The sweet aromas of coconut rolls and curried rice, the resonant tones of steel drums and the heat of an almost-tropical summer's day combined to make Trinidad-born Hollis Lashley a little homesick yesterday at Washington's ninth annual Caribbean Summer in the Parks Festival.
"The only thing that is missing is the name of the place and a palm tree," said Lashley, who was master of ceremonies for the event. "Apart from that, I feel at home."
An estimated 15,000 people gathered on the Ellipse to sample food from various Caribbean islands and enjoy island dancers and musicians, in what has become a popular rite of summer in the nation's capital.
Begun in 1974 as a way for the area's Caribbean immigrants, estimated to number tens of thousands, to devote one day to public celebration of their diverse and vibrant cultures, Washington's Caribbean festival has grown as the West Indian presence in this international city has become more visible.
"I don't think enough North Americans are familiar with the Caribbean culture, other than reggae," said Terrance Walker, first secretary at the Embassy of Trinidad and Tobago. "The Caribbean is made up of a lot of different people from a lot of different places. I think we tend to neglect our literature and poetry."
Most people identify with Caribbean music like calypso and reggae, he said, "because music is what is commercial."
Yesterday's festival, organized by Caribbean Festivals Inc.--a group involved in promoting West Indian musicians in Washington--is one of several such events staged in the United States and Europe. The event on the Ellipse focused on calypso and SOCA (soul and calypso) music spawned in Trinidad and Tobago.
A half-dozen bands, including the "Mighty Arrow" Alphonsus Cassell, who has developed a following in Europe and the Caribbean, entertained the crowd for more than six hours, while vendors along Consitution Avenue and 15th Street NW sold various hot pastries, rice, chicken and fish dishes to a crowd that washed it all down with imported ginger beer and other soft drinks.
Yet the festival in the park was a little too restrained for the tastes of some Washington-area Caribbean reaidents.
Some said they yearned for something similar to the elaborate street festivals--like the carnivals in the Caribbean, or Mardi Gras in New Orleans--where thousands of participants adorn themselves with colorful costumes and dance unrestrained in street processions through the city.
"The atmosphere in Washington is different than at festivals in New York and other places," said John Blake, a Caribbean news editor with radio station WHUR-FM, which, together with WPFW-FM, broadcast the day's events from the Ellipse.
"This is a city of students and professionals," Blake said. "I guess they are more laid-back and restrained in keeping with the mood of Washington."
Although Mayor Marion Barry did not attend the event, a festival official read a statement from the mayor proclaiming Sunday "Caribbean Summer in the Parks Day."
"I think we would hope that this festival would increase awareness of the Caribbean, the coming together of people and the sharing of music and culture," said Carlton Joseph, president of the festival committee.