Sleep? Forget about it!
There was no time for shut-eye during the D.C. Caribbean Carnival. There was too much going on.
The centerpiece of the festivities was Saturday's day-long parade of bands and deejays playing on flatbed trucks as dazzling masqueraders promenaded alongside them down Georgia Avenue. But a marathon of events, ranging from suit-and-tie receptions to mud-cooking rituals to all-night performances by a constellation of West Indian music stars are also part of the carnival, an annual celebration here modeled after the pre-Lenten carnival in the Trinidadian capital, Port-of-Spain.
D.C. Caribbean Carnival, which was launched in 1992, used to be a smallish, okay-to-miss affair. Not any more: With an attendance organizers estimated at more than 300,000, D.C. Carnival now rivals the festivals in Toronto and New York. West Indians travel from as far south as the islands and from as far north as Toronto to attend.
A bigger, better Carnival means more activities, which translates to less sleep. Carnival is about a different kind of rejuvenation.
"We don't sleep at Carnival time," says John Blake, the Trinidadian host of "The Caribbean Experience" on WHUR-FM. "That's the spirit of the Carnival, the ongoing party."
"Sleep is not a necessity at Carnival time," says Chris Toussaint, a Trinidad native and a board member of the D.C. Caribbean Carnival. "My dad doesn't sleep for an entire week during Carnival. My sister would come from a party at 6 in the morning, take a shower and go to work. Adrenaline keeps you going."
And what gets your adrenaline going is Carnival's dizzying soundtrack. "The music kicks in and keeps you moving," says Clarence Wallerson, a reveler from Guyana. "The music pumps you up."
Trinidad and Tobago has given the world a remarkable range of music styles: There's pan, played on steel drums devised from the oil drums that the U.S. military brought to the islands during World War II. There's calypso, tuneful songs loaded with sly double-entendres and innuendo that satirize politics and sex. And then there's soca, "jump up" music with indelible hooks and a frenzied, galloping pace that has come to be the nonstop pace of Carnival.
Friday, 6:30 p.m.
The Petworth Library hosts a reception honoring the establishment of its Caribbean-American resource center. In front of the library, a man on a platform plays a pair of steel drums while a Roland drum machine keeps the beat. A line of uniformed schoolchildren waits patiently by the buffet table. Trinidad's Wendy Fitzwilliam, last year's Miss Universe and the Carnival's first-ever celebrity grand marshal, is an honorary guest.
The former Miss Universe is tall and thin and graceful in a cream-colored suit. Michael Arneaud, the ambassador from Trinidad and Tobago, is tall and not so thin and graceful in a dark suit. The ambassador attacks a plate of chicken wings and miniature patties. The former Miss Universe does not.
Friday, 7:30 p.m.
A very different pre-Carnival ritual is taking place on a concrete patio in the rear of Harold's Auto Body in Hyattsville. A group of Trinidadian men are sweating over a caldron of mud.
This is a "mud cook." A mixture of mud, lard and hydrogen peroxide is boiling in a oil drum, half which is propped over a wood fire. Chunks of dirt, thick reddish mid-Atlantic clay, have been marinating in water for days. On Saturday morning, the men will haul barrels of mud to the parade, smear themselves all over and march as "The Millennium Mudders."
Kalonji M. Jahi is perched precariously on a folding chair, leaning over the bubbling brew, which he is blending with an electric drill equipped with a very long bit. "Back home we call it a swizzle stick," he says.
Jahi, 58, immigrated here nine years ago. He lives in Hyattsville, where he works as a nurse and respiratory therapist. "This is like taking the plane and going home," he says. "I grew up in the mud."
The majority of the Carnival costumes are beautiful in a shiny, eye-catching way--all glitter and sequins and colorful feathers--and require weeks of sewing and gluing.
Mud is different. "This is the antithesis of all that," says Jahi.
"And the most fun you can have," says his friend Charlton Caruth.
Photographer Allen Jackson did his master's thesis on mud masquerade. He is one of the few Americans at Harold's Auto Body this evening and is considered "an honorary Trinidadian" by the others. "The mud has its origins in Africa, where it stands for rebirth, regeneration," he explains.
"People in Africa would celebrate crops, the birth of a child, different communal events by covering themselves in mud. It brought them a heightened spiritual awareness. It celebrates the earth. African people believe that man and earth are one and the same."
The Millennium Mudders boast that they are the largest mud band outside of Trinidad. "We are proud of that," says Caruth. He's a 45-year-old cable installer who has also been here for nine years. "We are a close-knit community. Most of these guys, we know each other before we left home. This is so important--it's like a part of us."
"I didn't do much research on the history of the mud, but it comes from slavery days," he adds. "But I know that this is a freedom, emancipation. Get away from it all and free yourself. If you remember Woodstock years ago, there were people in mud."
The lard slickens the mud and makes it easy to spread. The peroxide serves to make this messy endeavor a bit cleaner, in case people have cuts on their skin.
Where does the mud come from?
"We have to keep it a secret," says Calvin Baker, as he takes over the whirring, straining swizzle stick. "We don't need anybody tapping into our source."
A medallion in the shape of Trinidad hangs from Baker's necklace; a ring designed after the Trinidadian flag decorates his right forefinger. Both are covered in mud.
Friday, 8:30 p.m.
Parked outside Harold's, the flatbed truck that will precede the Mudders as they dance down Georgia Avenue is enormous. Large enough to carry 48 speaker boxes, each weighing between 300 and 400 pounds. The men loading the truck are dripping sweat. Andy Mix, the Mudders' deejay, supervises.
This system is powerful enough to provide sound for a venue as large as Nissan Pavilion.
Saturday, 12:30 a.m.
The Mighty Sparrow is calypso royalty--literally. In Trinidad he was crowned calypso monarch so many times during the late '60s and early '70s that he was designated "Calypso King of the World."
At D.C. Live, a downtown nightclub, Sparrow's first set includes many of his hits, and the audience sings along--they know every word. But the one that brings the house down is "Doh Touch Meh President," inspired by Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
Sexual McCarthyism, the Ken Starr inquisition showed an innocent White House intern/
Not realizing Monica was a manipulator, when she exposed her underwear without concern.
Sparrow, 64, gyrates and the audience shrieks its approval.
Between sets, Sparrow sips Heineken in his dressing room and explains that he wrote "Doh Touch Meh President" during the impeachment hearings.
"I was so upset by it, it didn't take me very long to write. Maybe about three days, four days," Sparrow says. The song, he explains, "is not a matter of exonerating him. The focus of the song is pointing out to the powers that be that it is divine to forgive."
This is the first time he's performed "Doh Touch Meh President" in Washington.
"The president is very popular in New York, and he seems to be very popular in D.C.," says Sparrow. "I can tell by my song."
Saturday, 2:30 a.m.
Assume your position!
right!-left!-rightleftrightleftrightleft. . . MASSIVE!!!!!!
Shrill whistles and pandemonium as Allison Hinds & Square One, an enormously popular soca band from Barbados, tear it up inside 2:K:9, a swanky new club off U Street. This is a frenzied "jump up"--the soca is so fast and almost every single person packed into the club is jumping up and down, waving his arms back and forth. Everyone's waving a flag--the black and red of Trinidad, the yellow and blue of Barbados--or whatever is handy--shirts, hand towels, water bottles, fliers.
You dance to soca like this: You jump and wave, or you "wine," which is sort of like wind. As in wind your hips, around and around. Faster and faster.
A young woman wines up on a club security guard. She positions herself in front of him and pushes him against the speakers. Her back to him, she leans forward and gyrates furiously, rubbing up and down his left leg.
He is not from the islands. He shifts awkwardly. He's not sure what to do.
She lifts her leg up to get a different angle. He's mortified, and when she pauses to switch sides, he slips away.
A couple of Trini guys nearby pat him on the back. Laughing, they advise him to loosen his tie.
A glorious day. There are 25 trucks and thousands of revelers. This is the largest Carnival D.C. has ever seen--the event, modeled after Trinidad's two-day Road March, is growing each year. As West Indian immigrants have migrated to North American cities, they've brought Carnival with them, and now there are annual fests throughout the year: in Toronto, Boston, Miami, New York. And finally, Washington has moved into the big leagues.
"There's a natural evolution for any Carnival that you start in a metropolitan city," says WHUR's Blake. "Washington is a unique constituency. It took some time. It takes a migration of people who would participate--not just attend but participate--and that's what has happened here over the years."
"There's a real big difference from when I first came here in the '80s," says Anna Allen, who moved here from Trinidad 12 years ago. "The community got stronger. A lot of people from back home come up to help. And the younger people are more involved now. This is the first year I'm gonna play mas."
"Mas" is short for "masquerade." Playing mas means you're wearing a costume and are in the parade, not watching it.
Carnival mas is the kind of event in which an otherwise respectable middle-aged man can strut down the middle of a major urban thoroughfare in a shiny purple bikini. His bikini top is too small, so he wears it unclasped. "This is my training bra!" he exults to anyone who'll listen.
The kind of event in which you can roll your shorts up as far as they'll go. It's perfectly fine if your behind hangs out.
"For me, this is a time to release all the tension that builds up during the course of the year," says Clarence Wallerson, an attorney from Guyana. "You can be as expressive as you want to be."
Joseph Mitchell, a mustached man from Grenada, dances along the avenue wearing a red wig and a pink bikini. He has stuffed washcloths in the rear of his bikini bottom to give himself a big "bamcee."
He and his friends came down from Brooklyn for the day. They are drinking out of jugs of Bacardi and waving baby powder containers in the air. One of Mitchell's friends pulls back his bikini bottom and powders his behind.
When he's not gyrating up Georgia Avenue dressed as the devilish character Jab-Jab, Fred Davis teaches calypso aerobics at Inner Visions in Silver Spring. Today his body is coated with silver paint. He's wearing small silver shorts and a long silver tail. When he twitches his rear, his tail bobs up and down. "Wine is an art form," he says. "A form of expression. It's gyrating, vibrating, jukin'. A hip movement from the waist down."
Throughout the day, Rita's West Indian Carryout on Georgia Avenue is crammed with customers. "This is the busiest day of the year," says Rita Houghton, a Trinidad native. "We started at 6 this morning, and we'll close at 10 tonight. We're very, very busy. But we have a lot of parties to go to, too. A lot of parties."
Next to the truck carrying soca superstar Machel Montano, the most popular flatbed seems to belong to the Millennium Mudders. The mass of people following their trucks keeps getting bigger as they roll down Georgia Avenue. Hundreds of people line up to get mudded.
A teenager runs alongside the mud truck, dips his hand in a vat of mud and spreads it along his arms and legs, chest and face. "Where do we come from? Mud! Where do we go when we die? Back to the mud!"
The Mudders are excluded from the competition--they're not glittery enough. Jahi gestures to the horde of revelers surrounding the truck. "Maybe 2,000 people," he says proudly. "These are our judges."
Sunday, 2:15 a.m.
Machel Montano & Xtatik greet the crowd that's wedged into a huge tent set up outside 2:K:9. Theirs is perhaps the most extraordinary performance of all the shows celebrating this Carnival. The band plays soca, but it also draws from other music styles, particularly the stuttering rhythms of reggae dance hall. Montano, a star since the age of 11, is undeniably charismatic.
Right about now, Montano, 24, sounds like Trinidad's most promising musical export. His father stands near the side of the stage, handing out business cards. His mother has set up a table to sell Xtatik CDs and T-shirts. Elizabeth Montano used to be a school guidance counselor. Most of the 12 band members used to be her students.
She was on the road all day but she says she's not tired.
"Never," she says. "I've done this for 17 years."
"Who nah tired?" Machel Montano asks the crowd. "Who feelin' tired but they still don't care?"
The crowd roars.
"You know what? No sleep and no rest for the wicked!"
CAPTION: Harrison Boodoo, left, Kalonji M. Jahi and Calvin Baker mix their "mud cook" recipe at Harold's Auto Body in Hyattsville Friday night.
CAPTION: Laughs all around: Above from left, Mavis Rollins, Ludmilla Wikkeling and Cassandra Wallace; right, "Caribbean Experience" radio host John Blake.
CAPTION: ON PARADE: Anna Allen glides down Georgia Avenue during the D.C. Caribbean Carnival parade.
CAPTION: DOWN & DIRTY: Samantha Cyrus tries on a little of the "mud cook" and finds it to her liking.
CAPTION: LET'S DANCE: The Mighty Sparrow, a k a Calypso King of the World, sings to Cecily Dobbs, center, and Mavis Rollins at D.C. Live.