Local residents need not travel all the way to Rio de Janeiro, Trinidad and Tobago or New Orleans to participate in "carnival" celebrations anymore.
At least that's the collective hope of organizers of the first Heritage Carnival of Prince George's County, which will take place Saturday and Sunday in Hyattsville after more than two years of bumps in the road.
Lack of preparation and scheduling conflicts postponed the festival, originally slated for September 2002, until September 2003, when public safety issues after Hurricane Isabel delayed it once again.
Finally, on Saturday morning, the festivities will begin with a parade featuring colorful ethnic costumes, floats and music from around the world. A cross-cultural fusion of steel drum and conga beats, go-go music and sacred percussion rhythms by groups from Haiti and Cuba and West African nations will punctuate the air as Hawaiian, Korean, Afro-Cuban and Latin American dancers move along the parade route.
After the parade, nonstop entertainment is slated for Heritage Village, where more pulsating, flavorful rhythms of salsa, merengue, soca, reggae, hip-hop, rumba, calypso and Creole music will play all weekend. Crowds can wander from stage to stage to watch cultural traditions come to life.
Besides hearing music from all over the world, visitors will be able to glimpse and even try their hand at flamenco dancing, the Brazilian martial art of capoeira and maskmaking, among other activities. They will also have the chance to sample cuisine from more than 20 nations.
The people who have worked to make the celebration happen compare the basic idea of the event to some of the world's biggest ethnic costume parties, such as Carnaval and Mardi Gras, only without the debauchery.
The primary focus of this family-oriented festival is taken from the global carnival tradition, which is based upon costumes, floats and cultural revelry rather than rides, games and cotton candy. The Prince George's Heritage Carnival will use music, dance, art, food, crafts and culture to celebrate the diverse experiences of county residents, particularly those who are African, African American, Native American, Brazilian, Caribbean, Filipino, Italian American and Latin American.
The carnival concept is based on a custom that began centuries ago, said Patricia Parker, Heritage Carnival chairman and vice president of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp. According to Parker, the history of such celebrations demonstrates their importance within different ethnic groups.
"Carnival has its origins in the 16th century with Italian Catholics who were celebrating [giving up] meat," she said, explaining that this group held big costume parties just before the first day of Lent. Soon, the Italian carnival celebration caught on in other Catholic countries in Europe, and, as the French, Spanish and Portuguese began to take control of the Americas and other parts of the world, they spread the carnival ritual.
"The slaves there emulated the celebration of their masters in their own way, and over time as they traveled through various African countries and brought it across the waters to parts of Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago, their celebrations became the most interesting and probably the most patronized," Parker said.
"Every community has carnival celebrations in one way or another, and we thought the art and culture of carnival was a good way to bring communities together to celebrate their heritage and see their similarities and understand their differences," she said.
Beginning next to the Prince George's Plaza Metro station in Hyattsville, the street parade will include more than 20 groups of float riders, musicians and entertainers, who will proceed along a one-mile route that ends at Ager Road and Nicholson Street. Near the parade route's end will be the Heritage Village, an area comprising two stages of continuous multicultural entertainment and about two dozen tents featuring foreign embassy representatives, artists, craftspeople and food vendors.
"This is like the United Nations of celebrations," said Eileen Cave, a member of the 23-person steering committee that helped put the carnival together. "We look at it as an opportunity to add an educational component. It's not just merrymaking and celebrating, which is a cultural tradition. We recognize that every ethnic group may have their own individual ritual, but the idea that we can learn about our neighbors and connect is what this is about."
The Anacostia Trails Heritage Area and its steering committee put together Heritage Carnival logistics with the help of many public and private sponsors, including The Washington Post.
Starbucks sponsored 12 free outdoor pre-carnival summer concerts in Prince George's and Montgomery counties last summer to give area residents a glimpse of what to expect at the carnival. Reggae, salsa, Afro-Cuban dance and percussion, soca and calypso, Brazilian batacuda and comparsa, straight-ahead jazz and Argentinian folk music served as a preview of the entertainment scheduled to take the stage throughout the day Saturday. Summer concert performers included local groups such as the Image Band, Ashe Moyubba and Fan Fan and Friends, who are also part of the carnival lineup.
When they're not onstage, artists and entertainers such as jugglers and portrait artists will wander through Heritage Village to share their craft and culture with carnival-goers on a more personal level.
"We hope that the carnival will really catch on and light a fire within the international community to present information, because there are so many citizens of diverse backgrounds," Parker said.
"As citizens, we're so busy moving through the day that we don't take time to know our neighbors and to understand that sometimes there are cultural differences. We need to try to gather an understanding of our neighbors to help make our communities work."
The Heritage Carnival native-costume parade begins at 10 a.m. Saturday on Belcrest Road between East-West Highway and Queens Chapel Road in Hyattsville. It continues south on Queens Chapel Road, turns right going west onto Hamilton Street, then right going north on Ager Road and proceeds to Nicholson Street. The Heritage Village entrance is at 5620 Ager Rd., next to the West Hyattsville Metro station. The festival runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $6 for adults; free for children 12 and younger. For more information, visit www.heritagecarnival.com or call 301-459-3659.