To many unknowing Americans, the word carnival conjures notions of a county fair replete with risky rides, smelly farm animals, and enough cotton candy and corn dogs to upset stomachs for weeks. In South America, the Caribbean, the West Indies, and even some spots in North America (New Orleans, New York City, and Toronto), carnival is something entirely different. It resonates with more than 200 years of history and brings to mind a rapturous time when indulging oneself and relinquishing inhibitions are key as a prelude to Lent, the Catholic season of fasting.
The literal meaning of carnival is "farewell to the flesh." Over the centuries worldwide celebrations have evolved, and revelers have bid the flesh goodbye in numerous ways, abiding by a calendar that begins on Ash Wednesday, stretches throughout the year, and culminates in festivities held in Miami over Columbus Day weekend. In the past a few local organizations hosted their own bashes, but three years ago they joined forces and since have produced a mind-boggling extravaganza. This year's Miami Carnival '99 Caribbean Mardi Gras is the result. Two huge musical events (including Barbados's Square One, and Trinidad's Machel Montano and Xtatik) will take place at the Coconut Grove Convention Center. Another all-day concert occurs at Haulover Beach. In addition to the fun and games, though, carnival has a competitive side. Colorfully costumed marching ensembles with participants numbering in the hundreds, some playing instruments, some just showing off feathers, boasting themes such as Nineveh, Odyssey, and Splendor and Gems will vie for titles, as will several steel groups. Liming (relaxing and having a great time), however, is the ultimate objective. The highlight of the affair is the grand parade, which takes place around Opa-locka Airport and features, according to Jamaican-born attorney Marlon Hill, spokesman for the Miami Carnival, the "three essential elements of carnival: mas (masqueraders), steel bands, and music" in island styles, such as calypso, soca, reggae, jam band, zouk, and compas. Flatbed trucks will transport DJs or live musicians blaring songs (some composed specifically for the event). Bands will join the procession and show off their wild wardrobes. Tasty Caribbean foodstuffs will be offered, too.
"It's an exercise in expression of culture, through music, through costumes, and through the steel band," says Hill. And it's not just for adults either. A slew of events specially geared toward children ensure that future carnival participants and attendees do not die out. "The kiddie carnivals are crucial," Hill says. "If the kids take a liking to the culture, they'll grow up appreciating the process of making the costumes, the themes, and the entire experience. Caribbean-American kids get the best of two worlds." As do we all.