Experiencing Jamaica Carnival 2017

I just HAD to visit Jamaica for carnival this year. There was no question about it. Ever since the carnival bug hit me during a 2006 "girl's trip" to Miami Carnival, the international phenomenon captured my spirit and had me doing weird and new things like listening to soca music, and playing mas...BUILDING mas, and diving head first into Toronto Carnival. I fell so hard that people close to me didn't know what was going on! In fact, many of them STILL question this niche obsession I have. But, I digress.

Like any carnival enthusiast will declare: "You HAVE to experience Trinidad, though!" Admittedly, I have been hesitant. I've seen the pictures, the videos, the fetes, and the costumes. I've heard the stories, and experienced the second-hand enthusiasm and extreme passion that people have for Trinidad Carnival. But still, I hesitated.

Jamaican in heritage, I always promised myself that I would NOT touch down on Trinidadian soil for carnival until I experienced it..."Jamaican style." Year after year, I considered planning a trip to sweet sweet T&T, but yet never felt ready in my soul, because I knew that Jamaica had to see me first. This year, I finally fulfilled that promise to myself, and found my way to Kingston, Jamaica for the 2017 Caribbean Carnival.

A few takeaways:

1) I Love Jamaica
2) Carnival Culture is Addictive
3) Every City has it's Rhythm

I did my research. Thoroughly. I watched every piece of Jamaica Carnival footage available online, and did the history of the situation to overstand what I was getting into. I looked into the bands, the participants, the DJs, and the events, and carefully constructed the perfect birthday weekend getaway to my parent's homeland...to experience something that NONE of my family members (in Jamaica or abroad) had ever bothered to affiliate themselves with.

This wasn't the year for me to play mas, although all of the bands and the costumes were tempting. I've played mas for years in Toronto, but decided that this was the year for me to observe Jamaican mas, assess the situation, and decide if I would be adding Jamaica's carnival to my yearly travel routine. If so...the band/costume selection would come next. Yes, I made this more strategic than necessary...but that's just how my personal addiction goes.

To my surprise, it seems like I picked the right year to go, because news was buzzing about the 2017 carnival from early in the year. When I saw Wynford Williams on Jamaica's entertainment program "On Stage" even talking about Jamaica's carnival, I knew that it was turning up on a new level for my inaugural visit.

For starters: the addition of new bands was opening up the field and appeal in a new way way. My research let me know that Jamaica's carnival only started in the early 1990s, when Jamaican musician and beloved calypsonian Byron Lee decided to bring his love for the carnival music and culture to his homeland. Parading down the streets of Kingston, symbolically where "uptown" met "downtown," Lee wanted to create a celebratory event that would take the Trinidadian festivities...and present them with a Jamaican edge. And believe me...ain't nothing more "Jamaican" than Kingston, Jamaica.

Rather than have this new carnival just before Lent, like many other cultures across the Caribbean and South America, Lee decided to focus his activities around the Easter celebration. Now, the carnival parade (aka Road March) takes place on the Sunday after Easter Sunday.

Now, anyone that hears about Jamaica carnival presently, most likely hears about "Bacchanal Jamaica." I only recently discovered that this band (who has been the face of Jamaica's carnival since Byron Lee's passing, and subsequent hiatus of his carnival band "Jamaica Carnival" in 2008) was comprised of a few other bands: the "Oakridge," the "Raiders," and the "Revellers." These bands, who originated with Lee's carnival, had expanded over the years and took on a new challenge with building up Bacchanal Jamaica.

Carnival had previously existed at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, as early in the 1940s, but it never reached its full capacity until Byron Lee's introduction. His first carnival, which took place on April 22, 1990, has now since evolved into the biggest festival in Kingston, Jamaica...but it was not without its challenges.

Much like my own Jamaican family members and other hardcore Jamaican-nationalists in my life, I have often heard remarks that carnival is a "Trinidadian" thing, and didn't really have a place in the Jamaican cultural landscape. Coupled with religious-based resistance, the shunning of some carnival folklores and traditions, as well as an overall lack of acceptance from the Jamaican public, the carnival has managed to still experience growth in Kingston town, and particularly this year...additional corporate acceptance.

The effects on Kingston tourism were experienced first hand, as all of the hotels, car rentals, and other amenities in town were booked to capacity carnival weekend.

Now, I've been to Jamaica numerous times. Mainly to visit with family in Manchester parish, to live the tourist life on the north coast in resorts, or to swing by the hills of Kingston to visit with other family members. Kingston is a beautiful city, with it's mountains in the background, pretty glitter of lights in the hills at night, and a sunshine, humidity and heat that only a Canadian could appreciate. But it's clear that tourism isn't necessarily the shining star of the town...rather business, and academic interests.

That being said, there was still a full agenda of fetes, boat rides, shows, and other events (all-inclusive, and cooler-fete style) to electrify pockets of the Jamaican capital, leading up to the anticipated carnival day.

From Easter weekend, the festivities begin. From the beaches of Ocho Rios, straight down to Hellshire, and over to the city of Kingston, there is no lack of parties for Jamaica's carnival. What I could appreciate is that many of the brands that I recognize from Toronto, and from Trinidadian promotion, had also found a place in Kingston for carnival.

As a relative newby to carnival, and someone who still has not visited the mecca of Trinidad, I am becoming acutely aware of the trends in branding, reputation, and vibe. I even now know how to pick and choose what events match my style, and know what to expect for the most part, whether I attend at home in Toronto, or in Kingston. Yes, I am proud of this, because I have invested a lot of time and money into this addiction!

Scorch, Brainwash, Frenchmen, Suits, Caesar's Army, Sunrise, and Candy Coated were just a few of the familiar names that I saw pre-carnival, and while I was on the scene. I have grown to appreciate the international appeal of these event brands, and realize the importance of trusting and respecting the folks behind these elaborate productions. These parties are always elaborate, always well set, and you almost always walk away with a souvenir cup and a wrist band...for bragging rights, and nostalgia of course.

A few new brands that I'm pleased to add to my carnival repertoire are the new additions to Jamaica's carnival band scene: Xodus, and Xaymaca. Overall, there were four bands in total. Four bands, with separate mas camps, separate brands, costume themes...and even separate routes. Unlike Toronto Carnival, where all bands follow a linear path, with positions based on a draw...the Jamaican bands each have their own designated routes within the city. When you pick a band, therefore, you really pick a band. You don't even have to see the other trucks/masqueraders if you don't want to.

The biggest and most recognizable band, BACCHANAL JAMAICA, has their popular mas camp situated right to the north lot of Jamaica's National Stadium, and brought to vibes to Kingston for the Fridays leading up to the parade with a series of stage shows, fetes, and special events at their home base. Sponsored in part by the Jamaica Observer, Smirnoff, and TVJ--under this year's theme of Spellbound--they presented costumes like "Make a Wish," "Pixie Dust," and a variety of Frenchmen-named sections like "Frenchmen Trance" and "Frenchmen Shooting Star." On the road: soca superstar, Kes (a personal favourite) who felt like a familiar face as we participated in the road march. This is the band I chose to jump up with, because of Kes...annnnd because the band also conveniently passed my hotel, and concluded at my hotel. I was also graciously honoured with Accreditation by Bacchanal's media maven, Marcia McDonnough.

Many were happy to see the original JAMAICA CARNIVAL re-emerge for this year's carnival, as envisioned by Byron Lee. Branded heavily by Wray & Nephew, this felt like the heart of Jamaica carnival. A favourite amongst the islanders, this band's theme featured costumes like "Anansi," "Screechie," "Kisko," and "Peenie Wally," and they were joined on the road by reggae legend Beenie Man, and soca artist extraordinaire Bunji Garlin. I love a Bunji...and Beenie Man is Beenie Man! Would have been great to see them together!

The band XAYMACA INTERNATIONAL (pronounced Zah-My-Kah) were an exquisite group, sponsored by Sleek Jamaica, Karnival by Kandi, Leh We Go, Skkan, and national newspaper The Gleaner to name a few. This band featured costumes like "Revolution," the "Provocateur," and "Rogue." Very pretty. Very hip.

XODUS CARNIVAL had the theme "It's Showtime," and were produced by Dream Entertainment Ltd., and Y.U.M.A. This premium band had one of the year's most memorable costumes in my opinion, a number called "Gold Digger," (it was my favourite) and also featured beauties "Neon Lights," and "X-Tacy."

The spectators were respectful and obedient, unlike the "unruly stormers" (kidding) that are out to destroy Toronto Carnival as we know it. In Jamaica (much like Trinidad, as I hear) there is a simple rope dividing the masqueraders from the observers, and a few marshals to politely keep the pace alongside the dancing to ensure that those who invested hundreds of American dollars for their costumes, were safe, unbothered, and free to dance and display their beauty. I realize that unlike Toronto (where everyone is determined to "jump the fence," so to speak), the Jamaica viewers had no interest in jumping up WITH the band. They were content to watch, take pictures, and enjoy the spectacle. And rightfully so.

The parade itself wasn't full of dancing and music and hype like I'm used to at home...interestingly enough, I didn't see as much road fanfare and bacchanal as I expected. And definitely less traffic and stopping. In Toronto, half the day is spent waiting for trucks to move, or finding your way back to friends in a hectic crowd of dancing and movement. In Jamaica...not so much. Trucks kept moving to the point where I almost couldn't keep up, and the pace was quick...yet not conducive to on-the-spot dancing.

One thing I could truly appreciate about the carnival that our Toronto carnival is lacking, big time: the heavy branding from alcoholic beverages, and the ability to serve and consume liquor on the road. Nuff said.

I do love the way that each Jamaican band is corporatized by their sponsors, and it really does help to differentiate who is who, and give each band a personality past their own name. I have yet to see such heavy brand association in Toronto, and think it's something that Canadian corporations could benefit from...if they only had faith in us! Again, another unfortunate element of why Toronto Carnival has soooooo much confusion at times, while even the smaller and less-established carnivals around the world seem to figure this stuff out, seamlessly.

A few things I missed overall (that Toronto never lacks): Machel Montano (WHAT KIND OF CARNIVAL HAS NO MACHEL?!), Lyrikal, and what about Ultimate Rejects, to perfect "We Jammin Still"?! I was missing a few other familiar faces of carnival and soca that I am used to invading Toronto for the bacchanal. That being said, I realize that Jamaica's carnival is considerably smaller, as is the population that supports it, so I can hold tight until...this summer, when most of the artists will forward to Toronto for a few shows before our carnival season is really in full swing. And fall, when they return. OK. I also realize that we are spoiled in Toronto and have a steady rotation of soca shows, DJs, and festivities to participate in. Right here. All the time.

Over the duration of this trip, I was reminded that we (as carnival and soca enthusiasts) are blessed to live in Toronto, and that we have the best of the best of the best at our fingertips. Venues. Artists. DJs. Costumes. Fetes. Landscape. We have been given every resource and opportunity to have one of the world's greatest carnivals. And if we can ever sort out the endless political and financial bacchanal that surrounds the parade, there is absolutely no reason why Toronto carnival shouldn't be the obvious go-to carnival event, next to Trinidad itself.

But again, I digress, and will circle back on my takeaways from my experience with Jamaica's carnival:

1) I LOVE JAMAICA - What a beautiful island, beautiful people, fabulously delicious food, and a crazy vibe! Vibes on top of VIBES. My goodness! As much as all carnivals are similar in protocol, fetes, participants, and activities...there is something so specifically PERFECT about the vibe of Jamaica that can not be replaced, or imitated. I'm sure that even if I travel to Brazil or Trinidad themselves, the carnivals will not have the same place in my heart that Jamaica carnival did. There's a familiarity with the people, the language and the energy and swagger of the country that I just love (naturally), and being there during carnival time for me was just exciting beyond words. A country that I love, with music that I love, and a GOOD dose of reggae (which I imagine doesn't happen at all carnivals) made for a great experience.

2) CARNIVAL CULTURE IS ADDICTIVE - I say this, because to date I have frequented Miami Carnival quite a few times, I never miss a Caribana in Toronto, and I've even taken a trip to Atlanta to see what was up with their carnival. It's addictive because of the parade itself, as well as the overall joy you see on everyone's face. The familiar new batch of songs for the year...the freedom of dancing down the street, and the overwhelming presence of fancy fetes with cool paraphernalia and good times. It didn't take me long to figure out that I loved carnival culture, but I can also see how it's hard to get it out of your system. There are so many cities, and costumes, and configurations of carnival out there in the world, that you can literally make a year's worth of travel out of it...and then start again with the new year. I looked at Kes, and some of the high profile carnival bloggers like Trini Jungle Juice, and thought how easy it was for them to fill their schedules 100% with carnival-related activities. It never ends. And rightfully so!

3) EVERY CITY HAS ITS RHYTHM - The best takeaway from my trip is that even though the carnival itself is the same in theory, every city brings its own personality to the carnival parade. That in itself is the beauty of it. For Toronto, I think travelling down the Lakeshore is a beautiful thing...and the way the carnival takes over our metropolitan city is awesome. Jamaica carnival to me felt...really, really...Jamaican. In the heart of Kingston. Kingston: a city that many Jamaicans don't even too travel to--unless it's to renew their passports, apply for a visa, or conduct some form of national business. Kingston: a city that everyone in the world knows is not an easy place to live, grow, or navigate. Kingston: a city with such a rich musical history in reggae music, and such a prominent energy to it. Yet the carnival somehow carves a path through the streets of this town, and makes it its own. The rhythm of Jamaica's carnival is gritty and urban, while still remaining tropical and beautiful.

There's a part of me that has already promised myself to NEVER miss this event again. I had such a unique experience, such great company, and really felt blessed to be able to celebrate my birthday with the perfect storm of things that I love.

I should be back on Old Hope Road next spring on Sunday, April 8, 2018 to see what Bacchanal, Xodus, Jamaica Carnival, and Xaymaca are saying. And to see if maybe there are new bands as well! It's just how the addiction goes. You try to fight it sometimes (mainly for fiscal reasons...after all, those costumes and all-inclusive fetes do run a pretty penny)...but it's a hard battle to win. That's why it's an addiction, after all. You can't get enough of it...even when consumption defies logic. Carnival is a drug, and comes with such an exhilarating and unique feeling, that it's hard to duplicate.

I'm not sure what band I'd play mas with (they all have their appeals), but I do know that the combination of ackee and callaloo for breakfast, visiting with family members mid-day, and eating jerk chicken fresh off the outdoor drum...all before fete-ing, is probably the most interesting combination of entertainment and all of my heart's passions that I will ever experience.

Whatever the outcome for next year...I have to send a special BIG UP to everyone who helped to make this year's carnival in Jamaica a great experience for me! I had a TIME!

Here's my favourite video clip that I gathered, of Kes on the Bacchanal Jamaica truck just before they crossed the stage...

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


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