Thursday, August 30, 2007

WE Culture - 40 Years of Mas – The Story of Caribana

by Niama Sandy

In 2007, Toronto celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the Caribana. Like many Caribbean festivals, on the exterior we see bacchanal, beads, feathers, mud, and revelry…but rarely do we hear of the sacrifices and substance behind the carnival tradition. In the four decades lifespan of Caribana, countless Caribbean expatriates and native Torontonians have toiled so that the community may collectively bask in Caribbean culture. WE honors those who’ve worked and given so much of themselves….we give you the story of Caribana.

1967 marked the centennial of the passing of the British North America Act – the legislation that made Canada a dominion in the British Commonwealth. In an effort to commemorate its hundredth year, in 1966, the Canadian government invited different cultural communities within the dominion to participate in the celebration. Dr. Rita Cox, then a volunteer who helped to facilitate the Festival, recollects that the idea for the exhibition was born of the “community’s response to the invitation from government of Canada.”

“The Canadian government reached out to all of the different communities to participate in the centennial celebration. Bringing our carnival culture was our gift to Canada. In those days we were a small community and it was an opportunity for all island people to work together on a project,” explained Dr. Cox.

The Caribbean Centennial Committee, including a five-person board of governors and a four-person executive committee, was formed in December 1966 with the purpose of promoting “a Caribbean trade and cultural exhibition.” As for the name Caribana itself, it was coined by Fred Hope, one of the first persons hired to work on the Festival. Dr. Cox explained it simply, “we were all talking together about a name for this inter-island collaborative effort. Fred Hope suggested it and everybody liked it,” and it stuck. Some nine months later the first Caribana was held from August 5-12, 1967 in and around Toronto City and its islands.

Much like its modern day incarnation, Caribana 1967 included a series of events designed to synergistically showcase the richness of Caribbean culture, most notably: a Kiddie’s Carnival event, a carnival pageant parade, a centennial ball, art exhibitions, and a “morning market,” which according to the original program from 1967 featured “fruit and crafts direct from the West Indies.”

Though a completely novel occasion in Toronto, the festival received an outpouring of support from everywhere from volunteers in local citizens and civic associations to donations of costumes and sponsorships from Caribbean governments.

Dr. Cox remarked that “people worked in those days for the love and the pride of it. Even now when I speak with the people who were the main founders about Caribana there is such a spirit of togetherness that we had at the time. So many of them have talked about the role that women played through volunteerism- if it hadn’t been for the work of the women it may not have been such a success. In those days there was a group of women - the Canadian Negro Women’s Association; they played a major role in the event in the early years. There was cooperation from Caribbean governments, as well as from the Caribbean Council Accord through musicians, and costumes.”

After the triumphant success of the 1967 Festival, the Caribbean Centennial Committee resolved to continue its mission of creating a platform to showcase the beauty of Caribbean culture. With a minor change in moniker and some slight structural changes, the Centennial Committee became the Caribbean Committee for Cultural Advancement (CCCA) and plans to stage the 1968 carnival went underway.

On August 2, 1968 Mayor William Dennison and the City of Toronto announced the official celebration of Caribbean Week from August 5-10, 1968 held on Olympic Island, with the parade procession to be held on August 3 through the streets of Toronto.

If the 25-page program is any indicator, Caribana 1968 was quite the grandiose affair.

“The euphoria, the excitement in those days was unreal - it was more than the parade. All kinds of other things were part of the Festival because people had different interests and, in fact, it culminated in an arts festival,” said Dr. Cox.

Similar to the 1967 events there was the marketplace, art exhibitions and the like. However, in 1968 there was a pronounced effort to ensure cultural exchange from several islands instead of dominance of one country’s customs through “island days.” For instance, Guyana Day featured appearances from Guyanese High Commissioner, Sir John Carter, Miss Guyana 1969, and Guyanese steelbands.

1968 marked a second and very successful undertaking for Caribana’s organizers. In February of 1969, the group officially changed its name to the Caribbean Cultural Committee – Caribana. Through the years, though everything from name of Caribana’s managing body, to the management style of the Festival and the actual parade route would change, two things remain constant and true – the love of the masquerade and the desire to see the growth of the event. Government officials and generations came and went but Caribana stayed true. The only way to ensure progress is real, unbiased evaluation.

After years of purported mismanagement, in 2006, the City of Toronto withdrew funds and support from the Caribbean Cultural Committee, Caribana’s former managing entity. With this episode the festival’s survival was in question. Determined not to see the festival fall by the wayside, the City commissioned Festival Management Committee (FMC) to oversee the operations and execution of the affair.

The FMC has markedly risen to the occasion to ensure success. In the first year of its tenure as the managing organization of Caribana, the group managed to produce revenues of $912,000.00, leaving a $9,000.00 profit – the likes of which has rarely been seen in past years either because the festival spent more than it made or because no final financial report was ever produced. This year the Committee boasts sponsorships from Molson, CTV, Roots Canada and a host of others. In addition to the efficient financial administration, despite the fear that Caribana would be shut down in 2006, the FMC captured an audience of 1.2 million people during the parade procession down Lakeshore Boulevard. Given that this year is the fortieth anniversary there is no doubt that the number of this year’s participants will be staggering.

Joan Pierre, veteran event planner and manager for Caribana since 1986, discussed what the FMC has in store for the fortieth anniversary.

“Of course I’m helping with the traditional aspects of the event - an awards evening in August celebrating and honoring the founders and paying tribute to the people who’ve kept it going. But we’re doing a lot of new events in honor of the fortieth anniversary of the Festival. We’re also extending the Festival beyond the weekend with And the Beat Continues - JAZZ 4 days of Jazz in which we are partnering with a jazz organization.”

And the Beat Continues – JAZZ will showcase four fusion styles of Jazz: Caribbean, Latin, African, and Indian Jazz. Other new events surrounding this year’s Festival include: an art exhibit running at the Blue Dot Gallery in the Distillery district with 30 artists involved, a revival of the long-held Caribana Ball, as well as a series of concerts in one of the city’s many parks.

Another huge and often overlooked component of Caribana is the masquerade. The beads, the bikinis, the feathers, the themes – what would it be with out all of this?

This year’s masquerade will feature 16 bands including Saldenah K-Mas, Borokeete Canada, reigning band of the year Carnival Nationz, Toronto Revellers, Mas Toronto, Callaloo, and others.

“It costs a lot to put this thing on. The bandleaders have held this thing together, it’s for the love of their culture. They believe in it, it’s their culture and they’ll always do it no matter what. I’d like to see it get to the point where they could do it and make a profit. Most of them have to rent a warehouse, the volunteers doing the work from the goodness of their hearts and the love of their culture. In the early years bandleaders used to take out second mortgages on their homes to be able to finance their bands. I hope before I close my eyes that I see some huge rewards going to the bandleaders of the city. That would bring me joy because I know the sacrifice. Without them you have no carnival,” said Joan Pierre.

Behind every great thing - event or otherwise- are great people. Caribana is no exception, from the volunteers who create the beautiful costumes, to those who sacrifice their day of revelry to ensure the safety of masqueraders, each person who lends a minute of time donates to the invaluable continuing legacy of cultural diversity in Toronto.

In a Sway Magazine article entitled “Caribana celebrates 40 years in Toronto,” Joe Halstead, current Chief Operating Officer of the FMC, said, “Caribana has developed over 40 years to become the pre-eminent festival in the city and certainly in the North American continent. All of this is really because Caribana is the essence of diversity and community. It is at the heart of what we are in this city – the essence of Toronto.”

Hopefully, Caribana for the next 40 years will be a testament to that.

Up close with CARIBANA legend Rudy Rampersad (10-Time King of the Bands)

Q1.How did you become involved with Caribana?

I made my debut in Trinidad Carnival when I was 5 years old portraying a Prince at the Queen’s Park Savannah kiddies carnival and continued masquerading with Silver Stars and Harold Saldenah bands well into my teens. In the summer of 1967, on my way to Nova Scotia from Trinidad, I realized that there was a Trinidad-style carnival parade in Toronto and decided to make a pit stop and participate in this event. Since then, the inaugural year of Caribana, I have been actively involved in the parade festivities, both as a volunteer and a masquerader.

Q2.What has been the most gratifying experience of being a part of Toronto’s carnival?

When I look back on my history with Caribana, there is a combination of factors that make my whole 40-year experience so gratifying- the thrill of competition; the reward of holding the record for most King of the Band titles (10), but most of all, watching the parade grow from its original route on Yonge Street to its present-day Lakeshore extravaganza.

Q3. What has been the most challenging experience thus far for you?

Taking three years off from active participation due to illness and being able to return to the stage and reclaim the title of King of the Bands. The 2006 King and Queen competition was particularly challenging, as the odds were stacked up against me - my age (62 years young), potential health issues, the size and weight of the costume. Bets were being placed against me as I made my entrance on stage! I am happy that I was able to overcome these obstacles and win the title for the “Trinidad Soca Warriors”

Q4. Where would you like to see Caribana going in coming years?

I would like to see the younger generation become more involved in the production and management of the Toronto Caribana Festival. It is also important that all three levels of government as well as “Corporate Toronto,” provide more funding and sponsorship to the festival. It is a well-established fact that Toronto hosts the largest Caribbean-style parade in North America and since this event attracts tourists from all over the world, I would like to see the Toronto service industry giving back to the community, a percentage of profits earned as a result of festival activities.




You're going discuss the HISTORY/ORIGIN of CARIBANA and not MENTIONED Dr. Liverpool of St. Vincent and the Grenadines??


You guys are TOTAL JOKERS yes.



You're going discuss the HISTORY/ORIGIN of CARIBANA and not MENTIONED Dr. Liverpool of St. Vincent and the Grenadines??


You guys are TOTAL JOKERS yes.