Caribana – Bringing the Islands to Toronto

Monday, August 1, 2005

One of the things that I love about living in Toronto is the multiculturalism. Walk the streets, and you’ll see people of all colour, hear at least 150 different spoken languages (that’s how many the local 9-1-1 emergency service offers), and, best of all, experience restaurants from every country in the world. We’re blessed with very little cross-cultural violence, and lots of cross-cultural social mixing: my circle of friends includes people from Croatia, France, Australia, Serbia, Trinidad, Jamaica, England, the U.S. and Northern Ireland. I even mixed the Croatians and Serbians once, with nary a cross word spoken between them: it must be something in the water here.

One of Toronto’s biggest cross-cultural events is Caribana, which has its roots in the Trinidad and Tobago pre-Lent carnival: Trinidad, having a cultural mix of African and East Indian descendents itself, is the perfect inspiration for our cross-cultural party. This two-week-long party culminates in a huge parade along Toronto’s Lakeshore Blvd. on the Saturday of the August long weekend (the weekend that includes the first Monday in August), and during the two weeks of the festival, the city is awash with visitors attending Caribana parties, playing in soca and calypso bands, working on parade floats and — at an extravagant event two days before the parade — choosing the parade king and queen. The streets downtown, where I live, are exuberantly noisy with people until late at night, getting into the Caribana spirit; although I could live without the thumping bass from someone’s car parked outside my window at 2a.m., I appreciate that it’s a non-violent outlet for the heightened energy level in the city at this time of year.

This past Saturday’s parade was classic Caribana: a million (!) people peacefully gathered along the parade route to watch, listen and dance to the hours-long pageant of fabulous floats, exotically-attired dancers and mas’ (masquerade) bands. There’s fierce competition between the bands with their music, but the best part is the dancers and their costumes, and how they turn the parade into an audience-participation event by inspiring us all to dance at least a little as they gyrate past. In a previous year, I remember watching one beautiful woman in a costume that included a lot of feathers and not a lot of fabric as she danced up to one of the policemen along the parade route. The cop tried to look blasé as the dancer turned her back to him and — grinning devilishly at the audience — shimmied right up rub full-length against him, dancing all the while, but he finally broke a smile and shuffled to the music, to the applause of those standing around. That moment: blazing sun, the breeze off the lake, calypso music, visual overload from the decorative floats and dancers, crowds pressing in on all sides, and that tiny black woman making that big white cop break his facade and be human for our amusement — that moment will always represent Caribana for me.

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