As cleaning crews swept away the last pieces of evidence that Baltimore’s Caribbean Carnival took place in 2019, those who attended were still blissfully unaware of the impending pandemic that would turn the world upside down, leaving them longing for that same joy and freedom for two years as the city was forced to cancel the annual event.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of the Caribbean carnival, they call this feeling “carnival tabanca.”
“A lot of our masqueraders had severe withdrawal. Everyone was kind of going, ‘Oh my gosh, is it not going to be any Carnival in 2020?’” Island Oasis bandleader Sheila Gomez recounted.
After two years of anticipation, the Baltimore Washington ONE Carnival is officially scheduled to take place this weekend at Clifton Park and Canton Waterfront Park.
Caribbean carnival is a celebration of freedom from colonial rule, and the dances, music and costumes are all symbols of rebellion. The festivities are meant to honor Caribbean culture while remembering the history of the islands.
A parade of bands — organizations that coordinate costumes, music and dances to a certain theme — will kick-start the festivities on Saturday, followed by a festival that will include authentic Caribbean food, live music performances by international acts like Problem Child and Shurwayne Winchester, and much more family-friendly entertainment.
On Sunday, Holli Network will start the day off in Canton Waterfront Park at 6 a.m., hosting the traditional J’ouvert celebration, a festival where participants will dance and sing along to soca music while being splattered with paint, oil and powder.
The roots of this tradition date back over 200 years to the French arrival in Trinidad. During the Canboulay festivals — a time when sugar cane fields caught on fire and enslaved people were forced to harvest the remaining crops before complete depletion — the landowners would mock the enslaved workers by imitating them. With their emancipation from slavery, the newly freed islanders mocked their previous enslavers and made Canboulay their own. It eventually became J’ouvert, a celebration of independence.
“People are ready to get back out there, you know. The pandemic was very devastating to a lot of communities, including the Caribbean community,” Roots and Culture bandleader Kenneth Barrington said. “So now we have to get back out there and try and bring people back together.”
During Saturday’s parade, participants will follow a convoy of masquerader bands accompanied by flatbed trucks for 1 1/4 miles as they blast the latest soca, calypso and reggae music. The trucks will be surrounded by groups of dancers and models dressed in extravagant, head-turning costumes decorated in feathers and jewels.
Each band has its own theme, and at the end of the parade judges will choose a winner based on the creativity, costume design and energy of their performers.
“Our presentation this year is ‘Survivors.’ The reason why we call it survivors is because a lot of folks refer to the pandemic as a war,” Blue Tantrum bandleader Martin Alvarado said. “There were casualties of war and we survived that. When we go to the road, we will jump, we will enjoy, we will celebrate, for those who are no longer here to celebrate with us.”
The production of Carnival is an effort that takes over a year to plan, and Baltimore’s carnival committee has been working hard with bandleaders and festival organizers to make sure the return of the celebration goes off without a hitch, according to Shortmus Productions bandleader Kenley John.
“What separates Baltimore Carnival, in my opinion, is the collaboration and cooperation of the city and our parade organizers,” he said. “I am very impressed with the overall catering for us from all the entities, from the Carnival committee to the police and health department.”
Carnival serves as a reason for the Caribbean community to come together and celebrate their culture while sharing it with the rest of the world. Even though each island is unique and has its differences, the festival allows everyone to join as one.
“There are many Caribbean islands, but one Caribbean. We all have our own way [that] we make our rice and peas or how we do our chicken, but at the end of the day it’s one Caribbean. There is no better thing to put it all together like carnival,” Alvarado said.
“Everybody embraces it because they see the smiles on people’s faces as they enjoy themselves — you can’t find any English word to describe what that is. So that’s why a carnival is important. It’s a great unifier.”
• Read more: Queer dance party, Version, returns for Pride