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Carnival has its day in the sun
published: Sunday | March 30, 2008

Revellers from the Supreme Ventures-sponsored Envy group dance up a storm as they make their way along Constant Spring Road in Jamaica Carnival 2005.

Krista Henry, Staff Reporter

Known for its energy, revellry and colours, carnival has taken Jamaica by storm, gaining mass acceptance.

A tradition that has been inherited in countless countries across the world, Jamaica was one of the last Caribbean countries to introduce carnival to the masses. According to, "Carnival is a festival season and literally means 'farewell to the flesh'. It typically involves a public celebration or parade, combining some elements of a circus and public street party. People often dress up or masquerade during the celebrations."

In Jamaica, carnival occurs from February to March and has created numerous spin-offs across the island, with soca fêtes almost every weekend outside of Bacchanal and Jamaica Carnival events. The soca season is an addition to the reggae and dancehall fare of Jamaica, as dancehall especially has been integrated into soca music.

But while today many persons enjoy the carnival festivities weekly they were once not as accepted in Jamaica.

Celebrating 20 years of carnival in Jamaica, Bacchanal has been an ever evolving process. Years ago, a group of friends got together to hold their own 'mas' in Jamaica. A land of reggae and later dancehall, soca and calypso soon would infect revellers and partygoers alike.

Designing costumes

According to a director of Bacchanal Jamaica, Michael Ammar Jr, he and his crew set up night after night to design and make the costumes that were showcased in the first road march in 1989. Originally known as Oakridge Carnival, the first march saw 300 revellers dancing on the streets of Kingston.

"From the get go Oakridge was a great success to people jumping. Other people thought we were crazy to bring carnival here. The people who had gone to carnival liked it. We didn't like the fact that in Trinidad the band wasn't all-inclusive, so we made ours all inclusive. At the time, there were no all inclusive parties around," Ammar Jr tells The Sunday Gleaner.

The Oakridge, Revellers and Raiders groups eventually blended into 'Bacchanal' in 2000.

Under Bacchanal, they built the weekly Friday night event known today at the Mas Camp Village, bringing in bands from Trinidad and holding the first ever Beach J'ouvert. Today, over 2,000 revellers march in costume on the road parade day, with thousands of onlookers following along. Yet Ammar Jr claims it still takes experiencing the carnival first-hand for some persons to truly get involved.

The T-shirt section

He says, "Jamaicans still have a ting about putting on a costume. But more and more people are coming out. The T-shirt section especially is getting popular, as once your're in, an estimated 99 per cent of people who have been don't miss it again".

Moving on to the future of carnival, Ammar Jr sees the product of Bacchanal Jamaica evolving more, this year seeing the addition of the street dance 'Wata Bacchanal Blocko' . He said that they try to get young blood involved to carry on the mantle.

However, it was Byron Lee who truly brought carnival to the masses when he started Jamaica Carnival in 1989. He tells The Sunday Gleaner that "I'm a big exponent of Trinidad Carnival for over 30 years. I said I must bring this phenomenon to Jamaica. Jamaica is the last of the 29 countries in the Caribbean to have and accept a carnival, so we are really the babies".

Lee defied the predictions of failure by the critics and embarked upon his most ambitious project in the music business.

"The biggest problem was that most Jamaicans said it wouldn't work, that it isn't a carnival country, but I persisted 'cause I believed in it. I wanted carnival to go to the public. You always had other carnivals that were held mostly indoor, where persons had to pay to get in. I went to the people and choose Half-Way Tree where uptown and downtown meet. That is where the route will remain," Lee says.

According to Lee, the church was strident against having carnival. So was the reggae community, which feared soca and calypso would upstage reggae and dancehall music. To appease the Church Lee signed an agreement with them that the road march would not be held on Easter Sunday, there would be a strict dress code, no children would be involved and the noise levels would decline when the parade was passing a church or hospital.

Growing support

Lee plunged forward and continued with carnival, where he discovered that unlike other countries where persons stand by and watch the parade, Jamaicans followed behind the trucks on Road March day. Some 150,000 persons are known to move behind Jamaica Carnival. To ensure that all who wanted to jump could do so, Lee introduced ACA (affordable carnival attire).

With an increased acceptance of carnival, the tradition has impacted on Jamaica's culture in a variety of ways. Lee explained that "carnival brings out a different feeling than reggae and dancehall. Reggae is an implosion, where people listen to the lyrics, while soca music is an explosion where they run up and down jumping. It's accepted because it's only for a small period, then it's back to reggae".

According to Ammar Jr, carnival in Jamaica has impacted in two major ways. He explains that soca music has become more popular, especially since it shares a similar tempo to dancehall music. He explains that "carnival in Jamaica has broken down social barriers on the entertainment scene. You see every class, colour, size and type of person at Mas Camp and at carnival. You see these people interacting".

Dr Donna Hope, writer and lecturer at the University of the West Indies (UWI), claims that carnival has become a staple on the entertainment calendar. Yet, Hope does not believe that carnival in Jamaica has truly become a part of local culture.

"Jamaica Carnival was imported and so it's integration would be to the extent that ordinary Jamaicans feel a sense of ownership and acceptance. They don't, which is why there are so many fragments off this original effort - Portmore Carnival, Downtown Carnival, etc. It is not truly integrative, because everyone does not get into a state of wild abandon and take a hiatus from their real lives to 'play mas'. It remains another entertainment product which you can choose or refuse," she says.

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