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Caribana Brings a Million Caribbean Music Fans to Toronto Streets – Spinner Canada

In Canada on August 2, 2010 at 13:29

Caribana Brings a Million Caribbean Music Fans to Toronto Streets

CaribanaAaron Harris, CP Photo

Check the dancers: they’re a big part of the appeal Toronto’s annual Caribana Festival. Now multiply their fabulous hair, intricate makeup and spangled costumes by 10,000, then imagine everybody doing the one-legged dance of this year’s big soca hit ‘Palance.’ At Trinidad’s Carnival earlier this year, the song was played 417 times in a row; in Toronto, who knows?

By the time the biggest Caribbean tune of 2010 drops some time Saturday during the Festival’s marquee parade, the million-strong crowd will be ready, having been stoked all afternoon by the impossibly loud soca and calypso blasting from a flotilla of flatbed trucks. Combine the sights and sounds with the smell of hundreds of smoky barbeques, and wash it all down with refreshing coconut water and you get a idea of Caribana’s sensory overload.

And that’s just the parade. With over 30 official events and parties (and even more unofficial ones), is Caribana the biggest music festival in Toronto?

“No,” Caribana rep Stephen Weir tells Spinner, noting the festival’s continued cultural divide. “I take a lot of artists to be interviewed. If I take them to a television station where there are a lot of Caribbean-Canadians working, there’s a real buzz. But when I bring them to another outlet which isn’t quite so diversified, they have no clue.”

Established in 1967, the festival has morphed from a community-based parade to a Scotiabank-sponsored two-week festival. Caribana is modeled on Trinidad’s Carnival, which is based on centuries-old traditions of dancing in masquerade (hence the term “mas” bands to denote costumed bands playing steel drums, or pan). As in Trinidad, Caribana features steel pan competitions, the crowning of a King and Queen, and a pre-dawn parade called J’Ouvert. Though most performers and participants are of Caribbean descent, some are merely Carib-ophiles who get in the groove with similar gusto.

Music-driven official parties are called ‘fêtes’ in which stadiums, mega-clubs and harbour cruises cater to every crowd from the young and horny to the mature and classy with reggae, dancehall, Indo-Caribbean, Haitian sounds and everything in between. Over the past decade, celebrities have gotten in on the action, too. Hip-hop and R&B events sponsored by the likes of BET/Hot 97 (hosted by Young Jeezy) and Def Jam (hosted by Fabolous) have come on strong in the past few years. Basketball stars have also gotten in on the action with Toronto native Jamaal Magloire, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Bosh and Drew Gooden having graced or hosted parties.

But a million party people does not guarantee universal recognition. Despite Caribana’s considerable audience, Caribbean music is largely ignored by the rock-centric Canadian music industry. As a result, Caribana is perceived as a local cultural celebration, rather than a major, mainstream music event. That’s OK with Weir. Although “[Caribana] is huge, music is just one part of it,” he points out. “So is dance, so is costume.”

These elements come together thanks to a massive community effort. The elaborate costumes, which can weigh up to 100kg, employ designers and workers for months ahead of time. Dozens-strong steel pan bands polish their repertoire throughout the year. Parade participants alone outnumber the attendees at many top-end music festivals, to say nothing of the supporting cast of roadside entrepreneurs, sound system rental outlets, security personnel and transportation to keep a million-person festival moving. It all adds up to an eye-popping $438 million generated by Caribana’s activities according to the a Toronto Star report published earlier this year — almost double the economic impact of Toronto’s Film Festival, Jazz Festival and Pride Week combined.

CP Images

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An unidentified woman dances on Lakeshore Boulevard during the Caribana Parade in Toronto, August 2, 2008.

Toronto’s Caribana Festival
An unidentified woman dances on Lakeshore Boulevard during the Caribana Parade in Toronto, August 2, 2008.
CP Images
Christian Charisius, Reuters

Toronto’s Caribana Festival

An unidentified woman dances on Lakeshore Boulevard during the Caribana Parade in Toronto, August 2, 2008.

Toronto’s Caribana Festival

Revellers dance on Lakeshore Boulevard during the Caribana Parade in Toronto Saturday, August 2, 2008.

Toronto’s Caribana Festival

A participant gets ready for the Caribana parade in Toronto on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2009. The parade is a sea of colourful floats, and party participants are dressed in spectacular, elaborate costumes.

Toronto’s Caribana Festival

Revellers dance on Lakeshore Boulevard during the Caribana Parade in Toronto Saturday, August 2, 2008.

Toronto’s Caribana Festival

Revellers take part in the Caribana Parade in Toronto Saturday, August 4, 2007.

Toronto’s Caribana Festival

Shaquille O’Neal takes the microphone on a float along the 34th annual Caribana parade in Toronto Saturday August 4, 2001.

Toronto’s Caribana Festival

Ruthann Gouveia, right, and Christine Achue make their way along the parade route during the annual Caribana Festival in Toronto Saturday Aug. 2, 2003.

Toronto’s Caribana Festival

Word of mouth has been its number one marketing tool. “People come from the United States and all different parts of the world for this party — it’s got music, entertainment and celebration,” says Jamaican dancehall artist Busy Signal (aka Reanno Gordon), who headlines the thousands-strong Temperature afterparty. Gordon can’t wait to be a part of the festival that blew him away a couple of years ago as a patron. Describing the crush of happy people he’s witnessed in the past, he marvels, “It’s crazy-busy. We couldn’t even drive! We had to walk from the hotel though different blocks, through different parties just to experience it.”

Dennis Shaw of future-dancehall artists South Rakkas Crew, who was raised in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, nearly gets misty-eyed describing his fond memories of Caribana. “I remember years ago when I used to come down with my family,” Shaw recounts. “That’s what is was about then — getting behind the trucks and doing the soca dance. A few years ago I was on a float and we got to experience that excitement.”

This year, Shaw, who based the Crew’s current Canadian tour around Caribana, has finally been able to host an (unofficial) party at cutting-edge dance haven Wrongbar. It’s not a typical Caribana venue, but South Rakkas’ high-intensity rhythms have crossed over to Wrongbar’s hipster audience through global tastemaker Diplo‘s patronage. “I’ve inquired into doing a Caribana party at a few places over the years” he says “I’ve been told it’s not a good time to do shows because people are on vacation. It didn’t make sense to me, but I think a lot of clubs don’t want to do that weekend.” Summer long weekends will always drive people out of town, but the lure of an epic Caribana cash-in only gets more tempting every year.

The Wrongbar crowd isn’t going to be doing the Palance, but Shaw is definitely going to bring the vibe and the volume. It’s evidence of how Caribana’s inclusive spirit is further penetrating Toronto’s musical consciousness. To call this festival a niche or seasonal event is misses the point; this is one of Toronto’s finest expressions of popular culture. It’s time to “jump up” on the Caribana bandwagon.

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