Carnival!

Miami's joyous Caribbean fete attracts hundreds of thousands of revelers each year. So why has it remained overlooked and underfunded? Let's put it this way: The event isn't held on Calle Ocho.

Irish's cell phone rings; it's his wife, Sondra, with more costume orders. “Hurricane,” he repeats, then writes down a few numbers. “People call the house and say they're interested in a particular section. She puts it all together, their phone number, size -- we have it all on computer.”


The information age comes to the Miami Carnival. About half of the 31 bands participating this year have their own Websites (Fun Generation does not); all but a few have e-mail addresses. And there have been other moves toward transforming the Carnival into a slickly packaged, astutely marketed event on par with higher-profile festivals such as Calle Ocho, which is televised.

Miami Carnival host committee chairman Selman Lewis attracts both blame and praise for his chief role in producing the extravaganza
Steve Satterwhite
Miami Carnival host committee chairman Selman Lewis attracts both blame and praise for his chief role in producing the extravaganza
Miami Carnival host committee chairman Selman Lewis attracts both blame and praise for his chief role in producing the extravaganza
Steve Satterwhite
Miami Carnival host committee chairman Selman Lewis attracts both blame and praise for his chief role in producing the extravaganza

Details

Saturday, October 7, and Sunday, October 8. The Grand Carnival Parade of Costume Bands begins 11:00 a.m. Sunday, at NW 57th Avenue and NW 135th Street. Call 305-869-1660 for specific event information or see "Calendar Events."
Opa-locka Airport, 14300 NW 41st Ave.

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For example this year the official Carnival title is “The Western Union Miami Karnival 2000.” “Western Union has provided support for a long time,” says Selman Lewis, chairman of the Carnival committee. “But this year they've put in cash and in-kind contributions that total more than $100,000.” Another new Carnival event (among the traditional fetes, shows, and contests leading up to the parade) was the black-tie masked ball on September 30, hosted by U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek and benefiting United Way. “This brings more people to the table,” Lewis explains. “We have to demonstrate we're not just a party organization. We have to give something back to the community.”

What will reportedly be the only Ole Mas competition (a kind of political parody skit-slam) outside Trinidad will be held for the first time on October 7. On the Opa-locka Carnival grounds, visitors will note the new presence of a press tent, and for the first time, the planning committee has hired an outside public-relations specialist to address media inquiries. During Carnival weekend a new Caribbean Consular Exposition on the airport grounds will include exhibitions by most of the Caribbean nations, targeting trade and tourism opportunities. The committee, Lewis says, has invited all South Florida chambers of commerce to check out the exposition.

This is the year, too, that the Miami Carnival Band Leaders Association began to get its act together after several years of dormancy. While that means nothing to those outside Carnival circles, the band leaders association represents a challenge of sorts to the established leadership of the Carnival planning committee. The committee is in charge of producing the event, while the association represents the essential element of Carnival: the costumed mas bands. Gregory Antoni, the association's president, says the group now represents 26 out of the 31 bands participating in Carnival this year. “Each band has to have drinks, a truck, trucks to transport the costumes, a generator [for the sound system],” Antoni explains, “and we could save a lot of money by negotiating package deals. We started too late this year, but next year we'll make a difference. And we just formed a committee for sponsorship.”

Antoni's band, Generation X, is one of the event's largest, with more than 400 members. Last year, its first in existence, Generation X placed third in the Large Band of the Year category (with more than 101 members), and Generation X's entry for the Miss Miami Carnival 1999 pageant was chosen Carnival Queen.

Generation X has again contracted the legendary Trinidadian soca orchestra (and winner of Best Band last year) Byron Lee and the Dragonaires to provide the band's parade music. A group this big doesn't come cheap. The glitzy Generation X costumes will be topnotch, too, designed by Gregory Medina and Chris Santos in Port of Spain. Last year Medina and Santos designed for Miami's Caribbean United, placing fourth in the large bands. Medina and Santos also have constructed the outfits for one Generation X section and some of the more elaborate costumes that so-called individual characters will wear: the king and a special group of showgirls to lead the masqueraders.

“They'll be producing the queen costume up in Miami,” a weary-sounding Medina reported recently by phone from the island. “It's not feasible for us to do it due to the time frame and transport costs. We're about to finish the production on one [Generation X] section.”

This past week Gregory Antoni flew to Trinidad to pick up the costumes and make sure they were handled with care on the flight to Miami.

Medina and Santos have been designing Carnival costumes for about 30 years. More than half of their work is for Carnivals all over the world. “We just sent off the costumes to Massachusetts for a Caribbean state fair they have there,” Medina explains. The team also does design work for stage productions and corporate projects. “Gregory Antoni called me, I think, around March or April,” Santos recalls. “He wanted us to do something on the Las Vegas theme, sort of a show-biz costume. He would say, “I want Las Vegas; we don't know what to call it.' We had no problem, because we had visited Las Vegas before. [Antoni] gave us some ideas and we already had some ideas.” Thus the five Generation X sections are named after famous Vegas hotels: the Stardust, Mirage, Tropicana, Aladdin, Caesar's Palace.

Antoni doesn't want to reveal how much the Generation X costumes cost this year, though he says the band's entire budget for 2000 is $75,000. Compared with Carnivals elsewhere, and taking into account the personalized attention Medina and Santos (and all prominent designers) put into their creations, that's not high.

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