Thursday, May 24, 2018
What Makes Toronto Caribbean Carnival So Special
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 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.
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.
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.
Toronto Carnival is particularly special because of a few elements:
1) THE BANDS
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
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
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
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.
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."