Jump up and get down! How not to dread Carnival

The secret to Carnival is going with the flow, so why am I so uptight?


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Every year my sister and I throw a caribana party. And every year I feel like a secular Jew stumbling through Passover. What are this year’s songs? Who’s the soca monarch? Is it paratha I like, or poori? And how exactly do I wine my bumsee again?

I love the sun and the sound and the feel of the Caribbean. It’s where I come alive. But I don’t get to go home every year. And no matter how often I go, it still won’t make me Trinidadian.

So I bone up. I browse the Trini papers online. I catch up with cricket. I find out what mas designer Peter Minshall created this year to top last year’s vast whimsy. I eat more roti.

More important than anything, though, is the latest music. Nothing makes a party flag like spinning Whoa, Donkey when people want to hear Gimme Ah Bligh. All this so I can hit the Lakeshore on parade day primed. So I can jump up fully informed. So I can authenticate my backyard bacchanal.

But fun shouldn’t take this much research. Part of it’s down to my completist streak. But there’s a larger force at work here, too. Tradition. Tradition is killing Carnival.

Caribana traditionalists have it the wrong way round. The threat isn’t Brazilians and Cubans mongrelizing the event with their strange syncopations. It’s not African Americans lumbering into town and hollering for cold soda.

The real threat to Carnival comes when we show up down on Lakeshore, or over on the island, and find exactly what we expect to find. The threat comes from tradition.

I saw the future of Caribana this year at the Beaches Jazz Festival. Queen Street was closed off, barricaded and thronged with countless people. We stood all bloated and slowed by long brunches and hot sun, our eyes sugar-glazed and our bodies pressed and slicked together by the spittle of a thousand children’s ice creamed mouths.

We leaned through the crowd like zombies, this way and that, mouthing “sorry’ every few seconds. It was an especially Toronto version of hell’s antechamber. And the music, the old traditional music, sucked.

This is public Toronto at its worst, and sooner or later it happens to every one of our festivals. In the early years, people show up to party. Then, in time, the party becomes no more than just showing up.

There’s a part of Caribana that’s now automatic. That’s why, in order for this thing to thrive, we have to forget Trinidad and Tobago. Forget the discipline of mas. Forget steel pan, especially now that the process for making them is being patented by an American company. Forget the traditions and the dogma and all the rote recitations we make with our backsides, our cries, our day-glo plastic whistles. Forget history.

Let Carnival be about surprise. Let it live on the borders, the thresholds, where Trinidad’s own Carnival once lived.

Here’s the test. Can Carnival match June’s impromptu parade on Bloor when both Korea and Turkey won their World Cup matches and took to the streets, together? Can it match the day the day Brazil’s triumph folded right into Pride? Or even the night we won our second Olympic hockey gold, and the celebrations fanned out unsupervised all through downtown?

Can Caribana, with its troubled money, its history and its endless, pointless squabbles, still summon spontaneity? Can it still be as much fun as a hockey party?

I sure hope so. But only when it lifts its eyes from its own Torah and starts freestyling. I know I’ll enjoy it more when I stop trying to memorize the text.

So bring on the American corporate R&B acts. Bring on the Brazilians. Hell, invite the Koreans and the Turks and the hockey sluts, too. It’s a party.cameronb@nowtoronto.comCall it what you will Caribana or the more businesslike Toronto International Carnival but the annual long-weekend street party is all about a good time.There’s no shortage of events geared toward the 2 million people expected to clog the streets, but your enjoyment of this weekend’s jump-up depends on how much you know about what’s going on. The parade, the road-side barrels of boiled corn and the Olympic Island throwdown are all good fun, but it’s the festival’s peripheral events that usually provide the best kicks.

With that in mind, NOW presents the best this city’s sprawling Caribbean community has to offer this weekend, from guides on hot sauce and where to find the finest jerk chicken in town to tips on Jamaican hair salons, the parade route, listings of this weekend’s events and a guide to plugging yourself directly into the scene. In addition, Cameron Bailey reflects on the spontaneity of Caribana and how that often clashes with Toronto the Good.

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