Ol’ Time Carnival in Toronto

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Photo by: Leanne Benn

BY: LEANNE BENN

When we think of Carnival and more specifically Caribbean Carnival we often think about fetes, dancing in the streets, colourful costumes and a plethora of shared cultures and cuisines. But what happens to the untold story from times past.

The history of Carnival celebrations is often forgotten and more importantly the historical link that the celebration followed the abolition of slavery from the British Empire for most Caribbean countries.

The root of Carnival can be first traced back to the small and exotic twin island of Trinidad and Tobago in the 18th century where Carnival also remembers the Christian roots of the festival. Clarence and Jackie Forde are the lead creative minds behind Cajuca Mas Arts Producers. The focus is all about celebrating Ol’ Time Carnival and the relation of Carnival to the stories of African ancestors of the Caribbean islands. While the names for these tales may differ from country to country most characters and figures from this folklore hold a significant spot in Caribbean mythology.

Ol’ Time Carnival insists that the story must be told and they bring these creatures of folk to life in the form of intricate and extravagant costumes celebrating the true meaning of Carnival based on African and Caribbean folklore and freedom from slavery.

During a chat with Clarence Forde, lead costume designer, he relayed the significance of each character they will be portraying this year. This is the second year for Ol’ Time Carnival and the event is being funded and supported by the City of Toronto and the Toronto Arts Council. Clarence and his wife Jackie are no strangers to creating Mas costumes, as they have over 25 years of experience and both decided it was time to revisit the roots of Carnival. They are even the recipients of the 2010 Innovation in Mas Award handed out by The Ontario Science Centre to Toronto Caribbean Carnival costume designers.

Some of the characters you can expect to see come to life are Midnight Robber, Jab Molassie, Dame Lorraine, Soucouyant, Shortknee, La Diablesse, The Pierrot Grenade, Calinda- Stick Fighters, and Minstrels. Now, these names may sound different in Caribbean cultures outside of Trinidad, but Ol’ Time Carnival is increasingly trying to include other Caribbean islands such as Grenadian folklore. For instance, what many call Soucouyant in Trinidad, Guyanese call this creature Ol’ Higue, but the mythical story goes the same. The tale is based on a blood sucking hag, who appears as a normal yet reclusive old woman in the day but by night she shape shifts into a ball of fire, by stripping herself of her wrinkled skin and placing it in a mortar. She can then travel into your home at night and suck the blood of her victims. Some also say her favourite choice is the blood of babies, leaving the victims with bite marks and bruises. Along with the myth of the Soucouyant comes the methods of protection including placing rice by entryways or on village streets, the creature is then forced to count every single grain before continuing, often daylight will come and you can then catch the hag in the act. The root of this folklore is traced to tales of enslaved Africans. Another display from folklore that is a little less terrifying is Dame Lorraine, this was a Mas character seen in the 18th and 19th-century celebrations and is based on African slaves mocking French aristocracy, it is often portrayed as a man dressed in an extravagant dress with a voluptuous shape and eccentric dressings. The Dame Lorraine then parades around private yards on the night of Carnival Sunday.

The Ol’ Time Carnival truly hopes to reflect on the history of emancipation and recognizing African ancestry. While the presentation will feature all these characters in costume, there will also be no stereo music but instead just the beat of drums. In African culture, the drums were sometimes banned on plantations because slaves used the beat of the drums to communicate with other slaves.

This year there will be three presentations of Ol’ Time Carnival at three different events, The King and Queen Show, Animating Our Waterfront and Arts in the Park on August 3rd, 12th, and 19th respectively. For more information on these events as well as the history of each character featured, visit dingolay.ca or @dingolaytoronto.

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