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Miami not just more mas

By Terry Joseph
October 12, 2002

Here in Florida for this weekend's Miami Carnival 2K2, perceived deficiencies of the Trini model that spawned it is the most regularly visited topic among festival aficionados, coming almost invariably with the stock question: "Why can't T&T get it right?"

Of course, simplistic comparisons are naturally perilous, Trinidad Carnival enjoying dubious singularity in its attempt to embrace the host country's entire population, as distinct from offshoots that cater for closed-circuit participation, often limited to peoples from the Caribbean Diaspora.

Like all known examples of Trini-carnival cloning, the Miami parade exists only along a prescribed route, with business proceeding as usual elsewhere, apparently oblivious to the jamming going on a mere block away; even though it is the Columbus Day holiday weekend.

But while Miami Carnival cannot argue widespread participation with the Trini mother, or match numbers with Toronto's Caribana, London's Notting Hill or New York's Labour Day versions, it has established a product quite different from your typical wining opportunity, largely as a result of unrelenting emphasis on business and scholastic approaches to festival management.

For openers, pragmatism upstaged emotion in the selection of festival sponsors, with powerful Trini brands like Angostura, Carib and BWIA forced to sit out this edition, when products from other Caribbean countries or the US came up with superior deals.

As part of its marketing thrust, Miami Carnival was able to convince Hollywood megastar Will Smith (Men in Black II, Ali) to bring his son Trey and function as joint grand marshalls of last Sunday's children's parade in Fort Lauderdale, a move that purchased extraordinary all-media exposure across the US.

Festival co-chairmen, Trinidadians Francis Ragoo and Selman Lewis (a continuing example of power-sharing that would please the heart of Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday) described that initiative as "part of our efforts to raise the bar and make Miami Carnival different, not just more mas."

Just seven years ago, the two chairmen were virtually at war, resulting in separate but simultaneous festivals that both embarrassed and confused Caribbean people living in Miami's Dade and Broward counties, not to mention visitors; thousands of whom make the cross-continental pilgrimage by car each year.

Having reconciled their differences, the joint-chairmen now rely on each other's organisational strengths to produce a version of Carnival far superior to those delivered by either over the years of conflict; forever looking for new components that can build the festival into a cutting-edge carnival model.

The philosophy has resulted in a vow to add scholarship to the event. Yesterday, a seminar mounted by Florida International University (FIU) in association with Miami Carnival and convened by the university's Head of African/New World Studies, Trini-born Dr Carol Boyce-Davis, was staged at the Biscayne campus.

Interestingly, participants came to hear several Trini speakers, including Ken Crichlow, Pearl Eintou Springer and Dr Lynette Lashley) detail some of the history and evolution of the festival. The talks also featured pan music and a soca demonstration by Machel Montano.

There are, of course, staple Trini-carnival components. On Thursday night the annual Saga Boys calypso competition played to a full house at the auditorium of the Joseph Caleb Center and today, a stellar cast of soca stars will perform at the Island Jamz fiesta at Opa-locka airport, followed by the Steelband Panorama and King and Queen of the Bands competitions.And the place is alive with wall-to-wall partying.

On Thursday night there was a pre-carnival chip, a novel pan event that teaches visitors how to move to steelband music, featuring 21st Century Steel Orchestra and host band North Side, along with hometown and visiting DJs.

There are also a number of fete concepts imported from Trinidad like the annual Girl Power (which was held on Thursday night) and a replica of the popular and prestigious UWI Fete, which takes place today at the FIU Biscayne campus.

It should be noted that Miami has the advantage of fete facilities, the likes of which are not available in Trinidad and Tobago. The annual SocaFest, a two-night jam, each episode going from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. at the Coconut Grove Convention Centre, allows up to 20,000 partygoers to frolic well into the mornings in a fully air-conditioned facility without risking interference from police or noise-pollution zealots.

Again, Trinis provide much of the music, with road march monarch Naya George, Fay Ann Lyons & Invazion, Ronnie Mc Intosh & Atlantik, Tony Prescott & Surface, Sanell Dempster & Blue Ventures, Roy Cape & the Kaiso All Stars, Leon Coldero & Code 868 and Traffik, helped along by solo acts Iwer, Denise Belfon, Shadow, Impulse and Machel Montano.

But after all is sung and danced, Miami carnival participants will come away from the festival with much more than digital memories of Trini music and dance. In collaboration with FIU, organisers have been able to secure three tertiary level scholarships.

Two of those scholarships are for undergraduates and the other for post-graduate research work, all in carnival-related fields. Understandably the pride of the committee, Ragoo sees this initiative as as "a significant advance for carnival at large, as the work done here will no doubt help to inform Trini-style festivals everywhere."

Dr Boyce-Davies said the activity was designed primarily "to bring to the carnival a deeper sense of purpose, especially for those who look on in astonishment at Caribbean people jumping down the street and don'tquite understand the reason for the celebration."

Perhaps it is time for Trinidad and Tobago to surrender its preoccupation with being "the mecca" and host of "The Greatest Show on Earth" and take some of the workable examples from carnivals it has spawned to further enhance and enrich its leadership position.

As recent political developments have shown, leadership is particularly fragile except where it takes advice from those over which it has dominion.

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