Jamaica Prepares for Another Vibrant Carnival Season in 2019

Photo via Skkan Media Entertainment
Needless to say, I'm biased. I think Jamaica Carnival is wonderful. I've never been to Trinidad, and in my 40 years in Toronto I've only missed a handful of Caribana parades. Carnival is an enjoyable passion of mine, and every part of my heart believes that Jamaica Carnival is the perfect storm of carnival excellence!

Since attending for the first time in 2017, I have kept an interested eye on the costumes, promotions, and the overall impact this exciting event is having on Caribbean culture, music, and international vibes overall.

As someone who has played mas, built mas, written about mas, and helped to organize and promote mas, I have waved the proverbial flag high and mighty for our local Toronto event, for years. I have studied our carnival and invested time and passion into understanding how I can play my part, how we as Torontonians of Caribbean descent can work together to sustain this event, and I've even tried an exercise to visually operationalize the structure of Canada's largest Caribbean celebration to see how perhaps we can begin to explore new ways of strengthening the model of accountability, and eventually build that Caribbean community centre that the parade was originally intended to fund. Anyone involved in the logistics of this massive undertaking, however, knows that it's all easier said than done.

Via CarnivalInJamaica.com
Even from an unofficial distance, I can't help but still love everything about carnival, and that's why I am most impressed by the Jamaican's tightly-executed branding and presentation of their events, their themes, and their unique experiences. Canadian-born, and raised in a non-Carnival, traditional Christian Jamaican home, I pretend not to be a carnival "expert" by any means. But I do recognize genuine excellence and well-established businessfolk coming together to celebrate this festive time of year, to showcase various talents, and to encourage tourism to the island of Jamaica for yet another wonderful reason.

Everything about Jamaica Carnival makes me feel proud.

For example, the bands are spectacular. This year there have been four established bands that have launched their themes, costumes, designers, and affiliated marketers and sponsors in late 2018: Xaymaca International who launched on November 10, Bacchanal Jamaica launched on November 17, Xodus Carnival launched November 24, and One World Rebellion launched on December 8. Previous participants Jamaica Carnival (the originators of this Kingston celebration, as founded by legendary Jamaican calypsonian Byron Lee) have not taken part since 2017. While the legacy of Lee is still alive and well in this regard, financial restrictions will prohibit participation until further notice, according to a Jamaica Gleaner report early last year.

Since my last attendance in 2017, the carnival has seen increased numbers of participants (the attendance of 2000 in 2016 grew to 6000 for 2017 according to Kamal Bankay, the Chariman of the Jamaica Carnival Stakeholders Committee), and the town of Kingston has taken on new life for Caribbean and international tourists who might otherwise stop off in Negril or Ocho Rios to be entertained. Leading up to this year's Road March, taking place on Sunday, April 28, Kingston will be a hub of visitors, beauty, and entertainment excellence from the participating bands and affiliated brand sponsors and promoters.

Bacchanal Jamaica in particular has a heavy roster of pre-set dates and anticipated events that the soca-loving fete crowd can look forward to each season. Some of the significant dates already in place include:

March 8 - Bacchanal Mas Camp Opening
March 30 - Rum for Breakfast
April 12 - Bacchanal and Dancehall
April 20 - Beach J'Ouvert
April 24 - Bacchanal Night Mas
April 26 - Bacchanal J'Ouvert

For those who will only be in Jamaica specifically to celebrate the Carnival, they have four excellent choices of bands to jump up with, including Bacchanal Jamaica, and can access, interact, and prepare themselves accordingly through the excellent range of online products and photos that have been made available for the international carnival market.

XAYMACA INTERNATIONAL launched their concept ICONIC, with the support of co-sponsors and design and marketing affiliates Tribe, Kandi, Sleek Jamaica, Richie Ras, LehWeGo, Rogue, Skkan Media, Krave, Medz, Punchy Punch, and Keisha Als.

Featuring a range of sultry and dynamic designs, masqueraders can choose from sections like Dynasty, Victress, Mendoza, Dancehall Queen, Ashanti, Primadonna, Donatella, Vainglory, Burlesque, Bohemian, Psychedelic, Aphrodites, Aja, Queen of the Nile, Rose, or participate in a specially designed t-shirt stating: "Out of many, one band."

BACCHANAL JAMAICA will be celebrating Carnival this year through their theme of "Invictus." They launched  at their notorious mas camp (located at the National Stadium in Kingston), and will continue to host events and pre-carnival festivities at the popular location up until Carnival Day.

Along with their allies Lavishmas International, Eden, Designs by Dru, and VIP Carnival, they will be presenting sections like Venus, Gaea, Salacia & Neptune, Bellonw & Mars, Felicitas, Electryo & Bacchus, Diana & Apollo, and Cleopatra, in addition to offering Sunday wear and t-shirts for interested participants.

XODUS CARNIVAL launched the "Cosmopolitan" theme for 2019. "The World in One Band" consists of a range of location-specific costumes representing various destinations and their significant aesthetics. Sponsored by affiliates Dream Entertainment Ltd, Trinidad's Y.U.M.A., Campari, Appleton Estate, Wray & Nephew, and Hennessy, the costumes are stunning, with amazing graphic representations of the featured cities.

Xodus revellers can be transported to Bangkok, Aztec, Kingston or Manhattan, Nairobi, Madrid, Macau, Florena, Tokyo, Cairo, Mumbai, Asella, Rio, Bali, or Figi through beautiful regional-specific costumes.

One of the most newsworthy elements of this year's Jamaica Carnival promotion, thus far, has been the addition of the new band produced by Trinidadian-natives and Caribbean music legends Fay-Ann Lyons and her husband Bunji Garlin.

ONE WORLD REBELLION launched their theme "Revolt" and has received coverage and attention from the Gleaner, Loop Jamaica, Carnival Fetish, and many other Caribbean news brands for their unique designs as well as special messaging. While initially Fay-Ann's words about the nature of Carnival in Jamaica vs. Trinidad were taken out of context, but interviews and discussions quickly clarified that her love for Carnival has expanded to Jamaica out of passion and good intention, and not as a means of reducing participation in Trinidad or "choosing sides."

The launch of One World Rebellion even featured reggae's dancehall legend Beenie Man, reminding all Caribbean music lovers that our separations are only geographic when it comes to the proper celebration and sharing of music and culture. Fay-Ann clarified this dedication by stating that her band and this year's theme were "rooted in history" and based on the background of cultural revolution amongst all African descendants.

Her band is bringing this collective history together; sections highlighting warriors and power, goddesses and African prints are her homage to the history of the Caribbean, as well as the carnival celebration. Costume sections are named Iroquois, Breffu, Valkyrie, Aza, Bois, Thesilea, Oceania, Thrachan, and Aquarius and will be supported by Campari, Coca-Cola, Wata, and Chromatic Live.

Like Bacchanal Jamaica and the other bands, One World Rebellion will also host a series of pre-Carnival events, and Lyons' fitness brand Aza Fit will provide stamina-building workout sessions for their patrons and interested participants.

Once Christmas passes, carnival enthusiasts worldwide reset their calendars, prepare for new music releases, and get ready to observe, participate, and share news about the rolling wave of riddims and costumes that will take place over the course of the year. Trinidad's Carnival remains the pinnacle of the celebration: it has an early emergence in the carnival calendar year, the religious tie to Lent, as well as the observation of the end of slavery and a range of local traditions and folklore.

The tradition now continues to evolve, present itself uniquely in various locations, and highlights a range of celebrations and practices. At the root of this event is the public enjoyment of culture and the freedom to express with exuberance and inhibition.

With any change to cultural celebration, will come analysis and social impact studies on the effects and impacts of the new addition as well as opinions and recommendations for its success. For example, cultural expert Kai Barratt explored the use of slim, light-skinned, and scantily-clad models in the promotion and endorsement of Carnival, which she believed to be in stark contrast to Jamaica's "Out of Many, One People" national messaging.

Any consumer of Carnival culture knows that the majority of models and featured faces tend to be non-black, very thin, and represent a range of "lighter" hues and "straighter" hair, often leaving out the average-sized, darker-skinned, fuller-clothed participant of Carnival across the region. Issues of class and the social value system were also presented via Barratt's research, where the images of Carnival participants can also exclude the "average" woman from relating to the experience and accessing the means and opportunities to take part in this ritual.

It is not news that racial discrepancies and social barriers exist in the Caribbean, so seeing these issues at play during Carnival season is almost inevitable. The high cost of costuming, and the "uptown" gatherings of soca lovers and mas enthusiasts were linked to power and unbalanced representation, while the day-to-day realities of the citizens of the islands are often deliberately left out from the marketing and promotion of these events.

Carnivals are presented as multicultural and accessible, however, they are particularly niche-based for those who are dedicated to the phenomenon, and those who make this a part of their regular routine. Many will remember the work of Jamaican academic Carolyn Cooper, where arguments were made that somehow the "slackness" found in dancehall was unacceptable to many, yet similar movements and displays from the "uptown" soca crowd received a pass due to racism and classism.

These discussions go hand-in-hand whenever "Carnival in Jamaica" is a topic, because there will always be an assumption that Carnival is a particularly Trinidadian or upper-class occurrence, and that it is not in the Jamaican history to produce or celebrate it in the same way. It is in stark difference to the open dancehall celebrations of the reggae community, and therefore it appears (to some) a contradiction to openly embrace both.

I've read criticisms from both sides, about either the preservation of Jamaican and reggae culture, or the betrayal of Trinidadians when it comes to celebrating Carnival in other locations or in unconventional ways. My conclusion? The average Carnival enthusiast is truly just seeking the liberation and joy from the experience, an opportunity to dance freely, wear costuming that takes a level of confidence and risk, and to frolic and fraternize with peers, countrymen, and make new acquaintances through these shared moments of revelry and excitement.

Not to take away from the fact that there is definitely a racial bias in Carnival promotion, and that (truth be told) this bias still exists outside of Carnival as well. I also won't take away from the contradictions in treatment and acceptance from dancehall street parties versus outdoor soca fetes, both in the Caribbean and abroad. There is injustice, there are imbalances, and there are definitely loyalists and traditionalists that don't want to see the various sub-cultures and traditions merging. On a larger international scale, and on a specific island scale, these are the usual social controversies we must all work on improving.

I view the emergence of Jamaica's Carnival as a benefit to the Jamaican tourist experience, as well as yet another great reason to enjoy the island in a new way. Jamaica already hosts a great number of music festivals, and has artists from all genres performing for large audiences year-round. Hotels are consistently booked, and millions travel in and out of MBJ and KIN airports each day to soak up a little sun, and go home with a touch of spirit, a bottle of rum, and the vibes of Jamaica in their soul. Adding Carnival to the already positive and memorable Jamaican experience is a blessing. Why not? Why not give folks one more reason to enjoy Jamaica? Without taking away from dancehall or reggae culture, and without disrespecting the values of the island, the Carnival should be viewed as a beautiful occurrence that is open to adapting and expanding over time.

The buzz about Jamaica Carnival is on a steady incline, so it is my hope that it will adjust and conform over time. I already saw evidence of this with many reggae and dancehall artists participating in the 2018 festivities, performing on trucks, to thousands of masqueraders doing the "Genna Bounce" along the Road March route. Jamaica will adjust. The people will accept what they will, and dash away what defeats their innate soul and purpose. I trust that the Jamaican people will endorse and customize this experience for the benefit of their people, in due time. I also trust that Jamaica will embrace the international elements, and adjust accordingly.

The official "Carnival in Jamaica" brand launched in October of 2018 in Kingston, as a collaboration between the Ministry of Tourism, and Jamaica's Tourist Board. Dedicated to keeping Jamaica at the top of the Caribbean tourist's destination list, all related supporters and business affiliates are putting forth a great coordination to ensure that Jamaica's Carnival continues to grow, has a steady and positive impact on attendees, and also helps to create unity amongst the Caribbean islands without the physical or music-specific divisions. Just like reggae music is easily enjoyed and celebrated across the West Indies, Jamaica has also embraced the legacy and joy of soca music through Carnival season and is also witnessing a permeation into other elements of Jamaican celebration.

There are so many wonderful fragments of Jamaica culture to uplift, to enjoy, and to endorse. My spirit gravitates towards this particular Carnival because of my heritage, but also the mix of reggae and soca music, the natural joy, the powerful dancing, beautiful artistry, elaborate costuming, borderless camaraderie, vibsey performances, tightly branded parties, and at the core of the experience...just enjoying the outdoors, having your feet on the streets of the city, and tying it all in to enterprise and celebration.

I'm looking forward to the 2019 installment of this wonderful international Caribbean-centric tradition, and I'm happy to endorse it the best way I know how: through online and physical support of our hometown Toronto Carnival bands, events, soca DJs, and brands; through showcasing Carnival culture on our official Kya Publishing @CarnivalSpotlight Instagram page; through the promotion of my 2014 urban fiction novel "Carnival Spotlight" that embraces Carnival culture from a Canadian perspective, and through sharing the images of more brown-skinned natural Carnival ambassadors, and supporting body-positive Carnival movements like #EveryBODYPlayAhMas. Most importantly, by doing my best to attend as many Carnivals as possible, support the economies of the local promoters and businesses, and to take a jump for my spirit that craves this annual rejuvenation!

See you on the road!

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


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