By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“Black people in Toronto celebrated the liberation of enslaved Africans throughout the Americas before the first mas band ever jumped in 1967. In the west end of Toronto in the old fashion district, Black people celebrated the Emancipation Day Parade marking the 1838 liberation of slaves throughout the British Americas. Archival newspaper photos from the Toronto Telegram indicate that the parade occurred around the same time period as the CANEWA Calypso Carnivals, 1952 – 1964. The Emancipation Day Parade was the most visible Black event in the city. This role was eventually relinquished to Caribana. Contemporary Caribana organizers forget the importance of the Emancipation Day parade. The Emancipation Day Parade and Caribana suggest the historical complexity of Black expressive arts.”
Excerpted from Trinidad Carnival: The Cultural Politics of a Transnational Festival, published in 2007, edited by Garth L. Green and Philip W. Scher.
The 2013 Caribana has come and gone and as usual the City of Toronto was awash with tourists who came here just to experience the Caribbean culture and to see the largest Caribbean festival in North America.
The hotels, the restaurants, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), even the police benefited from the tourist dollars as they have all done for the decades that the Caribbean community has volunteered its labour to make Caribana a reality. Tourists were awed by the elaborately lavish costumes designed and crafted by Caribbean people as those costumes were pulled and pushed by the volunteers along the area where the festival has been contained and constrained for the past 12 years.
I chatted with several people, some who were visiting Canada for the first time. A few of them had read about Caribana in an Essence magazine article in 2010 but only made it here this year, while others had heard about the spectacular sights and sounds from relatives and friends who had attended the festival in previous years.
Visitors to our fair city could be excused for thinking that Caribana and by extension the Caribbean culture, is all about gyrating to music while dressed in as little as possible. I was very pleased to overhear a young African-Canadian woman educating visitors to Toronto about the history of Caribana.
On the crowded Bathurst streetcar as we were travelling from the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) grounds back to Bathurst subway station, the young woman was explaining Caribana’s connection to Emancipation Day. She told the visitors about Caribana’s beginning as the Caribbean community’s gift to Canada for its 100th birthday celebration in 1967. She told them about slavery in Canada and the emancipation of enslaved Africans in Canada on August 1, 1834. There was a further four years of “apprenticeship” for those Africans who had been enslaved in the British colonized Caribbean islands (except Antigua and the Bahamas) and British Guiana on the South American continent.
Caribana began as the Caribbean community’s contribution to Canada as it celebrated 100 years of nationhood. The gift from the Caribbean community in 1967 has become the City of Toronto’s top grossing festival. An Ipsos Reid Economic Impact Study released in April showed that Caribana brought $438 million to Ontario’s economy in 2009 with approximately $200 million going to the government in tax revenues.
The money came mostly from the 1.2 million people who attended Caribana in 2009 with 170,000 visiting from the United States and a further 130,000 from overseas. Caribana has even been described as the “crown jewel” of Toronto’s tourist attractions. The other festivals (including the Toronto International Film Festival, Luminato and Pride Week) which receive much government funding do not attract the visitors and money to this city that Caribana does.
Caribana, in spite of the money and visitors it brings to our fair city, has been disrespected by the wider White community. Over the years there have been derogatory remarks made by White people – at least one infamously caught accidentally on an open microphone. There has also been blatant disrespect of the community by politicians who have grabbed this “cash cow” away from the people who originated the celebration and it is now a government and corporate creature. There is a cash grab in making the festival inaccessible to people who do not have the money to pay to enter the CNE grounds, where the festival is now contained.
The costumes worn by the people “playing mas” for the most part were simply panties (in some cases thongs) and brassieres in bright colours topped by feathers and in many cases lacked imagination. Many of the costumes could be interchangeable year after year with just a change of colour.
Caribana, which is supposed to be modelled on Trinidad’s Carnival, is more than exposing flesh for an audience to ogle or be scandalized. The beginning of Carnival in Trinidad was the freed Africans’ opportunity once a year to dress up and mock the people who oppressed them year round. The costumes are supposed to tell a story.
Trinidadian-born Michael La Rose, who is Chair of the George Padmore Institute in the United Kingdom, writes:
“The Caribbean Carnival consists of masquerade, dance, music and song. It is unique as a festival as it incorporates the fine arts, street theatre, artistic and musical social organisation, spectator participation, political commentary, spectacle and fantasy. We are all familiar with images of Notting Hill Carnival in London. They are of masquerade (costumes), music, dancing and happy people. But what is behind the masquerade? There is a rich history, culture, language and a lot of hard work and struggle. The Caribbean Carnival described here is a celebration of the end of slavery as well as an affirmation of survival. Carnival is where Africa and Europe met in the cauldron of the Caribbean slave system to produce a new festival for the world. The four elements of Carnival are song, music, costume and dance, which translate as calypso/soca, steelpan, mas (masquerade), and ‘wine’ (dance) in the Caribbean Carnival. Trinidad is the island in the Caribbean with the most developed and well-known Carnival. Wherever the Trinidadians go they transplant their Carnival culture.”
This year’s Caribana did get some of the elements of the carnival right. There was the “calypso/soca, steelpan and ‘wine’ (dance)”. The “wining/dancing” part of the Caribana festival provided much hilarity for me and some other Caribbean people as we watched some of the costumed people playing mas and attempting to dance to the music.
It boggles the mind that the music that can be felt in every part of your body could not move some people to dance in tune. It was hilarious watching some rhythmically challenged people of all races as they tried to move to the beat of soca and calypso music with Machel Montano encouraging them to “Make that thing just wiggle wiggle. Left to right gyul make it giggle. Bounce it round and make it swiggle,” while JW and Blaze encouraged “palancing”.
I live in hope that next year the people who design the costumes for the “mas” players will go back to their roots and design costumes that do not all look alike with bikinis and bare skin topped by feathers. There are sites online including www.tntisland.com/carnivalcharacters.html with examples of traditional costumes. There is no need for everyone to dress the same except for a difference in the colour of the costumes.