When the jubilant extravaganza known as Caribana officially begins on July 14, more than 1 million people from around the world will take to the streets of Toronto in an outpouring of enthusiasm for the culture and pleasures of the Caribbean.
Established in 1967 to celebrate Canada’s centenary and its many cultures, the three week festival—the most diverse in North America—now has imitators almost everywhere people of the Caribbean have settled—which doesn’t stop them from making their way to Caribana as well.
“It’s blossomed into one of the happiest times of the year here,” said Alicia Sealey, a longtime member of the Caribbean Arts Group.
But while Caribana serves as a wonderful excuse to party and congregate in endless backyard barbecues and picnics in the parks, it is especially important as a reminder of home.
“The ability to beat pan (steel band), play mas (masquerade), wine, lime and make bacchanal with your kind for a few days, as if you were on Frederick Street, was a way to salve that yearning,” said Robin Timothy, a Trinidadian consultant who divides his time between New York and the island, adding, “and it is still is.”
An enormous amount of creativity, energy and organization goes into Caribana, which this year features the Calypso Music Series, Junior Carnival, Caribana 2009 Art Exhibition, Caribana Gala, King and Queen Show, Pan Alive, and most important, Toronto Caribana Parade. Strutting your stuff to the music—the bouncy rhythm of calypso, soca, reggae, jazz, gospel—any music with a touch of the African beat—underlies every aspect of the festival, and the heartbeat is the masquerade band. Its success depends on the imaginativeness of its theme; on how several hundred people can be transformed into a representation of society through fantasy or parody.
Winning depends heavily on the beauty and presentation of the costumes, with many of them requiring enormous amounts of steel, wire, fabric, sequins, feathers and beads. The big prize, both monetarily and symbolically, is winning the King and Queen of the Band competition. This is a contest between the males and females that head each band, and has as much to do with the music as the costumes. On the Thursday night before Caribana Day, all the kings and queens of the bands meet to battle like peacocks, primping and preening for the audience.
No one had more to do with establishing Caribana than Charles Roach, the Trinidadian musician, lawyer and civil rights advocate. In the ‘60s, he became the moving spirit behind the Caribbean Cultural Committee, a group of black social pioneers who set out to break down racial barriers and advance the cause of blacks in Canada. They decided that a carnival should be the centerpiece of their cultural demonstration, and that it should be modeled after the rapturous events in the week before the Christian festival of Lent in Trinidad and Tobago.
Though Roach still has enormous enthusiasm for Caribana, he is troubled by some of the ways in which it has developed; chiefly concerning the City of Toronto reaping what he believes is an unfair amount of the financial rewards from the festival. Last year, parade week brought in $130 million—most of it going to the hospitality business, such as brewers, bottlers, hotels, transportation, airlines and restaurants.
“We can’t and wouldn’t want to put on our parade in a stadium and make people pay for it,” he said, “but we—our festival, on which we spend thousands to make as wonderful as possible—is why Toronto draws more visitors then that at any other time of year. We haven’t established the infrastructure yet to earn our fair share, but we’re working on it.”
However, some contributors to Caribana do get paid, specifically the designers and seamstresses in the Mas Camps, Yards and Tents. The festival awards winning bands financial prizes, and the Caribana-supported Black Canadian Artists Association raises money for its artists. The city also pays for clean up, Web sites and much of the advertising and extra security.
The extra security is a sore subject with Roach and many others, who see it as way to cast aspersions on Caribana. He also doesn’t like that the city changed the parade route from a central location to an area on the Lakeshore, where there are no residences or businesses. He believes the police preferred having it contained there, using as their excuse fears of violence, which has in fact been negligible.
But recently, the city center has slowly begun moving toward the lake. “The gods of carnival smile on us,” he said. “Unlike Europeans and some Asian settlers, immigrants from the Caribbean may not have brought investment capital or construction or entrepreneurial expertise to this city of high rises and subways, but we did bring rhythm—that spiritual element of calypso, reggae and soca and the ineffable power of African rhythms that undergird carnival—and that brings people of every background and race together.”
Valerie Gladstone specializes in the writing about the arts for The New York Times, Artnews, Time Out New York and many others. She is the author of a children's book with photographer Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: A Year in the Life of an Ailey Student.