Friday, February 24, 2017

Documenting the Toronto Caribbean Carnival Experience

I fell in love with carnival culture. Unexpectedly. And then I wrote a book about Carnival in Toronto. Out of necessity.

My parents are Jamaicans, and didn't grow up "playing mas" or "jumping up" in costume to celebrate emancipation, crop over, their culture, or the countless other reasons that individuals participate in carnival around the world. It wasn't until they moved to Toronto where they decided to take part in the tradition of carnival, otherwise known as "Caribana," and bring my siblings and I downtown to University Avenue to watch the colourful procession of masqueraders, costumes, steel pan bands, and the delicate constructions of Caribbean elation.

We celebrated our Jamaican culture in other ways: with oral traditions, foods, social practices, music, literature, movies, and visits "back home"...and carnival was never a huge part of that experience.

But like other young adults and teenagers in Toronto, when you're "old enough" to go downtown on your own...chances are, you can't WAIT to head down to the Caribana parade for the day, on a sunny Saturday morning-turned-afternoon-turned-evening in July or August. For most of us, if our parents didn't instill it in us as a carried on tradition...it became a NEW tradition by default. A Toronto Tradition.

Growing up as a Caribbean-Canadian, in Toronto in particular, attending Caribana is almost a ritual in coming of age.

As a child...you stand at the sidelines, watch the parade with your parents, steal glimpses at the sexy men and women in costumes, eat some fabulous food, and dance.

As a young adult, you look forward to the days when you are allowed to head down to Lakeshore Blvd (where the parade was eventually transferred to), to dance along WITH your peers, and perform your culture along with them.

As a teenager...it's almost a mating ritual. Dancing, chipping, wining, bubbling, jumping, waving, and "getting on bad" with the others in the city that you may not have the opportunity to see year round. Meeting young men and women from other parts of town. Connecting. Partying. Seeing new faces...ESPECIALLY all at once. Caribana became THE place to be, because you knew EVERYONE was going to be down there.

Then there was the Yonge Street scene on a Friday night, and the ritual of lining the streets, meeting up with friends, watching the cars (ahem, rentals) drive by with the booming systems, and trying to decipher the Americans from the Canadians-fronting-as-Americans. Heading over to the Islands. Blockos. Seeing the bikers out in droves.

It was a thing. It was fun. It was life.

For some of us, Caribana was EVERYTHING as a young Caribbean-Canadian growing up in Toronto, in particular. Now, I can't speak for Caribbean-Canadian traditions in Winnipeg, Regina, Montreal, or Halifax, but I feel I know the Toronto experience inside out, at this point.

I was there, on the sidelines. I was there on Yonge Street. I was there at the countless, countless parties, and fetes, and blockos, and after parties, and pre-parties, and boat rides. I was there, and I loved every minute of it. I was there, because it was my [adopted] culture, and I LOVED the week of free and exhilarating celebration on our city streets.

I played mas for the first time in 2007 and had a BLAST. Up until then, I was content just going downtown to hang out on Caribana weekend, and party in the evenings. Take in the free concerts at Harbourfront, or the stage shows at Wild Water Kingdom. But playing mas opened up a NEW door in Carnival celebration for me.

Trinidadians (some, not all) perhaps have a different experience, by nature. Their island celebrates Carnival intensely, as we all know. They're doing it right now. 24/7. Across the board. Across generations. And it's an international phenomenon. To this day, I always get this excited buzz when Carnival Season rolls around...even though I have never been to Trinidad Carnival, I am dedicated to staying up-to-the-times on the music, the events, the live footage, and the festivities. It has become a passion, at this point.

But as a Jamaican-Canadian female with uber-Christian family values and a multi-cultural mix of girlfriends...Toronto's Caribbean Carnival became an extreme joy in my life. Playing mas turned into LOVING to play mas, which turned into curiousity about BUILDING mas, which turned into becoming a section leader in 2011 and designing, constructing, marketing, and documenting the costume-building process with a small group of women.

Building mas for adults turned into building mas and co-designing a children's Caribbean program and costume for carnival with friends. Kiddie Carnival became a great, great endeavour for me, and I would look forward to seeing the little ones take pride and have fun with this ritual.

Building mas turned into understanding the administrative side of mas, by participating in the marketing and communications of Toronto's Carnival culture with one of the city's biggest masquerade bands. The events, the production, the DJs, the scheduling, the promotions, and the politics. The Caribbean Carnival culture consumed me, and once it was in my system, I realized it was impossible to separate myself from this passion.

The feeling was indescribable. And yet I found myself repeatedly trying to justify it to hardcore Jamaican male friends of mine who INSISTED that Toronto's Caribbean Carnival was "not for me" and that it was a "Trini people thing." I was justifying it to family members, who were adamant that I wasn't "raised that way" to jump up on the street in bra and panty, and even some who were convinced that the ritual of Carnival was...well, less than Godly.

At times I doubted if I legitimately had a "place" in this world, and a true understanding of this "culture" that may not have been a die-hard Jamaican tradition, but was definitely a place where all Caribbean people gravitated towards, to claim as a collective bond.

I wanted to express just how exhilarating Carnival was, without sounding like I was justifying my own personal reasons for wanting to hang out, drink, lime, and party for a living. I was tired of explaining WHY I loved Carnival so much, when many of my peers grew out of it, and grew weary of the heavy crowds and masses crowded onto the Toronto streets during that time of year. They grew out of the club scene, and late nights on the street. They grew out of it, while I grew deeper into it.

The book "Carnival Spotlight" came to me because I wanted to tell the story of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival experience through the eyes of someone--an adult--who grew up in Toronto, but still had yet to intimately experience the Carnival culture. The adult I chose was "Delia Chinn," one of my favourite characters from one of my favourite books..."Video Light" that I wrote in 2008.

I wrote Carnival Spotlight in 2013, and continued the journey of Delia Chinn, the "Dancehall Queen" of Toronto, an avid dancer and party-goer. I took this Jamaican-Canadian character, and her Jamaican-Canadian husband...and I introduced them to mas. I introduced them to costumes. I introduced them to soca music, and to the mas camp, and to "liming," and I sat back and let the characters authentically experience Toronto's Caribbean Culture for the first time.

I wanted to document the Toronto Caribbean Carnival experience, as "I" know it, because I know that carnival itself is an industry that morphs and adjusts, and changes, and grows, and takes on new meaning and new form each and every time it occurs. From the political and administrative/management side of things, to the participant side of things, it is a phenomenon that is hard to explain sometimes...and even harder to quantify.

How do you express the joy that millions, and millions of people feel EVERY SINGLE YEAR by participating in this cultural ritual? How do you explain how an otherwise physically insecure male or female can bare their skin, and proudly strut down a busy Toronto street with the glares of strangers, television camera crews, enthusiastic tourist cameras, and co-workers watching them intently?

I used the story of "Carnival Spotlight" to document this experience, because in another 5 or 10 years, Toronto Carnival as we know it (or "Caribana" as we still affectionately call it) may become an entirely different event. I used the story of "Carnival Spotlight" to capture THIS moment in history, and tell the story of carnival the best way I know how.

Clearly, my story will be unique...and there are thousands of other perspectives on what Caribbean Carnival is, was, and should be. There are cultural fundamentalists that don't want to lose the traditional mas art forms; there are carnival outsiders who adopt this culture as their own and work desperately to fit in and understand its intricacies; there are casual participants who just want to lime and party, hear an iron band, dance, and go home. There are so many players, so many perspectives, and so many interpretations of Caribbean Carnival...and we're all expected to run a world-class festival...together.

"Carnival Spotlight" is the story of one woman, one man, and one experience with the carnival in Toronto. And hopefully in another 25 years when it develops and grows into a better version of the Carnival we know and love...this will serve as an entertaining historical document, letting yet another generation of Caribbean-Canadians see one of the many ways we can preserve, share, and revel in a culture that we love.




Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.


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