By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
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.)
“Miami's has the potential to be the biggest Carnival in North America,” asserts Gregory Antoni, president of the Miami Carnival Band Leaders Association, which is attempting to unify local bands to gain clout in negotiating sponsorship and purchasing deals. “It could be second only to Trinidad's. We need to do more marketing. It's not yet recognized outside the Caribbean community. But it will be.” Antoni also is the leader of the two-year-old mas band Generation X,a name that not coincidentally connotes a sense of new, young blood infusing the action.
First, though, the Carnival will have to gain more distance from its past. Often the Carnival organizers themselves -- a core of community leaders that has changed little since the beginning -- have proved their own worst enemies. A few years after the event's inception, allegations of missing and misappropriated money and broken promises to corporate sponsors started to emerge. As time went on, the questions of financial improprieties snowballed within the Caribbean community but were never resolved. “No one ever did an official investigation,” Andrews recalls. “People showed me evidence of this and that, but of course nothing was ever proven. I've had [committee members] on my program several times and raised the allegations, which they denied. It's just that when you have questions of integrity and honesty and so on, it tarnishes things; it takes people's minds off being willing to sacrifice their time and make it work. There are still a lot of corporate sponsors who say as long as certain people are involved, they don't want to get involved. We hope every year it will go away, but it hasn't yet.”
Infighting among Miami Carnival host committee members became so heated by 1995 that the planners split into two groups, and for the next few years staged separate Carnivals. The feuding factions reunited in 1997 after mediation by the general consul for Trinidad and Tobago. Since then the Carnival committee and community volunteers have made some strides in presenting a unified and professional front.
There is still a ways to go. The Hialeah City Council denied Carnival organizers a street parade permit in 1998, complaining that masqueraders had disrupted neighborhoods and inconvenienced motorists during the previous year's Carnival. Mayor Raul Martinez rebuffed offers to improve crowd control and postparade cleanup.
After Hialeah told the parade to get lost, just weeks before it was scheduled to take place, Florida state Sen. Willie Logan helped organizers secure a deal with the Opa-locka City Commission and Miami-Dade County to stage the event at the county-owned Opa-locka Airport. It's not the most visible location, and this year the parade route was changed to take the revelers still further off main thoroughfares. Many of the bands, says band leaders association vice president Carl Montes, believe that the Carnival committee let them down by agreeing to the new route. “Most of us don't feel that's enough exposure for the time and effort we put into getting our costumes done,” he says. “The issue was raised at one of the meetings we had with the Carnival committee, and it was just pushed to the side as if that means absolutely nothing -- “We're giving you what we can and nothing else.' We all felt slighted, but there's nothing else we can do at this point.”
And with the misgivings (the usual regarding rowdy revelers, trash in yards, and traffic snarls) voiced by Opa-locka commission members after last year's parade, the Carnival may be lucky to get any route at all. “Now they're asking us to move it next year,” acknowledges Carnival committee chair Selman Lewis, “because it's such a large event.”
Just about everyone agrees the best Carnival site was downtown Miami, with the parade staying mostly on Biscayne Boulevard, like the famous Orange Bowl parade. For its first two years, the Carnival was held in North Miami, then moved to Bicentennial Park. But in 1996, participants in the Hispanic Heritage Festival, which was then being held in Bayfront Park next to Bicentennial Park, angrily claimed that the Carnival had hurt revenue because the mass of paraders had kept people out of Bayfront. The following year the Hispanic Heritage Council went before the Miami City Commission, which ordered Carnival organizers to end the parade by noon. That was impossible, so in 1997 the Carnival moved to Hialeah.
All the rumors and accusations against Carnival committee members that were flying around by then didn't help the Carnival planners negotiate another venue. But a site was always found somehow, and the party went off well, perhaps partly from its own momentum.
“There are still internal battles,” Andrews observes. “There are people who are holding back from getting involved because there are still questions and allegations about the way things are done. It's just that people have kind of let the issue lie low. They may have resigned themselves to “This is the way it's going to be run.' And the true thing is, come Carnival time, it's great; everybody has a good time. Thousands come in and say it was the best time they ever had.”
That is the reason so many South Floridians can put up with the crises and disappointments, the hundreds of hours of unpaid work, and months of sleep deprivation. “The Carnival got in my blood, and it's not going anywhere,” confesses Denny Wallace, public-relations director for Generation X.
Back in March, Anthony Irish, Tai Sue Leong Tat, their wives, and a half-dozen friends gathered to begin planning costumes and music for their band, Fun Generation. Most band leaders begin this early every year; it takes time to raise the prodigious amounts of money needed to look and sound good and to hand-make scores of beaded, sequined, and feathered costumes. Irish, a dental-lab operator, is the leader of Fun Generation; Leong Tat, an auto mechanic by day, is the designer. They're both “Trinis,” as Trinidadians call themselves. (Leong Tat's father is a Trini of Chinese extraction, reflecting a bit of the island's multiethnic mixture of coexisting cultures.)
After a few meetings, the directors of Fun Generation -- which, like many bands, has declared itself a nonprofit corporation -- agreed on a “Survivors of the Millennium” motif. Leong Tat translated the theme into costumes evoking four apocalyptic disasters: Volcanic Eruption, Hurricane, Earthquake, and Explosion, one for each section of the band. Every band is organized into sections, the number depending on the band's size, but locally most have four. Each section's costume represents an aspect of the larger motif, and most bands also include a king, queen, and other individuals, or “characters,” who wear much more elaborate and expensive outfits than the rest of the entourage. Whereas a regular costume might cost $100, a queen's attire could run $5000 or $10,000. The qualifications for king, queen, or another character are simple: the ability to buy the costume.
During the following weeks, when day jobs allowed, Leong Tat worked on costume drawings, members shopped for materials, and fundraising events were discussed. And by mid-September the garage of Leong Tat's split-level home in Pembroke Pines looked something like a garment factory filled with sparkling costumes hanging from improvised clotheslines, rolls of fabric leaning in corners, and stacks of cut-out cardboard and fabric shapes waiting on tables to be sewn or stapled. This was Fun Generation's mas camp, where volunteers constructed most of their approximately 80 costumes to be donned by band members.
Miami's larger bands (in the 400- to 500-member range, compared with an average Trinidadian band numbering a few thousand) usually employ designers who live and work in Trinidad and contract out the construction of some or most of their costumes. Many local bands, however, can't afford to be so upscale, and rely on volunteers to make costumes in private homes or small rented storefronts. As Carnival approaches the hours in the garages and living rooms get longer, until everyone is running on adrenaline and almost no sleep.
On a recent weekday night, two women seated at a card table in Leong Tat's garage are stapling, gluing, and glittering, going slowly through the motions as if to conserve what energy they still have. Marvene Nurse-Denny and Janice Hunte head a small band called Barbados Sets the Caribbean on Fire. They're friends of the Fun Generation folks, who have invited them to share their mas camp. CDs of Carnival songs play at a restrained volume from a boombox. Andrew Baptiste, a friend of Tai from Trinidad, sits at a worktable cutting shapes out of satiny gold cloth. The shapes will be trimmed in sequins and, reminiscent of Roman-style armor, wrapped around the ankles and shins of the Explosion masqueraders.
The Earthquake section will wear clever headpieces mounted with toppling skyscrapers of vinyl, suede, and sequins. Wind-bowed palms depicted in sequins and glitter blow across the Hurricanes' skimpy outfits. (Carnival costumes generally start with bikini bottoms and tops and usually add little besides feathers or beads in the way of concealment, though more modest variations can be special-ordered.) Last year Fun Generation placed third in the Small Band of the Year category, and Irish declares hopefully: “I think we're going to win this year.”
On parade day masqueraders will dance and prance down the street, finally ending up onstage, where each band displays its finery and typically adds an extra flourish of dance or pageantry for the judges. As Fun Generation takes the stage, a strange-looking bunch will be in the lead. A section of about 30 “mud people,” having emerged from the aftermath of a devastating millennial volcanic eruption, will celebrate their survival. The mud people will literally be covered with mud. “Other people are making our mud costumes,” explains Leong Tat, a tall, bespectacled man with a professorial air. “We don't have the time or manpower to do all that. I don't know if they're getting the mud from North Carolina or South Carolina.” Mud, naturally recalling the primeval organic stuff that gives form to life, actually is traditional Carnival attire around the world, evoking ancient pagan rites later adopted in Christian rituals. Masqueraders have refined mudwear to the point of incorporating lard and hydrogen peroxide to make it coat the skin better and last longer.
As a schoolboy in Trinidad, Leong Tat drew up designs for Carnival costumes that were worn by bands. He's lived in Miami for the past eight years and has been the designer for Fun Generation since the band was founded four years ago. He can't imagine not staying up night after night making sure each plume and spike and amulet is just right. “Nobody can pay you for this,” he says, fastening a golden shoulder plate to a bald black mannequin modeling the Explosion costume. “You'll never make money on this Carnival. I saw shoulder plates like this in a store for $200. Now in Trinidad, they make big profits; people pay more for a costume. They appreciate the culture more there. But here they look at it as a one-day affair, so they don't see any reason to spend much money to play mas.”
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.
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.
“You really can't calculate an hourly rate,” Medina says. “Every [design job] is a different problem. When you get involved in something, to get it to look how you want it to look you keep adding, stripping, and putting back. Sometimes you do extra details to sell the drawing, then when the band leader says, “I want that little extra,' you're past your budget. We'll try to accommodate you, so we just have to work around each other, try to manipulate it to try to get the best price.
“We design and produce and go up for the Saint Maarten Carnival. Their costumes are more elaborate than in Miami. Their costumes cost $50 or $60 for production. People pay here in Trinidad three times that. The average costume on the road is about $150 US; you start from there and go upward. West Indians who live abroad expect to get the same thing you see here in Trinidad, but they want to pay one-third of what they pay when they come here.”
Miami's players may complain but most agree that this year's Carnival has received the best promotion ever, and all indications show that attendance will exceed last year's 185,000. “We know from speaking to masqueraders and band leaders from other cities that this should be the biggest Carnival we've ever had,” Carl Montes predicts. “Carnival is a street parade. People are supposed to enjoy themselves. But this year New York closed down their Carnival at 6:00 [p.m.], so a lot of people are coming down here this year to enjoy Carnival. Yet they're going to find we've been stuck in back of a commercial area, which just isn't the same [as a more visible parade route].”
Carl Montes and his wife, Michaelle, commonly known as Mickey, are unique among Miami's Carnival crowd. They are Haitian. Not everyone in the Party Room Squad and the Party Room Kids (a junior band) is Haitian, but there are enough to give the bands a singular flavor.
This is the first year the Monteses have formed an adult band. Their two daughters, sixteen-year-old Erica and eleven-year-old Nicole, have been at the heart of the Party Room Kids for the past five years. The girls have helped cut out and decorate costumes, spray-paint props such as swords and scepters, and take phone messages. The Kids' queen costumes, designed by Carl and constructed by him, Mickey, and a seamstress friend, have won first and second places (different years) in junior band judging. Last year the band came in third overall.
Again this year the Monteses' family photos, school certificates, and other objects that accumulate in a busy home have been moved out of the way to make space on their long dining-room table for the piles of Carnival materials. All the sewn outfits are decorated by hand here. Finished costumes hang above the table next to a china cabinet.
The theme for both junior and adult bands is the same: Underground. As in Hell, and as in criminal underground, not a soft topic for kids, but Carnival thrives on the ghoulish and fantastic. The Underground costumes reflect a rebellious designer; there's the Mafioso outfit with black bowler-type hats, silver sequined vests, and pants instead of bikini bottoms. The other sections, variations on infernal themes such as Eternal Flames and Hades Realm, feature harem-pant bottoms, although Montes is making up a special bikini section for friends who complained the regular outfits were “too restricting.” Montes is the first to admit he intends his band members to be rebels.
A tall and genial man who works in federal law enforcement (he asked that his exact job not be made public), Montes says he is one of those masqueraders who can't get the Carnival out of his blood. Still, he doesn't feel completely accepted by the English-speaking West Indians who run the event. “One year we tried playing Sweet Mickey (Haitian konpa superstar) instead of soca,” he recalls, “and the kids in the band who didn't speak Kreyol, we told them what the songs were saying. So they were just dancing along and having a great time. But the judges did not understand the music. So I felt I can't really portray what I want from my country because the judges don't understand it. I'm still bitter but I'm not showing it. I've always placed every year, except for that one year I played Haitian music.”