PON DI ROAD AGAIN
MAS CAMPS AND CARNIVAL CHASERS TAKE THE ROAD BACK TO CARNIVAL
BY WANNA THOMPSON
COVER STORY | PON DI ROAD AGAIN
Iam a Carnival chaser. I am part of a community regularly seeking our jump up, with feathers on. I’ve enjoyed this West Indian tradition as a young adult at the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, Junkanoo in Bahamas and the mecca, Trinidad Carnival. I grew up with it, hearing the history of mas and its origin as a child during visits to my grandmother’s home in Port of Spain, which fed my love and endless curiosity for the rituals and traditions that surrounded mas and the varying festivities that fully encompass the spirit of Carnival. The colourful costumes decorating the streets in rhythmic formation, soca pumping through the speaker stacks and towers and flags waving in the air feed feelings of liberation, resistance and passion. The road lets you leave any sense of worry behind. So what do you do when your refuge and happy place is dismantled for reasons ultimately beyond your control? Throughout the pandemic, masqueraders, band leaders and carnival chasers alike mourned the loss of Toronto Caribbean Carnival and the numerous traditions that take place leading up to the Grand Parade. Within the community, many experienced loss, dealt with financial strain and entered new chapters in their lives. Some left the Carnival industry altogether. The community was gutted, explains longtime masquerader, Carnival model and samba dancer Tereka T. “I saw people leave the bands that I knew them to be with for so many years,” she says, tearfully. “It felt like little pieces falling away from this special little space that you’ve held up for so long. It just felt so empty.” With two years to reflect and strategize, redemption and execution has been a main talking point among band leaders. They’ve been looking for ways to evolve, improve and keep this tradition, lest they end up like the Taste of the Danforth – the tzatziki- flavoured festival that usually takes place in August cancelled its big return in 2022, reportedly due to complications caused by bike lanes and the Cafeto program introduced during the pandemic. The Toronto Caribbean Carnival, entering its 55th year, has its own obstacles to overcome as it lures revellers out of their social bubbles and back “on de road again” to bubble and wine. BOUNCING BACK The last two years were “torture,” says Nadelle Lewis. She’s the creator of everyBODYplayahmas, a body- positive global movement formed after Lewis was body shamed in a popular Carnival magazine. Lewis describes mas as pure euphoria and a time to “celebrate who you are, your ancestry, your creativity and just feeling good about who you are.” The pandemic interrupted that. “People were losing their lives, or were losing their jobs. So it was very hard to lose something that a lot of people use as a coping mechanism for mindfulness and your mental health. Some people really need that escape, even if it’s once a year. And it’s not just the parade, but the overall Caribbean community that gets together in the summer.” Carnival is its own community, one that has lost its anchor for the past two years. Beyond the faithful revellers that participate in the festivities annually, there is a whole Carnival ecosystem that includes costume designers, band leaders, party promoters, DJS and more that Carnival as a business and community supports. Visit a mas camp in the period leading up to the Grand Parade and you’ll see costumes and floats under construction and DJS entertaining band leaders and revellers at their limes. Without the Toronto Caribbean Carnival for the past two years, the ecosystem was rattled. “Sometimes you don’t know what you have until you lose it,” says Lewis. E. P. I. C. Carnival tried to preserve the spirit of mas during the pandemic by hosting backyard jams across a few cities and live shows on Youtube for people in the community who were waiting to touch the road again. E. P. I. C.’ s band leader Jerrol Augustine and event coordinator Emilsa Sealy spoke eagerly about their plans for Carnival before the lockdown hit on a conference call, expressing the huge downturn emotionally. “We were depressed,” says Sealy. “We were withdrawn. We felt like, ‘ Oh my goodness. No more late nights. When will we ever see our people work together again?’ That anticipation was completely gone.” Flash forward to 2022, and E. P. I. C., which stands for “energy, passion, imagination and culture,” is yearning to be back on the road and is ready to provide top- tier customer service. Sealy wishes to mimic what she experienced in Trinidad. “Our costumes are delivered on time and we’ve never had a problem with distribution. Every year we’ve improved and I love our system at the mas camp.” ROAD MAINTENANCE The Toronto Caribbean Carnival is not without its flaws. Revellers have experienced a bevy of issues over the years, including poor customer service, scarce updates and costumes that failed to meet expectations or be delivered at all. This not only turned people away from the parade, but has also made revellers cautious about which bands and/ or section leaders to jump up with. Celena Seusahai is the young, ambitious band leader at the helm of Toronto’s Tribal Carnival, which also operates in the Cayman Islands for Carnival. Tribal has plans of expanding into Saint Lucia’s burgeoning twoday parade and the United Kingdom’s Notting Hill Carnival. She sees the pandemic interruption as a much- needed reset. “It gave us a lot of time to think and to reevaluate business practices and how we would want to run in the future.” She reiterates that she’s zeroing in on troubleshooting and is super- focused on providing excellent customer service. “Our main focus this year is to just make sure every masquerader gets a very seamless experience,” she adds, “just getting what they paid for and making sure they have no questions and no worries.” David Bremang, a long- time masquerader and fete veteran who oversees digital marketing for Toronto’s Crown Mas, hopes bands took the time during the pandemic to improve the logistics around the road experience as well. With the parade route changing course over the years and the influx of stormers who interrupt the procession, there seems to be little regard from an operational viewpoint that centres masqueraders’ safety or values the amount of money that is being spent. “When you look at the production that Trinidad has, you have people on walkie- talkies, on their headsets, coordinating with the truck drivers, so everyone knows what’s going on… It’s a whole ecosystem and it somehow works. And honestly, sometimes there’s flaws. But there’s a customer value system that this city has lacked in the past.” DOLLAR W( H) INE Toronto Caribbean Carnival generates over $ 438 million dollars, according to a 2010 estimation. But how much funding is going to the local bands to ensure that they’re run with the utmost proficiency? And what is being done to ensure that masqueraders have an enjoyable experience without stormers penetrating the fences and disturbing the parade? Bryce Aguiton, the band leader ( alongside Marcus Eustace) behind eight- time band of the year Carnival Nationz, says “as much as we would like to do certain things, the funding is below 2010’ s level. We’ve actually gone backwards in funding for the festival. As everything has gone up, we’ve actually gone in the wrong direction.” He continues by saying, “So we have to balance trying to put out a costume that looks like a Trinidad costume, which means we’re spending more money. And I cannot charge as much because it’s a one- day festival with no all- inclusive aspects.” Urging the importance of including this level of transparency, Aguiton says, “We’re not supported at a level that we should be when you consider the value of the festival. It’s half a billion dollars and we, the bands, get 0.000000000001 per cent of return on that.” Aguiton and Eustace have been able to secure numerous partnerships, including the likes of Sheamoisture and Hennessey. Adidas is investing in Carnival Nationz for this upcoming festival season. Partnerships and corporate sponsorships are a rarity but are needed across the board to support the bands, not just during Carnival season but year- round to advocate for the community and educate those who are unaware of its importance. More bands in Toronto can use that kind of support to improve, and ultimately continue to create and keep the culture alive. COVID CAUTION With Carnival chasers ready for the road and band leaders making an effort to implement feedback from years prior, specifically regarding customer service as massive shipping delays may affect production, COVID- 19 remains a factor, especially because the pandemic disproportionately affects minority communities. Carnival chasers say the road helps us forget all our problems. COVID ain’t the one to forget, though. Tereka T. notes that there is no accountability to ensure that masqueraders will be safe. With mask mandates changing and the attitudes toward the pandemic becoming more relaxed as the days go on, there has been little information directed towards health and safety practices on the parade route, or if there are any requirements at all. Miami Carnival, for instance, introduced mask mandates and COVID- 19 testing for masqueraders. Tereka has chosen to avoid modelling for band launches and attending this year’s parade. “I recognize that if people are going to play mas this year, that is a choice that they have to make. That is a decision that they’re mak ing on their own, and we have to be okay with the risk that they’re taking.” Tereka reminds that there are some people, “even if not many,” who still want to observe the parade but may not feel comfortable doing so during the pandemic. A separate section with vaccine passes, masking and social distancing could have been an appealing option. “There are senior citizens who are not going to go and sit on the grass and watch mas,” she says. “They’re like, ‘ I’m not going to be around all those people.’ There are the people who say, ‘ I just had a newborn kid, I’m not gonna go,’ if they feel like that’s too much of a risk. There are a lot of factors.” Aguiton says Carnival Nationz is noticing another attendance drop. Their band launched in 2005, modernizing the road experience to draw a younger generation to Toronto Carnival, which had experienced an attendance drop. There are new factors leading to a decline in registration, Aguiton says, referencing recent inflation, travel restrictions, concerns over the pandemic and the overwhelming economic stress on society. “We’re probably around about half of what we would have done in the past, and it’s across the board.” Continuing with this sentiment, he notes that, “It might very well be the best ever, but it might very well be the least number of masqueraders. Because everybody has to prioritize what is good for them.” “We’re happy that it’s back and we will wait another year for everything to kind of normalize. It won’t hinder us, we are going fullfledged in terms of our presentation.” With feet ready to pound the pavement, it’s clear that the Toronto Caribbean Carnival was greatly missed, but it has returned with a cost. Lives are forever changed and will continue to be impacted by the ongoing pandemic and what it may bring. Liberation and joy are expected to be at the forefront at this year’s parade, while some regulars may take a backseat at home until they, too, are ready to experience the feeling of the Grand Parade once more.