Unpacking Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival with Collette Murray

Episode Notes

Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival (formerly Caribana) is often known as just a street party, but many folks don’t understand the social significance of the event. Before the festival starts on July 28, Collette Murray is here to talk about what has been lost to the commercialization of the event and what you need to know before you go. A long-time Carnival participant, Murray is a dance performer, instructor, mentor, cultural arts programmer and a PhD candidate at York University. You can read more about Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival in the summer issue of The Dance Current, now available on newsstands and on thedancecurrent.com.


Esie Mensah: Greetings, everyone. I’m Esie Mensah and this is Currently in Dance, where we jump into stories published by The Dance Current magazine.

[Song clip of Sharifa the Great by Joy Lapps]

EM: That’s Joy Lapps’ original song Sharifa the Great. Joy Lapps is a Toronto based steelpan artist and composer. She’s an award-winning artist of Antiguan and Barbudan and descent and to me, she is incredible. She is committed to diversifying and amplifying the steelpan art form. I wanted to open our show today with this song in the spirit of our Toronto Caribbean carnival coming up this August long weekend. Originally named Caribana. It has been running annually since 1967 in the city of Toronto. The inaugural festival was a gift from Canada’s Caribbean community as a tribute to Canada’s centennial. Carnival was introduced by immigrants from the Caribbean, and the roots of the festival are directly linked to Emancipation Day when the Slavery Abolition act of 1833 became law across the British Empire, including Canada on August 1, 1834. On this day, the practice of slavery officially ended for millions of African people and their descendants in Canada and around the world. And that is the catalyst as to why we still have Toronto Caribbean Carnival today. People from all over the world come to celebrate the explosion of Caribbean culture, music and dance. I have been going to the festival since 2009, jumping and waving and wining to celebrate the ancestors and the culture. However, this is my first year truly immersed in it as a section leader for a new band called SugaCayne, bringing my afro vibes to the land of the Caribbean. And that brings me to my guest today. Collette “Coco” Murray is a dance performer, instructor, mentor, cultural arts programmer, and she is also a PhD candidate at York University. I wanted to bring her on the show to talk more about the history and roots of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival and what people don’t understand.

Hello, Coco.

Coco Murray: Hello, Esie.

EM: How are you? Girl? 

CM: Good. How are you? 

EM: I’m doing great. So just to give people some extra context for today we are in The Dance Current office. So if you hear a little bit of noise or a siren on Jarvis Street, you know why. So, my sister, to jump into this particular topic. I know you’ve been participating in Caribana as well as Mas, you know, also known as Toronto Caribbean Carnival, but Mas across the world really for a number of years. For a very long time. Can you briefly talk about your connection to the festival?

CM: My connection stems from childhood. I remember the days when my family would go to University Avenue and I would be sitting on the shoulders of my father as I’m trying to see the masqueraders and the bands go by because I couldn’t see of course, you know, and also it reminds me of my time going to what was known as the Olympic Island just to see the performances just to be around the people and that was like a tradition every year and it was also because it’s the August weekend that was around my dad’s birthday. So we always would celebrate his birthday around Caribana weekend. So yeah, my connection also links to later on being, teaching in the community. And then of course supporting and choreographing for Kiddies Carnival, when it was at one point in Jane Finch and also as a masquerader in Caribana, probably in the late 90s. I probably started and playing for a numerous number of bands, as well as masquerading around the world in different carnivals as well just extend that so Caribana has been part of my life for many decades.

EM: And to give our audience context in terms of because there’s going to be a lot of language, a lot of terms, that people are not going to know so the first one that I actually want to unpack is Mas which is also short for masquerade, masquerade is the reference to you know, Caribbean Carnival, the big parade, the participants, the masqueraders dressing up in costumes as a way to you know, disguise dance perform parade on the road and this actually has links to French colonial history from the 1700s, which was kind of the catalyst that that at least started the movement of Mas within the Caribbean. So can you just continue to go down that journey and the evolution for us?

CM:  So yes, masquerade. Yeah, it’s like you’re putting on, you’re transforming to another identity, I would say. You’re taking hold symbolically, whatever a character, most likely sometimes, or it could be a theme. It could be, it’s just basically representative of a group or a village, let’s tie it back to the African roots. When you have masquerade, it really is linked to the social significance in the village, in the West African context, also a culture it represents an ethnic groups culture, it also references of course, the theme of the costume, or the character could be some political commentary, a little bit in there, too. So the evolution really ties to, again, the social conditions that people have gone through and how they try to create and use performance and costume as a means of resistance to display what you’re talking about what they want to evoke, what they want to disrupt, it’s protest.

EM: With carnival being bright and attractive and fun, a lot of people are not aware of the social significance. And so you just unpacked so much of that. But where do you think that started to shift? Where do you think that that break started to happen, where we went from it being a resistance and protests into I want to be in my feathers, and I want the glory, but not necessarily focus on where we came from to get to there?

CM: Good question. I would say, and I’m going to contextualize this in the Toronto experience, of course. So I would say when you start with a group of lawyers, and teachers and educators who are immigrants, who formed Caribana, so I pay homage to them for even thinking about this gift to give to Canada, and how they wanted to also transplant those political, the political, social commentary feeds, they wanted to emulate what was happening back home, they wanted to emulate the roots, I would say, shifting into maybe the late 80s, into the 90s, that’s probably where the shift happened. Where it became less about, I would say it became the costuming changed, where it became the pretty bikini Mas. Around that time, you would still have a top and a bottom in different pieces. But people were kind of more clothing, the costumes are a lot more elaborate. And then it shifted into this pretty Mas where it became about body politics. This gets introduced where it’s like, okay, we’re making the costume, but a certain body type can fit into these costumes, which became excluding other people in the community, from wearing particular costumes. And then designers were only focused on the aesthetic of how it looked. Because there’s now starting to make, you’re focusing on this brand, then create this brand. So I would say in the 2000s, yeah, it became more about bikini and wire bras and feathers. And as you know, now it’s become even more less Yeah, the audience can chuckle when I say this, I call it shoestring Mas, because it’s come down to, Yes, we as females who are going to put on the costume and we want to evoke the Jamèt in us, and people may not know what the Jamèt means. But again, the way the politics were in terms of colonization and modernity, and what’s what religion is trying to say that the black woman’s body, how it was described, when we invoked our, our spirit and our dance in Carnival in the streets, in the island, whatever, quote unquote jezebel label you want to put on us, we were free to be who we were. So yes, it’s an empowerment to to be vulnerable and to wear this costume and just be free and emancipate your waist and everything else. But then it also becomes open, it opens up another door about body politics. It puts pressure to work out all year to fit into the costumes. Are we excluding plus size individuals from wearing the costumes who also are from the Caribbean or whoever else wants to participate? And we’re also forgetting our elders, because the elders still want to play Mas. And what are they going to wear if the only product you’re making is the bikini Mas? So we have to think about inclusion as well in that conversation too. We all dance all shapes, all sizes, all ages, but who are they marketing to? So that is an ally well to again, the commodity, where okay, I’m only going to focus on a particular type of model to model the costumes, or a particular body type to wear the costumes. Sometimes colorism and shadism gets in there too. And it’s like you only want to cater for it to a particular audience. So then it raises class issues and colorism issues and all these things are happening. So it’s a lot to unpack.

EM: It is and thank you for naming the classism, the shadism, there’s I think oftentimes when we think about Mas, we’re only seeing it from one particular lens. And we’re actually not paying attention to all of those other isms that are actually contributing to the experience that we so love or potentially hate, you know, depending on where we are, but there is so much to unpack in that conversation. So I just want to say thank you for that Coco. But we will be right back. We got to pay these bills.

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Welcome back, everybody. Thank you so much for joining. So, Coco, let’s continue with this conversation. So, I’m actually going to move into the commercialization and how us as Black folks, Caribbean folks are choosing because not at this point in time, it’s a choice, choosing to move into the brand of Carnival and completely stray away from the roots. How are, How do you feel as somebody that has been a part of this festival for so long, and continues to be a part of it and is feeling it, you know, essentially stray away from where we started?

CM: It’s, it’s the population of this, this festival has outgrown University Avenue. Had to go to Lake Shore, because where else could it go? It’s too big to be on the island. So, the fact that it’s such a global festival for North America, like I guess it’s the top one, I would say the fact that the roots and the, the history and because we history lives in that so can still continue. But the problem that I’m having is that we’re not educating the audiences on this. And the only time that I personally saw education start to happen was during the pandemic, where, okay, we’re not having the Carnival. So now we’re going to we’re going to use the social media space to now talk about and show videos and history of the Carnival. So, beyond a museum experience from an individual who wants to be curated in a gallery space that would talk about the roots of Carnival, and then you intention as a consumer going to consume that people who are enjoying the Carnival, they’re enjoying it because it’s a space, it’s now being marketed as a street party. And media also perpetuates this type of description. So, they don’t educate, it’s just colors, it’s food, it’s feathers, it’s costumes, it’s music, and that’s what I hear every year on the news. I know it’s more than that. It’s been more than that. And it’s disheartening that people don’t know so it means that it creates a lot of more work for us to educate people about what it means, especially the dancing around it. 

EM: To even set up this idea in terms of the history, can we even just unpack the Caribana label now shifting to Toronto Caribbean Carnival. Can you explain the to the viewers as to why that shift happened?

CM: So the Caribana name, of course there have to be a lawsuit involved. So we all know as Caribana, I still call it Caribana till this day, but the politics around it had to do with there was a point in time when there was some mismanagement of funds based on one of the Carnival committees. And then they had to get sponsors to take over it to continue the actual Carnival. So that led to changing the name. And there was a group that wanted to retain the name Caribana. So there was a long lawsuit around this. So that name has been retained. So when you’re getting sponsors, it now becomes Toronto, Caribbean Carnival, but the truth as well is that when the gift happened in 1967, the following year, the city of Toronto want to co opt the whole thing, and create a Toronto carnival event in 1968. And they wanted to merge other festivals to have one big type of experience. That didn’t work well, that didn’t work well at all. Because again, this was a gift, but it was supposed to be for the West Indian community, which means you’re not just focusing on a particular ethnic group in the Caribbean, you’re looking at the whole of the West Indies, which means the afro descendants, the Indo Caribbean, as well as the Chinese Caribbean, and of course, other ethnic groups that are from the Caribbean. So there was a lot of, I will say, growing pains to make the festival what it is. So they fought hard to have Caribana and to sustain Caribana. So to lose that name, and have it converted, because of course you get a larger sponsor. And then every year you’re fighting another sponsor. It’s, it’s been a challenge. But again, the city and the province, the hotels, the restaurants, a lot of people are benefiting from this entire festival that’s off the backs of many people in the Caribbean Community.

EM: Yes. And that then leads into my next question. Stormers, the people that essentially don’t know what Carnival is, and I’m going to get you to also explain what storming is, and how that is also woven into the commercialization of Carnival.

CM: Yes, so a stormer is an individual who has not paid for costume, not interested in respecting the masquerade, and allowing the revelers and even the larger costumes to move freely through the streets as it’s supposed to parade. They want to, they want to walk through, they want to walk in between and have this authority to come into the space and not give the people who have paid their money, who have dedicated hours to create these costumes to set up the truck to even set up the entire parade that are the presentations are going to be judged on, they just want to come in and walk through. And some people just like I just see scantily clad women, and I now just want to be the person that comes up to them and grab in touch, sexually harass, sometimes that enters the conversation. So they’re just coming in to join in without respecting what’s going on. Now, not to say that in the islands, there isn’t Stormers per se, but there’s a there’s a, there’s a cultural and social norm, that you will still be part of the parade of the spectator, you can still join in a little bit, but you still respect and give space for the masquerade to happen. That’s not happening here. So I would say there’s generations of adults, all the way down to youth that have no idea what this is about, again, they the commercialization of the festival has led to almost just a street party. So I can just join in, at my own agency, and not respect what’s going on. So it’s problematic because, again, someone’s spending hundreds of dollars. When you have the larger costume, sometimes it’s thousands of dollars, for you to be in that costume and to be in that parade for that day. And everybody worked so hard for that one day. And then you’re facing these challenges from stormers.

EM: And with you playing Mas in different countries in the Caribbean, going to parties and everything like that you can see obviously, we have a very robust view of the business. My huge question to you is can we have that grip on the business and still have integrity on the cultural form?

CM: I think so. I mean, I appreciate what SugaCayne is doing. Yeah. The only other time I saw an attempt for a man to try to connect with the historical roots, it was a few years ago, but then it led to a little bit of a controversy. But basically, and again, it’s tied to I guess, people understanding how we also have Indigenous nations in the Caribbean, and how we want to also recognize their involvement in in our lives because again, as Afro descendants we were displaced on their lands. Yeah. Right. So when we have the feathers, and we have the head dress, and we have particular themes of costumes, it’s not too appropriate from any Indigenous nation. We come from lands that have Indigenous people too. In the Caribbean as well as in South America. The controversy around that is, you know, a little bit of backlash. Why do they have the feathers? Why do they have the headdress? Because we know it’s a sacred reading and understanding to First Nations and, you know, the Métis and Inuit communities here in our treaty lands here. Yeah, so I saw them trying to connect certain themes, but then as I look into backlash, but other than that most of the themes have not brought forth, deep rooted roots. You may say the theme could be x, but it’s still the bikini Mas. So there’s a disconnect between the theme and what you’re saying you’re trying to represent. So that’s what I’ve been seeing over the years. 

EM: Mm hmm. This is wonderful. This is all so important. But unfortunately, we need to take another break. So we will be back with Miss Coco very shortly.

This episode is sponsored by YENSA Festival, running from August 13 to the 28th at Daniels Spectrum 585 Dundas Street East Toronto. YENSA Festival, produced by Lua Shayenne Dance Company, is an international biennial festival that celebrates the work of women in dance from African and Afro-diasporic culture. YENSA Festival invites audiences to engage and celebrate with us, the incredible evolution of Black dance, have conversations about the diversity of African Diasporic aesthetics, its histories and politics from a female perspective. Tickets and more information can be found at www.yensafestival.com.

And we’re back. With the shift of intentions we’ve spoken about today. I can’t help but think we’re inadvertently breeding folks that will skip the history and go straight to appropriating. How do we continue to amplify our cultural forms without giving people a pass who don’t have relevant knowledge?

CM: Okay, amplifying, of course, will be through education. The Carnival discussion may not even happen enough in academic or post secondary spaces, depending on the program. Yes, there’s publications coming from Caribbean scholars, but I think they’re predominantly either in the Caribbean, or they’re in the States, a few maybe in the UK. In the Toronto landscape, there could be students who are in programs that want to talk about this, and have they passed, they have researched about it in either their graduate work, or maybe undergraduate research paper, but then that just stays there. Right. conversations are happening, but I think there needs to be like a educational campaign. They also need to link with artists, because again, I’m bringing it back to the dance. In order to educate about the dance that’s involved in these Carnival cultures. You, is anyone talking to us in dance community? There, there have been practitioners, I’ve been a member of some of the dance companies, that people have come from Trinidad directly, have lived this life. They’re part of the infrastructure. And does anyone have conversations with them? The media needs to actually interview people who have the knowledge and put that in the media versus just a reporter beside a costume, saying the five buzzwords Yeah, food colors, feathers, street party? Yay.

EM: Yes. Because there are a lot of, you know, Caribbean scholars, there’s a lot of people that we can actually utilize as a as an additional way in but then obviously, that is keeping things community focused, that’s keeping things and trying to essentially repair some of the tears that are that are the we can see, and everybody can see it, you know, but we don’t. I think my my fear always with Carnival is that it’s going to fly too far away, that we’re actually not going to know what it’s going to look like in the next 10 to 15 years. You know, it’s like if it’s evolving to where we are now, what is the next evolution past where we are now?

CM: You know where evolution is now? It’s now manage the stormers, and it’s caged Mas. [yes] That’s what we’ve evolved to in the Toronto states. Because I can go in other places in North America, I can go in the Caribbean, I don’t see a fence, Toronto has the fence. This is not the Mas in Indie. That’s not how we Masquerade. We don’t we don’t, we’re not contained in a box that’s crabs in a barrel mentality to me, where we’re supposed to be free to exist, to manifest spirit, we’re supposed to revel and dance.

EM: And that’s the thing, you know, when we’re thinking about the education, when we’re thinking about, you know, how do you how do you, City of Toronto, actually put things in place that actually helps to shift the culture of what it means to play Mas in this particular city. Because it is quite unique. When you go to other places, you don’t have to worry about that crabs in a bucket mentality, you don’t have to worry about watching somebody scale, you know, nine foot 10 foot high fences just so that we they can be quote unquote, a part of the Mas. With the pandemic having happened for so long, there’s going to be a real interesting energy at Caribana this year. And, and, you know, I can say that even for myself that I’m worried about what could happen this year, because people had been, quote, unquote, caged up for two years that now they’re going to be let loose. And I don’t know what intentions people are going to come with. So when we’re thinking about the younger generations that don’t have this history, that that I don’t even know about the history, I don’t even even really know where to go like, how, how can we start to and then you’ve spoken about it, but for specifically to that younger generation that is not necessarily involved in academic spaces, how can they start to do the work to help them get connected to the roots of Carnival?

CM: That’s the challenging part, because it really involves community and involves families having to do that work. But again, it’s if there’s school spaces that will allow some of us practitioners to come in and actually do some programming that actually gets them involved and gets them aware to understand the infrastructure. And and learn about that way. So that now when they go with their group of peers, they know how to manage themselves and negotiate their identities in that space. They want to be a part, but they need to know how. So it’s a matter of how do we shift the way that’s going to look for the younger group? Yeah, it’s going to be a collaborative effort involves everybody.

EM: And so, because I know you do so much, you’re doing so much programming, you have been doing so much programming, just to be able to disseminate information. The moko jumbie. I would love for you to be able to speak to the community about that and and why you chose to teach this this year.

CM: Yes, the moko jumbie project. So what’s the moko jumbie? So what I understand from history is that of course it derives from the West African region. They say that moko beads, the name of of a God, I don’t know which one or from which ethnic group or region, and then jumbie means spirit. So, of course, through the Middle Passage our ancestors brought, of course, with cultural memory, you bring you bring this artistic knowledge with you. So of course you try to develop the tradition and its original practice, because it’s the role of the moko jumbie, also stems from protecting being a protector overseer. Sometimes it has healing. Social rules also mean that they are also a trickster in some instances, that would tease and be mischievous in behavior. But this is the masquerader that dances on stilts. So there’s always the Masquerade. But there’s a dance element here. Yes, you’re on two stilts, on two wooden sticks. Sometimes it’s evolved to now I think, sometimes the metal sticks as well. So the project I’m working on is with a professor from OCAD. And his research is around moko jumbie and Carnival. So he’s developed some architecture that’s at The Bentway Conservancy. So we’ve been working with youth to develop some moko jumbie participants, again, youth involved in the culture to learn about the tradition of moko jumbie. Walking on the stilts, get them to dance and move around on stilts. So this has been happening since June. We’re having a parade a community parade next week and I’ll be on stilts, too. And so basically we are evoking and embodying the spirit of the moko jumbie, we are going to be moving and dancing through the street, and have our music playing because it’s going to be a parade. So this project is really important because again, it’s moving away from, of course, the superficial side of Carnival and getting back to the roots of actual characters, and what that meant to communities such as Trinidad who has that ritual practice as well as the Virgin Islands. But what has happened is that the moko jumbie, has been kind of co opted, and you only see stilt walkers in a circus element. So again, you’re removing the cultural and socio historical context of what is what is a moko jumbie. And you’re only seeing it in a circus as an acrobat, it’s an amusement, no, there’s culture, this is someone’s cultural practice, and it belongs to communities. So we’re coming back to let’s learn about our carnival characters, let’s dance and claim space and gauge in our, in our cultural practices. And this is just one of them.

EM: The claiming space and that is a thread that we’ve been able to, the recalling our roots and the resistance in the protests of what it is that we want to be able to emancipate in our bodies, we want to be able to get to that space of freedom, based off of what we’ve had to deal with colonially for so long, and being able to essentially exist in a space of joy. We’re winding down the conversation right now, but as we think about that reclaiming of space, your voice as a dance educator, as a programmer, as a PhD candidate right now, how do you feel that your voice is helping to contribute to that change?

CM: I would say it’s a lot of responsibility, because I know that I carry the culture of all these ancestors. And it’s my responsibility to be as informed and as educated as I can, so that I can create programming, and I could go into school spaces and work from the from the kindergarten students all the way up to, you know, post secondary spaces, even if it’s a conference or a panel. Yes, that’s adults that you’re going to have that discussion with, but to actually create programs and to also work and hire practitioners. So that we can continue these practices, learn and teach and share with each other in exchange, we have to connect with the community so that they can learn about this. And they can learn about us as differently in diversity as we are. And in terms of my research, I see, I look at the gaps, and I look at what can I do to contribute something. So it’s really important to research and to write publications. But I think it’s also important to create and curate safe space, so that cultural practices can still occur. And that we use that space to educate not only each other as practitioners, but also the community, other dancers, younger dancers, we also need to connect with our elders. So hence why I always try to to work with an intergenerational group. So that I’m learning from all levels, we all can learn from each other. And that’s part of reclaiming our communal practices in ways as Afro descendants, because that’s how we shared across generations,

EM: Most definitely connecting intergenerationally you taking that space to educate. Coco, I just want to say thank you for sharing of your experience and your knowledge to this Dance Current family. As this, as this podcast continues to grow, people have a bit more history, knowledge education, about a festival that they may see, again, promoted on TV as one thing, but now they get a chance to actually understand the deep roots that it actually holds. And the reason why we as Toronto actually have this particular thing. There’s one very last question that I had for you. What is your favorite late night post show food spot?

CM: Post show? Okay, now, I don’t know if there’s a corn soup ban that might be posted outside of the fence. However, it really used to be Chinese food. I would say as long as I have my spicy shrimp and my rice, I’m good to go.

EM:  I know. Many late nights spent on Spadina Avenue so. Coco, let everybody know where they can find you.

CM: Okay, you can find me a number of ways. Website is www.misscocomurray.com. I also am an artistic director of Coco Collective. So if you would, there’s, there’s there’s a link to that on the website, but on social media we have @misscocomurray and also @cococollectiveto, standing for Toronto.

EM: Proud and strong. Coco. Miss Collette Coco Murray is a dance performer, instructor, mentor, and cultural arts programmer and she is also a PhD candidate at York University.

If you liked what you heard, be sure to subscribe to Currently in Dance wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back in two weeks with another episode. Currently in Dance is brought to you by The Dance Current, with support from Canadian Heritage. The Dance Current gratefully acknowledges Currently in Dance season sponsor Timothy Ziegler and The Shoe Room at Canada’s National Ballet School. Our sponsors and advertisers are not involved in the editorial process. The show is produced by Ashley Fraser. Our consulting producer is Nicole Inica Hamilton. Our executive producer is Grace Wells-Smith, our editor and composer is Jamar Powell. And I’m Esie Mensah. Thank you for listening to Currently in Dance. Subscribe, listen, and don’t forget to move.