'It is not a street party': 6 important lessons about the true significance of Carnival

Caribbean artists Rhoma Spencer, Jamea Zuberi and Frances Anne Solomon share their insights on the history rooted in this annual celebration.

Three Caribbean artists share their insights on the history rooted in this annual celebration

Mas band members walk around after going through the judging area during the Toronto Caribbean Carnival's grand parade, in Toronto on Saturday, July 30, 2016. (Canadian Press )

The end of July and start of August mark the celebration of Carnival parades across Canada. They go by various names: Caribbean Days Festival in Vancouver, Cariwest in Edmonton, Carifest in Calgary and of course — although it may have a different name officially — most still call the annual parade in Toronto Caribana.

I was seven years old when I attended my first Carnival parade. It was in Notting Hill, the west London district made famous by a Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts movie but also known around the world because of the annual two-day parade that has been celebrating Caribbean culture since the mid-60s.

My mother's intention was to take me for a quick visit and then drop me off with my grandparents so that she could return and "jump up" with the rest of the revellers. That plan did not factor in the possibility that I would not want to leave. Yes, I was that child dancing for hours in the midst of the masqueraders, forgetting fatigue and doing my signature "wine to de ground" long after my scheduled bedtime. On that day, I fell in love with Carnival. I love the act of taking up public space. I love the artistry of the masquerade, the sound of the steelpan, the subversiveness of the calypso and the joy of the soca. I love the paint of the jab jab and the powder of the shortknee. I love the history rooted in this celebration. However, my love for Carnival has been tempered in recent years by the reality of Carnival.

The first Caribbean Carnival in Toronto, then known as Caribana, was in 1967. (Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival )

In Earl Lovelace's classic 1979 novel The Dragon Can't Dance, the main character Aldrick Prospect spends the entire year perfecting his dragon costume for Carnival. This tradition of "playing mas" is at once a salute to a craft that goes into costume making and an ode to the theatrical spectacle of the parade. But although I have attended Carnival for years, I only began to understand the depth of its significance after reading this novel. When I speak to my peers in Canada about Carnival, its many layers of meaning are frequently unknown. For many of them, Carnival has been reduced to a heavily-policed parade known primarily for its skimpy costumes and mandatory flag waving.

So this week I decided to ask three Caribbean artists what they think we should know about Carnival. These are all women who have taught me about the significance of the celebration through their artistry. Rhoma Spencer is a director and playwright whose play Jean and Dinah Who Have Been Locked Away in a World Famous Calypso Since 1956 Speak Their Mind (written in collaboration with Tony Hall and Susan Sandiford) taught me about the poetic metaphor that underlies the the traditional characters of the Carnival masquerade. Jamea Zuberi is an educator, a steelpan musician and the founder of Pelau MasQueerade, a queer Caribbean community group that brings the tradition of Caribbean mas to Pride. Frances Anne Solomon is a filmmaker and the founder of the Caribbean Tales International Film Festival, the place where I saw Carnival illustrated on the big screen for the first time. 

It is not a street party. It is an emancipation tradition where revellers take to the streets to play mas in which you pay to play.- Rhoma Spencer, director and playwright

Here are six lessons from them to get you ready for the Carnival season:

Lesson #1: Carnival is not a street party

Spencer: "It is not a street party. It is an emancipation tradition where revellers take to the streets to play mas in which you pay to play."

Lesson #2: Carnival represents the power of resistance

Solomon: "I don't know if folks in Canada know the roots of Carnival in struggle and resistance. It is a testament to the ingenuity of enslaved humans in subverting the restricted spaces they were allowed (and not allowed) to have, and transforming these into events of resistance, creativity and joy. It really is a testament to the power of human survival that instead of giving up, they pushed back with such force and life that they created a festival that reverberates around the world and continues to give life, hope and represent the power of human expression."

Zuberi: "Carnival came out of the period of great unrest during the emancipation period in the Caribbean region. In Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival dates back to the Canboulay Riots (1881-1884) where in February, the enslaved Africans were celebrating freedom in defiance during the French Lent season by singing their own songs (chanuell music) and playing instruments that they made (including the invention of steel pan) because their traditional African drum was banned."

Lesson #3: Carnival in Toronto began on Canada's 100th birthday

Zuberi: "Caribbean Carnival is an important celebration in Canada. It was intended as a gift and celebration of Canada's 100th birthday, just as the statue of liberty was a gift to New York from France and is respected as a symbol of freedom. Caribana [Toronto's Caribbean Carnival] is 50 years old. [It is] a celebration of African Emancipation Day in Toronto."

Steelpan musicians play by on Toronto's harbourfront for the first Caribbean Carnival in 1967. (Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival)

Lesson #4: Carnival in Canada is still not recognized the way it deserves

Spencer: "It is not an important public celebration here. If it were, then business places and the corporate world would involve their staff and animate their premises to celebrate it, much like what is [done] for Black History Month. Much has not been done in its 50 years to make it more public. It really is preaching to the converted. [My hope is] that [in the future] it is administered by an organization that works year round with an artistic director and an executive director as your key staff. I also want to see a policy in place that allow the local entertainers hired during the season paid decently and not a high percentage of public funding paid to foreign artists."

Zuberi: "It is important for [Toronto] to respect the festival as a cultural icon by contributing the finances it needs for sustainability. It is my hope that all three levels of government acknowledge the festival by paying respect to the people and the unique culture that has been developed in Toronto over the past 50 years."  

People should be taught and encouraged to express themselves freely and without compromise; to work in community; to respect, support and accommodate difference.- Frances Anne Solomon, filmmaker

Lesson #5: Carnival can be Celebrated all year long

Zuberi: "I celebrate the Caribbean Carnival all year round by educating about the art forms of playing and making steel pan, mas and the music of calypso, the triptych of the Carnival arts culminating during Caribana weekend. [For example], in its tradition of disruption, Pelau MasQueerade — a direct influence of the Toronto Caribana mas experience — was presented in a splendour of black queer bodies in colourful Caribbean mas costumes in the annual Toronto Pride Parade. This historic appearance in 2002 paved way for many more African and Caribbean identified queer folks and allies to feel comfortable taking up space in what was traditionally a white dominant parade."

Lesson #6: Carnival teaches freedom of expression

Solomon: "People complain that it is chaotic. I do as well. But the importance of Carnival here is that it teaches individuality, expression, community and selfhood. People should be taught and encouraged to express themselves freely and without compromise; to work in community; to respect, support and accommodate difference."


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.