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After midnight, on an oppressively steamy Saturday in August, the Miami Karnival 2000“band launching” was just beginning to heat up. A few thousand people had squeezed through the Mahi Temple entrance turnstiles and filed into a cavernous auditorium, where two columns of tents and booths clustered along the west side of the hall. At the north end, soca bands jammed on a raised stage. With the roiling, rambunctious music building in the background, mysterious words leaped out from glittery signs: “Eternal Flames,” “Hades Realm,” “Dem Boyz Dem,” “Fallen Kingdoms,” “Mirage.” But most of the people gathered around the booths took note of the displays and moved on as though this were all a familiar fantasy. And for anyone involved with Carnival preparations, it was just a tame taste of what was to come. Now let's dance.
The August 19 bash, which would last almost until dawn, was the traditional preview of costumes and activities planned by many of the bands that will participate in the annual Miami Caribbean Carnival parade, set for this Sunday in Opa-locka. Carnival “bands” aren't musical groups; a so-called mas (short for masquerade) band is a big contingent -- anywhere from 50 to 5000 strong -- of costumed revelers whose sole function is to dance along a parade route, usually a mile or two long, as they take occasional swigs of water or something stronger from bags around their waists or at a drink stand on the way. At the front of the parade are several steel bands; following behind each mas band is one or more flatbed trucks bearing live musicians or a DJ.
The launching is the means for bands to introduce drawings and/or models of the elaborate and original costumes the revelers will wear on parade day. It also serves to attract more masqueraders. Anyone can join a band and “play mas.” All it requires is buying a costume, priced in Miami from $85 to $150 (the cost also might include food and drink along the parade route). The costume price doesn't really cover all the band's expenses but it does help with the huge overhead. And the ensuing weeks up until the October 8 Carnival parade feature one fundraising fete after another, all organized by bands hoping to recoup as much of the $40,000 to $80,000 each spends annually to put its show on the road.
Many other North American and European cities stage their own Carnivals modeled after Trinidad's extravaganza -- considered the mother of all Carnivals -- which began as a big celebration of the pleasures of the flesh just before the abstemious season of Lent. Even though New Orleans's Mardi Gras and the Brazilian Carnaval are much better known, West Indians maintain that Trinidad's Carnival overshadows them both in size, intensity, and visual spectaculars. The Miami festival, now in its sixteenth year, is one of the biggest of the Trinidad spinoffs and has developed a reputation for placing special importance on costuming. Here, the event is always held on Columbus Day weekend, the last in a succession of Carnivals around the world that begins with Trinidad's more elaborate celebration.
Most Miamians are vaguely aware that there's a local Caribbean Carnival each year, and that it usually is staged somewhere off the beaten track. For a while it was at Hialeah Park; now it's at the Opa-locka Airport. (The main entrance is at NW 37th Avenue and NW 135th Street.) Most have no idea how huge the Carnival is -- big enough to annually pump $12 million into the economy and bring an estimated 85,000 visitors to the area, on top of the 100,000 who gather from around South Florida.
The Carnival is both symbol and substance of West Indian cultures, culminating in one day of abandon and excess, an experience Miami's Caribbean community can share once a year. The Carnival industry imports costume designers and musical groups from Trinidad. The judges of the mas bands and music performances usually are flown in from Trinidad (where there's actually a school for Carnival judges). A collection of Trinidadian pan tuners -- steel-drum specialists -- travels from Carnival to Carnival.
Yet for many reasons, the Miami festival has never been completely welcome in South Florida. Over the years it has been shunted from one venue to another and perfunctorily covered, if at all, by local media. Think of the constant television images of the happy crowds and famous recording stars at the weeklong Calle Ocho street festival. The atmosphere at the shorter Caribbean Carnival is equally colorful, featuring many of the islands' most famous calypso and soca groups, music and drama competitions, ethnic food, arts and crafts, and unique and stunning costumes to boot.
Perhaps the most obvious reason the Caribbean Carnival remains at the edges of Miami's mainstream is that it's not a Latin festival, where sponsor money and political clout would naturally flow. It's no secret that black organizations generally have to fight harder than other groups for political and economic access. “I don't think the Carnival is recognized for the tremendous impact it has on the economy here,” says Mike Andrews, host of a long-running Caribbean music and interview show on WCVG-AM (1080). “I guess the general complaint in South Florida is the insensitivity sometimes of the mainstream media to certain groups, and the disproportionate attention given to other ethnic groups.” (One suggestion of disparity is the more than $52,000 in grant money awarded by Miami-Dade County to this year's Hispanic Heritage Festival, held the same day as the Caribbean Carnival. Though many factors enter into the awarding of festival grants, and the comparison can't be exact, the Carnival received just $20,000 from the county this year, despite attracting four times more attendees than the Hispanic festival.)