When the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC) – the organization that ran North America’s largest summer festival until 2006 – was in dire financial straits eight years ago, John Kam stepped forward with $15,000 from his line of credit. Such is his love for the festival.
Incidentally, when attempts were made to repay him there were some in the organization who wrongfully thought that some kind of financial impropriety was taking place and a police investigation was launched. And, although he was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, Kam – a former chair of the CCC – was deeply hurt by the false allegation and attempt to tarnish his reputation.
“My family, friends and work colleagues stood by me during that difficult period,” he says. “I had the documents to show I made a payment to the CCC and that the only money I received in return from the organization is what I loaned them. That was it.”
Last Friday night, Kam was honoured for his contribution to the festival. He was nominated by the 15 participating bands in this year’s parade and another one which was recently suspended.
Kam has been the Toronto Mas’ Bands Association (TMBA) liaison for the past two years.
“The bandleaders are extremely busy preparing for the festival and don’t have the time to do the necessary administrative work,” said Kam. “I ensure they are registered on time, they get the amount of trucks needed for the parade and I attend judges’ workshops. I also coordinate the draw for parade positions. It’s a major undertaking but I enjoy it because I have the time and passion for the festival.”
Kam retired nine years ago at age 51 after 34 years with the City of Toronto. He received almost 15 promotions before leaving as a senior financial budget systems analyst.
“I decided to step away after my father died in 2002 at age 67,” Kam said. “I had the time to retire and I walked away because I felt I needed the time to do other things with my life.”
He helps manage a Chinese restaurant he co-owns in Mount Albert and enjoys travelling, playing tennis and chess and collecting expensive oriental antique.
Kam, who attended Ryerson University, did not have to go far to be influenced by mas’. He grew in the Woodbrook neighbourhood, just outside Port-of-Spain, a few metres from the residence of the late George Bailey, considered Trinidad & Tobago’s greatest carnival bandleader.
Kam says that, as a young boy, he admired Bailey’s creative carnival presentations and resisted his parents’ attempts to keep him away from the islands’ most significant cultural event. The Woodbrook Secondary School graduate played mas’ with Stephen Leung’s band for five years before migrating to Canada with his family in 1969.
After being a Caribana spectator for nearly a decade, he became a member of Eddie Merchant’s band with which he played for five years and then with the Arnold Hughes & Associates outfit for two years before forming his own band – Caribbean Canadian Cultural Club or the 4 Cs as they were known – that lasted four years.
Kam captured the King of the Bands title with the Hughes group in 1990 and 1991 and shared the top spot with his own band the following year while presenting King Solomon’s Dream, making him the only individual to win the crown three straight years in the festival’s 44-year history.
He stepped back from playing mas’ to join the CCC board in 1992 and was elected treasurer the next year, a post he held until 1998 when he became the chair for four years and later served as a director and festival producer.
“I still enjoy being part of the festival even though I am not happy with the squabbling and in-fighting,” he said. “There needs to be unity and the time has come for organizers to stop relying on the three levels of government for fundraising because they can then dictate how the festival should be run.”
Another concern for Kam, who celebrated his 60th birthday last month, is the ever-increasing skimpy costumes worn by parade participants.
“For me, a costume should be a representation of creativity and innovation and I am not seeing enough of that even though I am impressed with the headpieces,” he said. “We need to see more creativity in the costumes. Having more clothing does not mean that you will not look hot and appealing.”
Six years ago, Kam led a CCC delegation to the Hong Kong International Chinese New Year’s parade at the invitation of the Hong Kong Board of Tourism.