Thursday, May 24, 2018

What Makes Toronto Caribbean Carnival So Special

The last of eleven Caribbean carnival band launches wrapped up this past weekend in Toronto with Atlantic Mas and their presentation of Semba at the Rebel nightclub, the most commonly known entertainment venue in the city. Already the Toronto Carnival wire is buzzing with electricity because--once again--the energy is shifting in the city, which will make for an exciting carnival season.

To those who don't pay attention to the logistics (and politics, oftentimes) of the Toronto Carnival culture, all of those above-mentioned details are completely insignificant. Band launches? Venues? Themes? The majority of Torontonians actually have no idea about how the annual Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival operates, and what it takes to produce North America's largest street festival.

Despite annual news coverage, one-on-one interviews with band leaders and chatting with costumed masqueraders on Grand Parade day...despite informing the public about the changes of the festival and the advances in culture and history, most still refer to the parade as "Caribana," and just welcome the tourists, money spending, and foreign vibes in the city. Many avoid downtown altogether on the Saturday before our Civic Holiday Monday. Many more pray that there is no violence, no front page news stories, and that all participants have a safe and rain-free carnival experience. I believe the city of Toronto has a "complicated" relationship with the carnival, while to the designers, leaders, members, and volunteers of the eleven main masquerade bands, carnival is LIFE.

The media plays their role as well. Each year we know what the footage will look like. Some wining up on Breakfast Television. Behind-the-scenes at a local mas camp. A CBC report about the history of Carnival in Toronto. And on parade day, we can all expect to see posts of a friendly Toronto police officer getting an exhilarating street dance from a beautiful Caribbean masquerader. We can tune into every evening news show from CityTV to Global, and see reporters interview participants, high profile attendees, and visitors to Toronto.

The Toronto Carnival story doesn't change much, on the exterior. It starts around July, it wraps up after the holiday, and it repeats indefinitely. Year after year, for half a century now. Amongst stories of funding, management changes, issues of creativity, fancy events, amazing triumphs, celebrity performances, and facts about Toronto's Caribbean community, the show goes on. Every year.

The story from the inside is much different, however, because carnival is a year-round endeavour. It never ends. Because while Toronto Carnival is gearing up, taking place, and winding down, there are dozens of similar carnivals around the world at various stages of the same process. Carnival is a lifestyle for some. It is a passion. A hobby. An enterprise.

There were eleven band launches in total this season, from the Toronto Caribbean Carnival experts. Those who put this passion above everything else. Starting with the Venom Carnival band launch mid-March and concluding with Atlantic Mas two months later, it was a series of shows, photos, and promotional videos created specifically for the soca lover and carnival supporter at heart.

The launches highlight each masquerade band's theme, costumes, DJs, and participants. Members of the carnival and cultural communities gather, ready to be impressed. It is the job of each masquerade band to put their best foot forward with staging, lighting, costume creation, theme relevance, and production value.

Historically, the launches have ranged from the extravagant and fantastic...to the underwhelming and basic. Based on a variety of reasons from finances to business acumen and of course costume aesthetics (and model wining skills), the launches can either go terribly right...or fall flat.

That is part of the annual interest and anticipation that comes with the occurrence of the carnival and all of its preparation. This isn't exclusive to Toronto, it is an international phenomenon. What is exclusive to Toronto is the city itself, and how deeply embedded the parade is to our downtown summertime culture. While there are never ending rumours of the festival's future and an equal amount of stories and speculations about its participants and their supporters, every summer like clockwork, the Toronto streets are decorated with revellers to mark the celebration of another year of execution.

With carnivals around the world from Trinidad (the mother of ALL carnivals), to American favourites like Miami Carnival and New York's Labor Day parade, and Caribbean gems like Cropover in Barbados, and carnivals in Cayman, Jamaica, and Bahamas, the carnival enthusiast can never grow tired of the availability of options. Japan, Germany, and Nottinghill Carnival in the U.K. are all locales where lovers of Caribbean music and culture can travel to to take part in the tradition. Each carnival has its personalized features, and things to look forward to. Each carnival has its reputation and highlights, that become known internationally as word spreads.

Needless to say, I'm biased because I was born and raised in Toronto, but I do think that the Toronto Caribbean Carnival has so many great features and highlights that it should be internationally revered as one of the go-to carnivals of the year. It should run like clockwork. It should be funded generously from those who benefit from the fruits of the carnival labour. We have all of the elements here to have an outstanding carnival every year.

Toronto Carnival is particularly special because of a few elements:

1) THE BANDS

We have the new young energy of Atlantic Mas, that are linked with international superstar and hometown legend Drake. We have the legacy of Saldenah Carnival, with Louis and his family of designers and loyal supporters that show up in the thousands each season. There's the unshakeable vibe of the Toronto Revellers, who host great summer limes and always have the sounds of iron and pan playing live from their mas camp. There's Carnival Nationz, who build mas like no other, and consistently bring us a spectacular presentation at the annual King & Queen competition. Bands like Venom Carnival and Fantazia who have design masterminds creating beautiful costumes, and there's Epic Carnival (formerly Durham Carnival) who have an amazing sense of community, D'New Regulars who come with years of expertise and tradition, and Sunlime and Costume Creators who also respect the art of mas and the process of costuming as well with a strong history of tradition and experience.

If you live in Toronto and love mas, these are all household names. The reputations, the vibes, the level of creativity, and customer service outcomes are all well known, and also fluctuate each season. While one band may reign for a few years strong, it's no surprise when another band steps up their game and wins the momentum for the next few seasons. It's a constant competition, and an entertaining process because the carnival community is a niche market that the bands have to strategize and plan to impress each and every year.

2) THE DJS

Toronto DJs of Caribbean music are top notch. Reggae and soca. Top notch. Hands down. I believe we have an amazing selection of selectors in this city, and can easily draw for a list of 20 or more that could flatten any dance, if given a chance. Internationally. Music is a strong point of Toronto, and our DJs are responsible for that vibe. From the radio, to boat rides, band launches, or weekly club bookings, it is the Toronto DJs that drive the fun and influence of our carnival through their music, messaging, and national profile.

I love to see band loyalty, when it comes to Toronto's Caribbean Carnival. I love to see DJs that find a band, and hold that band down through thick and thin. Build the brand. Build the vibe. Personalize the mood of the band. In fact, the DJ's role in the band is a crucial one, because it can carry on year-round, or it can fall off with the last song on the truck at the end of parade day.

The bands that are strong have DJs that are strong endorsing them. The bands that are fun to jump up with, are the bands that have fun DJs leading the way with their selections and MC-ing. The bands that are well branded and marketed have a team of DJs who are out there pushing the message of mas and carnival outside of the mas camp walls.

I believe our carnival is special because of our talented Toronto DJs, and I believe that should be one of the main draws for international visitors to take part in our celebration: the music is always proper.

3) THE EVENTS

It's almost to the point of over-saturation, but I definitely think that the events in our city are excellent. The venue situation is challenging, but somehow the DJs and promoters have managed to still find their way around the complications, and buss new venues and take patrons out of the downtown core and into the likes of Brampton, Markham, Ajax, and the north end of Toronto to catch a nice party.

The branding of events in Toronto is definitely stepping up. Parties that we have been attending now for over a decade, are still going strong. Newer events have quickly captured the attention of folks, and have become staples of the summer. Signature boat rides. Birthday events. Theme parties. Outdoor events. All of these happenings--carefully spread across the Toronto summer calendar--help to build the vibe before carnival, and sustain it in the fall/winter months as well.

As soon as the temperature starts to warm up, you know that there is a list of events that you can look forward to each year. The consistency is awesome. The vibes are always great, and it's nice to know that the culture has built these solid moments that draw not only Torontonians to attend, but also people from the U.S. and Caribbean.

4) THE VIBE

For those of us born and raised in Toronto, the vibe sometimes comes and goes. For those who have been out and about since our teenage years, and or witnessing activities from the sidelines, we know that the vibe here is like no other. Foreigners will comment on the multicultural nature of our city, and how great it is that everyone parties "together" for the most part. Visitors will notice that on any given night, there are at least a handful of options for entertainment. The vibe is essentially non-stop, with a little something for everybody.

We are an eclectic group of folks, and from comedy shows to hair shows, urban book fairs (shameless plug... http://www.kyapublishing.com/tube.html), to festivals, there is no shortage of events to catch a vibe from. I believe that Toronto's Carnival has always been the epiphany of events for the urban/Caribbean community in Toronto. Even now with the addition of Drake's OVO Festival that same long weekend, it's like all roads lead to those few days where the height of all things Toronto come to an amazing climax. The vibe of that weekend is the most important entertainment vibe the city experiences, and this has been the case for decades now.

ALL OF THESE ELEMENTS MAKE TORONTO CARNIVAL SPECIAL.

As much as it has its ups and downs, scandals and politics, badmind, and glorious triumphs, it is ours, and it is still going strong. When looking at the international spectrum of Caribbean-centered events, I believe that our "Caribana" holds a very, very special place on that spectrum. A place that we can't afford to lose (literally, and figuratively), and a place that we owe it to the next generation to preserve.

Although it has transitioned from the Caribana our parents took us to, back on University Avenue in the 90s...it is still ours. It has still been handed down, and still continues to take over the streets of our country's biggest city, every year.

It's up to us to honour and preserve this culture. It's up to us to ensure that the following generations learn from the beautiful and positive elements, and disregard the mixup that has plagued our community's view of how we celebrate. It's up to us to remember what it is we first loved about this festival, and what it means to us as a culture. We have to take the momentum and impact of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, and manipulate it into something dignified, something important and historically relevant, something fiscally beneficial, and something we can be proud of. All of us.

I believe that Toronto Carnival is special, because I refuse to believe anything else. Despite the ways in which I've been disappointed and discouraged by the players and the processes (I'm 100% sure I'm not the only one)...it still means too much to Toronto's Caribbean community for me to turn my back on it. I will always love Toronto Carnival, and I will always do my best to ensure that it remains a special occurrence in how the world at large, and Canada specifically, remembers and regards our beautiful Caribbean culture.




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

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