Pedro Infante is 8-1/2 km. If we add in Paseo del Centenario and the real, original malecón in Olas Altas, our annual Carnavál party zone, it’s a few kilometers longer yet. The world’s longest uninterrupted oceanside path is said to be the Stanley Park Seawall in Vancouver.

Here in Mazatlán you can ride a bike, rollerblade, jog or walk amidst incredible views. When the tide is high you can even get refreshingly splashed. In the fall months you can often witness sea turtles coming into the beach to lay their eggs. You can watch parades, marathons, protests, and incredible fireworks along the malecón of Mazatlán.

Most of us realize how much our malecón has changed over the years: lengthening it, widening it, various concrete designs and paint jobs, different types and colors of benches, planters, lighting, and, most recently, the palmeras. Remember when we had to avoid dog excrement all the time? Fortunately that custom has mostly died out, and by and large pet owners are fairly responsible when using the malecón to walk their pets.

I’ve written previously about how the culture of the malecón has changed. Most significantly to me is how in the past ten years it’s become the world’s largest gymnasium, at the same time that Mazatlán has become a pulsating center of athleticism. Ocean-fed pools are a rarity worldwide, and our own malecón is home to the beautiful Carpa Olivera that’s both historic and refurbished, as well as the Swimming Club. In addition to the athletes, the mesmerizing views, and sunsets unlike no other, our malecón also houses a grand collection of statues and monuments.

malecon-usersOne of the newest efforts on the malecón are the signs to have walkers and runners use the side of the malecón closest to the ocean, and bicyclists, skateboarders and roller blades use the side closest to the traffic. With 14,000 people using the malecón on a daily basis, according to city figures, this can’t always happen, but already I’ve noticed it’s made a significant difference.

All you snowbirds, welcome back! Those who have survived the heat and humidity, rain and wind of this summer, we’re almost ready for cooler weather! I look forward to seeing you on the malecón! Sunrise, sunset, daytime and night views there are gorgeous. What better place to enjoy people watching and the beauty of our city, and get some exercise?

Rocio IV’s Coronation, El Buki and Combate Naval

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Queen Rocio IV and El Buki sing together on stage!

The biggest night of Carnavál 2015, Sueños de Momo/Dreams of Momo, was last night, Saturday. At what a night it was!!! The realest and most relaxed queen we’ve seen in our eight years here (did she ever enjoy her coronation!), an incredible show by Marco Antonio Solís (El Buki), and the best Combate Naval fireworks show EVER!

The coronation this year was only an hour long—a huge improvement, in my opinion. A few years ago when David Bisbal came, he was only allowed to perform in concert for an hour, because the pomp and circumstance had gone on so long. This year rocked! The dance numbers were crisp, we met the 25th and 50th anniversary queens (both of whom look unbelievably good!), Maestro Jorge González Neri was feted for his 25 years with Carnavál, and we were able to crown a queen, all in about an hour. Queen Rocio IV’s court had the theme of the Phoenix bird, and she was greeted by dancers representing Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Click on any photo to enlarge or view a slideshow.

After the gorgeous ceremonies and the fireworks, we were introduced to Marco Antonio Solís, who sang for a little over two hours. He seemed sincerely thrilled to be in Mazatlán, and confused when the crowd booed our Governor Malova and Mayor Felton. And they booed them twice during the evening! I was impressed that El Buki knew the names of the Queen and her four princesses, as well as the Governor, though he flubbed Mayor Carlos Felton’s name. Oops.

El Buki sang, played guitar and drums, and danced a few numbers as well—one a cowboy-type number and the other with Carnavál dancers. His voice has aged very well and is still wonderful; we truly enjoyed the concert. I have always loved his music, and that he is such a popular composer as well as performer. It is an incredible feeling to be in a stadium with 15,000 people all singing along to a performer! Many thanks to our friend Jeanette who purchased tickets for us and got us such great seats!

If you read this blog you know that our friends Cathy and Bill have a good friend who impersonates El Buki here in town. We were thrilled that last night they gave him a huge cameo on the video screens—he was sitting right up front! Very cool!

It rained on and off all evening, though it seemed to be drying up by the time we got home around 2:30. Fortunately it was just a persistent drizzle, and didn’t impact the concert or the fireworks.

You probably know as well as I do that if you want to see Combate Naval, do NOT attend Saturday night’s coronation. Unless, of course, like the Queen and other dignitaries, you have a police escort. It has always been very difficult to get through traffic and then through the security lines, in time to get into the party zone to see the fireworks after the coronation events in the stadium. With the new highway and Carnavál’s increasing popularity, however, it is next to impossible.

Last night a good friend was waiting to drive us straight to a friend’s house downtown. We were to watch the fireworks from their roof. We didn’t make it, despite our planning and best efforts. We still saw the fireworks, but not from our friend’s roof nor from inside the party zone. They were spectacular. I can only imagine how great they were on the ground in the zone!

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Here is the Noroeste video, taken from the party zone:

In my opinion the crowds and the traffic during Carnavál have really gotten overwhelming. Carnavál de Mazatlán has long been one of the world’s most terrific events, accessible to the public and family-friendly. However, it has outgrown its historical spaces and ways, and we sincerely hope it will be re-envisioned a bit in future years. Olas Altas can not hold 35,000 people comfortably or safely. Last night people entering the party zone were refused admittance several times during the night, as the crowds inside were at capacity, forcing those outside into long, long lines of waiting. The crowds got upset so the ticket booths temporarily shut down. The Plaza Machado was also very crowded, and with a distinctively young, twenty-something crowd.

We can’t wait for the parade today! As usual, we have our chairs set up on the malecón, right at street level, so we can dance with the dancers as they come by. We had a visit from the Oficialia Mayor, who wanted to make sure we weren’t renting out chairs. We showed them our rental receipt, and assured them the chairs were all for friends and family. More on the parade later. Have a wonderful first parade, everybody!

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