Our responsibility to stop City’s takeover of Caribana


Once upon a time in old Trinidad & Tobago, if in a court you were facing imprisonment for an offence, and the police maliciously informed the judge that you were a ‘panman’, that is someone who “does make noise beatin’ pan”, you could get an additional six months in jail. Civilized people just didn’t ‘beat pan’!

Once in that T&T, being a ‘kaisoman’ or calypsonian meant to the authorities that you could only have come from the low-class dregs of the undesirables in the society. Civilized people just didn’t ‘sing kaiso’!

In the same T&T, if you also ‘played mas’, participating in Carnival, you were a ‘jamette, wajang, sans humanite'; that is, someone without humanity. In fact, you could be beaten and even killed by representatives of the then colonial British authorities. Civilized people just didn’t ‘play mas’!

In fact, in T&T, these banned carnivals annually faced immense tensions between the authorities and the despised descendents of former slaves. Hatred towards them, and bitter opposition by all means to their carnival, primarily but not exclusively by the privileged beke neige upper-classes, sparked island-wide riots, involving even the British navy during the historic Canboulay Riots.

Thus, a reference to pan, kaiso and carnival riots in the Wikipedia has the following: “The Canboulay Riots by the descendants of freed slaves occurred in Trinidad and Tobago against attempts by the British police to crack down on aspects of the celebration of Carnival.

The riots occurred in February 1881 and in February 1884 causing loss of life. The riots are still commemorated and canboulay music is an important part of the music of Trinidad and Tobago, notably the use of steel pans which are the descendants of percussion instruments banned in the 1880s. The ‘chantwell’ or chantuelle, also an integral part of the carnival celebrations, was the forerunner of the calypso and later soca music.”

These carnivals were also staged in other Caribbean islands: Barbados, Grenada, Antigua, Dominica, St. Vincent et al. Of significance to the African origins of carnival is that while these islands, like Trinidad, were English-speaking, other places, like Portuguese-speaking Brazil, and Spanish-speaking Cuba had the same iconic carnivals; carnivals all born of the same heritage of African enslavement, resistance and emancipation.

Thus, when one celebrates carnivals like Caribana, one is celebrating one of the heritages – Negro Spirituals are another – which emerged from slavery. Ironically, many today who have achieved recognition and social status only from their profitable association with the masquerade, ungratefully denigrate and deny these African roots.

Today, too, regardless of their heritage by descent, slave or slave-master, everyone ‘beats pan, sings kaiso, and plays mas’. Part of the reason for the over-powering continuance of these slavery-descended practices is the cultural impact had from their historic survival against all odds. In addition, carnivals like Caribana pour vast sums of monies into civic coffers from Port of Spain in Trinidad to New Orleans in Louisana to Notting Hill in England to Toronto in Canada.

In fact, in the City of Toronto, Caribana in the last four decades has pumped billions into the city’s coffers. In 2010, official revenues were estimated to be in excess of $450-million; far above the revenues brought in by any of the better funded cultural activities in Canada. For example, the Shaw Festival, like Caribana a not-for-profit cultural corporation in Ontario, in 2010 with an operating budget of $59 million, and a full-time staff of 88, earned a surplus of $317,277.

In the same period, Caribana, Canada’s cultural, 21 carat golden goose, perennially under-nourished and over-denied; with budgets less than 1/50th that of the Shaw’s, had revenues which were more than 1200% above that of the Shaw’s. And with only three paid staff. None full-time.

Fast forward to 2011. This year, if the City of Toronto officials have their way, they would on Caribana’s 44th birthday snuff it to hell out. However, they would embrace, hug and kiss Caribana’s annual, revenue-earning carnival festivities – festivities of mas, pan and kaiso; festivities staged through thick and thin, rain or shine; festivities perennially under-funded and under-staffed; festivities unsupported by the travel industries, hotels and food chains which profit mightily thereby; festivities massively supported by African-Americans annually visiting; festivities staged during the first weekend in August, a historic period which commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery in the British Empire.

Caribana, now with a new name foisted on its carnival, like the captured African Kunta Kinte in the 1970s ROOTS series, will also have a new owner, the City of Toronto that would then control it 100 per cent. And deciding its future, would likely also ‘internationalize it’, shoving it even further away from its impoverished, sans humanite, emancipation roots.

There are other annual, cultural festivals in the city. Among these are the Chinese Dragon Races, the Greek festival, the Portuguese festival, the Gay Pride Parade, etc. Would city officials think to re-name and ‘internationalize’ these, deliberately forcing them away from their Chinese, Greek, Portuguese and Gay Pride roots?

As occurred during the 19th century’s historic origins of carnivals in Trinidad, Ontario judges, lawyers, courts and African-Canadians are today, ironically still involved in opposing struggles determining the future celebrations of Caribana’s carnival. In fact, last week something akin to a miracle occurred. The Caribana Arts Group (CAG), a community-based organization that has legal oversight of the festival, without the vast financial, operational, public relations and legal resources available to the City, obtained an injunction that unequivocally condemned the City for its unauthorized use of the trademarked, CARIBANA name.

The judge ruled the actions of the city illegal. Their reps would cite the past difficulties faced by Caribana as justification to act as brazenly as they do; and Caribana has had more than its share of difficulties. Among these have been disgraceful situations during which proper accountability – financial, organizational etc. – were not available nor followed.

However, the CAG, unlike its forerunner, the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC), has demonstrated a sterling willingness and transparent ability to meet and to rectify these problems, problems not to be taken lightly, apologized for nor excused. Problems, the details of which are well known. But these are only part of the story.

What must also be known is that, for the most part, Caribana directors and volunteers have staged the festival under the most extreme of financial and operational conditions, conditions which on occasion even involved community representatives having to ‘mortgage’ their homes to stage Caribana.

It is for these reasons why the City’s intentions to force a new name on the 44-year-old Caribana carnival festival is not only illegal, but in their cynical efforts to subvert the judge’s ruling is also unjust, and unjustifiable.

They would downplay the obvious fact that for 43 years Caribana has created employment; Caribana has created culture; Caribana has created status; Caribana has created wealth; and that Toronto is Caribana city!

It is now our responsibility to staunchly oppose the venal seizure of this festival. It is our responsibility to prevent this brazen illegality from succeeding!

It is our responsibility to ensure that CARIBANA remains the official title by which any carnival is staged in Toronto during the John Graves Simcoe long weekend in August, and that this carnival festival under the stewardship of the CAG, finally with proper funding, be returned forthwith to the carnival’s owners, founders and roots!

It is our historic responsibility to win! Decisively!

Lennox Farrell is a retired educator and a former chair of the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC), the founders of Caribana.