Columns

A parade is a metaphor for life

Keeble McFarlane

Saturday, August 06, 2011    

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When it comes to fancy dress, birds are the stars of the animal kingdom. Fish are a close second, followed by some classes of insects. Some of these creatures put on a show of colours, designs and extravagance more intricate and entertaining than anything even the most imaginative human artist can devise. The more highly evolved forms of life - the mammals - are dull and pedestrian in comparison. Perhaps this is why the dullest-looking of all - human beings - love to dress up and put on a show whenever we can. It seems to me that this is why we have parades, pageants, fashion shows, design contests and carnivals.

These events are anchored in the dim, distant mists of human history, but they are still with us, having moved right along with the times. People take to the streets to celebrate religious landmarks, national days, the vanquishing of past antagonists, the settling of old scores or the advent of new eras in civic life. This island is right now in the middle of the annual spectacle to mark the advent of Independence one year shy of half a century ago. Combined with the anniversary last Monday of the abolition of slavery, we wrap it all together into the bacchanal we call Emancipendence.

Perhaps the most famous carnivals are those which take place among Roman Catholic communities. Catholics take Lent - the season stretching from Ash Wednesday to Easter - more seriously than their Protestant co-religionists, and so we have Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) as the grand finale of the time leading up to the self-denial and serious reflection that characterise Lent. Thus we are treated to the grand spectacle of carnival in Rio de Janeiro, when Brazilians, rich and poor, go all out to put on a grand show. Though no less spirited, our closer neighbours in Trinidad have a scaled-down version of carnival as do the folks in Bavaria, Germany, New Orleans and elsewhere. The Chinese have dragon parades for the lunar new year, Indians celebrate many religious festivals, as do tribes people in remote locations in the Pacific islands and the forests of the Amazon.

Our American friends love a parade too, and they incorporate such traditions as the Irish remembrance of St Patrick's Day, Mexican feasts and German events like Oktoberfest. But they reserve their national day, the 4th of July, for the most energetic and spirited parades, with marching bands, jugglers, contortionists, clowns and

baton-twirling youngsters in dazzling uniforms, all led by the marching band, with gleaming trumpets and trombones, chirping fifes and the insistent beat of big bass drums.

Carnivals also serve political ends. It's been a long tradition in Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city, and the centre of black settlement, for a carnival to take place towards the end of July. In his first venture in coup-making, a young Fidel Castro and a few dozen cohorts used the carnival as a cover to attack an army barracks on July 26, 1953. It was a dismal failure, but he came back and the rest is history. I had the pleasant experience of witnessing the carnival on a visit to Cuba 11 years ago. A street was lined with bleachers and I sat there for a couple of hours while costumed groups paraded, danced and pranced along. On July 26, I visited the same barracks the rebels attacked. Complete with bullet holes, the Moncada, as it's known, now houses a school and a small museum.

While parades and carnivals generally have long histories and traditions, some are more recent and are laying down their own markers. Nineteen sixty-seven was the one-hundredth anniversary of Canada's independence, and the nation celebrated with a wide variety of commemorations in metal, concrete and stone. But the celebrations included many events as well, the most notable being the world's fair they called Expo 67. The largest concentration of Caribbean immigrants and students is in Toronto, and they decided that their contribution to the centennial festivities would be a street carnival along the lines of the one in Trinidad.

Rather than attach this carnival to a religious or national holiday, they instead chose the time of year when Toronto most resembles their homelands - the peak of the summer season on the first weekend in August. That first year was so successful that the organisers decided to try it again the next year. And the year after that ... and after that ... It quickly became a huge magnet for Caribbean people and those with Caribbean connections across North America, and soon was drawing in thousands of visitors and millions of dollars.

They called the first carnival Caribana and that's how it has been known until quite recently. Behind the scenes, and sometimes out front, the organisers argued and squabbled, experienced organisational difficulties and money troubles. It's no longer called Caribana since a group which no longer controls the festival won a case in the Ontario Supreme Court and the name remains theirs. An outfit familiar to people from the islands has stepped in with money and organisational muscle, and the carnival is now called the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival.

There are numerous activities surrounding the road march on the first weekend in August - soca parties, steel band contests, the kings and queens of carnival, stage shows, dances and parties. For the first time in years, I went out last Saturday to take in the tail end of the parade, which drew thousands of spectators to a broad boulevard which runs along part of the city's shoreline on Lake Ontario.

What struck me right away was the profound influence of technology on the parades of today. There was a time when a parade was led by a real live band, marching along the street at the head of the column of celebrants. This used to be the case - well, sort of - in the early days of Caribana. The steel bands and reggae groups very quickly took to the backs of flat-bed trailers behind highway trucks to traverse the many kilometres and hours of the parade. The PA systems they used to bombard the crowd with music were powered by small portable generators much like the ones many people have tucked away behind their houses to fill in when the JPS supply frequently cuts out.

Today's musicians rely not so much on their lungs or how hard they strike objects to produce sound. No - they now rely on electrons running around inside silicon chips to set the tempo for the marchers and the onlookers. They relay the sound through banks of huge loudspeakers. Several of the trailers I saw on the parade route were completely covered in loudspeakers with a platform on top on which some revellers danced. At the front of the trailer was a huge generator to supply the thousands of watts of power the giant amplifiers drew to drive those loudspeakers. This was not the little stand-by plant you would find in someone's garage - this is a unit used by the folks who shoot movies to provide the vast amounts of electricity they need to power the lights, the equipment and all the trailers on a location set!

And there was something I had never seen before - trailers in the actual parade carrying portable toilets! But then, even people who play mas need to go from time to time!

keeble.mack@sympaatico.ca

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