(As printed in the
Winter/Spring '96 edition)
It's Carnival Friday 9:30pm, the last holiday
of Spring, typically known as May's Memorial weekend, so we ready to party, but our
intrepid publisher of these pages, Carlisle Hall , has missed the last San Francisco
(SF)/New York flight triggering plan NCC--No Carl Carnival. "Chaos is cool for
Carnival" says Carl's on schedule fellow NY Carnival ambassador Jerry Alexander.
So off we zoom in my van with just the New York Carib scouting
party of Jerry, a jaguar mechanic and fellow Carnival addict (we call em Carnavelescos in
SF) plus Balcaran, a travel agent who wants to confirm reports that San Francisco-Oakland
is a planetary peak point for presenting the unifying ideal of Trinidad island culture
that people who celebrate life together find and "equal place for every creed and
race." Still plenty of time to regroup before the Grand Parade on Sunday. Jerry
cranks the volume on his soca cassette of '95 Trini hits and we head straight for the
center of San Francisco where the "official" W Bal Ball is happening at a
Here, the elegantly tuxed event producer, Mr. Henry Trim ,
demonstrates his Tobago hospitality and graciously beckons us forward, past the long
line, to become part of the impressively diverse array of wickedly colorful
carnival revelers gathered to partake in elixirs and a dozen dance performance companies
celebrating peace through joy. We are now part of the Golden Gateway City's celebration of
its 50th Anniversary as the birthplace of the United Nations. Just down the street at the
great SF Civic Center, yesterday's movers and shakers formed the first small planet
institution based on liberty and justice for all. Tonight it feels right for our community
based but visionary Carnival movers and shakers to be making the right night moves.
United we dance. The recipe is always old and always new. The
room is focused on the shapely, scantily clad women of all shades and ancestral traditions
moving to the syncretic new world Afro-Brazilian drum rhythms. Our imagination captured,
the alchemy of soul connection begins with the signature drum rhythms of the Clothes on
Fire ( Fogo Na Roupa) bateria. Some call these familiar patterns fogolistic.
The charismatic Mayan band leader, Carlos Aceituno can tap unmeasurable power and his many
fellow percussionists wear Mona Lisa mystery smiles as they together ride the new beat
waves and follow Ah-see-tune-o's subtle body commands. Technically imperfect but with
awesome spirit, this Brazilian inspired multi-cult group is the favorite to capture the
West Coast's top Carnival prize back from the Caribbeans on Sunday.
Some say Carnival originated in Europe when the church conceded
defeat in its effort to suppress pagan spring pageants and settled for a truce moving
Carnival to a semi-winter Tuesday, forty days before its warmer spring Sunday holiday of
Easter. Others say Africa, where the first children of Adam and Eve gathered together to
create community rituals of celebration to honor the great cycles of the universe and the
tribal and individual rites of passage amongst the threefold central pattern of being;
life--death--rebirth deserves the esteem associated with being the first Carnival.
In SF we want to have room for all so we felt completion as the sixty member S:T Olof
from Swedan came forth to perform new world Afro-Brazilian Carnaval song and dance.
Centerstage were a great many sweet Swedish 16-year old blondes
in skimpy, violet, glittering bikinis. As the sensuous samba beat awkwardly moved their
firm, innocent bodies, the power of the ancient spirit of Mother Africa seemed to
resurrect the vitality of the Volvo culture that gave the entertainment world the 70's
mega-star pop group Abba.
Next, an absolutely riveting appearance by our Carnaval '95 Queen,
the dark, mysterious Brazilian Maria Souza of Aquerella who began by promenading
until her fancy, fast Frenchman, C'95 King Jean-Luc Stora turned up the samba intensity
dial till the high heat had us all sweating watching the two trade moves. The spectacular
Aluadomar dancers featuring Rhonda Stagnero and Milanda Moore with the Oju Oba
( Mark Tapson) drummers were witty and playful with elegant textures and since they were
joining C'SF greatest dance talent, Betho Filho for the parade their band moved to strong
contender on my scorecard. A break in the action meant time to mingle before heading to
the other side of the bay for Oakland's third annual Mas Maker Massive Caribbean
At the door we found Oakland Carnival ambassador Odessa Pegus,
producer/artist Debra Castro and long-time C'SF main man, Roberto Hernandez who after nine
years at the helm had unexpectedly stepped down due to the proverbial
"burn-out." Roberto's vision of a 1995 Carnaval-San Francisco parade of peace to
rival the world's biggest parade, the Los Angeles Tournament of Roses pageant had
gone auto-pilot following a '94 trip with Odessa to Canada's biggest fest-for-all--
Toronto's Caribana . Carnaval politics is wicked, and a sabbatical was not
negotiated so as we listened to him describe the entertainment production deals he was
currently working it seemed odd to not have him in charge. Today, his old organization is
struggling with high overhead and little initiative leading many to wonder how to bring
the roar of RRRoberto back.
Playing the Triple Crown
Future political potentials are much discussed
as we go to press. Possibilities for Carnival art ascension from "community
based" to center stage on the growing "cross cultural" and "new
renaissance" art scene are about to become much enhanced with the election of the
California Speaker Emeritus Willie Brown to Mayor of SF. Odessa's cousin,
second-term Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris has made major headway attempting to unite the
balkanized Bay Area region by forming a regional marketing entity called Baytrade
under the leadership of the three metro mayors of Oakland, San Francisco San Jose
(AKA Silicon Valley) and participation of the twelve counties. Now in its second year,
Baytrade's ancient Egyptian 12-tribe model for harmonious synergy is indicating the
enchantment signs necessary for a golden age of unity.
As fate would have it, this young entity's annual meet and greet
trade promotion occurs at the height of the Carnaval season in the merry month of May
should anyone be interested in combining tax-deductible trade show commerce with fine
Carnival culture. Many others should benefit from Willie's talents as well including his
top special interest: children and youth Long considered the most accomplished and
talented black politician in the country, Brown had to be drafted to run for Mayor by the
local Democratic machine who hope Willie will become a national force to counter Grinches
stealing Congress at the expense of the inner Cities.
Grandest grandmother of the local Carnival social scene is
Willie's long-separated but still cherished wife , Blanche Brown. At her seventh annual
Guede harvest celebration, the distinguished Mission district Afro-Haitian dance
instructor described the high energy deity of the cross-roads who informs most of her work
as "very mischievous, very sensual and Guede likes to wear dark glasses"
One might say that Wendy Paskin , the wife of "citizen" Mayor Frank Jordan
was under the influence of Guede the trickster when she insisted Mayor Frank get in their
Pacific Heights shower with two Los Angeles shock disc-jockeys a few days before
Halloween. While having three emperors with no clothes appearing everywhere in the news
was a lot of fun and may have gotten Frank a few female or gay votes, there's since been a
strong surge to unify behind the leadership of Mayor-to-be Willie Brown.
There is a regal air of nobility to the larger than life Willie
Brown. Part of his mystique comes from a decades old mutual affection pact with legendary
SF Chronicle columnist Herb Caen whose wit, wisdom and snobbery has made him the most
influential post World War 2 San Franciscan. Unfortunately, his tendency to define SF as
just the City and not the metro center has generated much ill will among the 9 out of 10
Bay Areans who do not live in "the City" itself. Now after many decades of
fighting a losing battle with the global media capital of Los Angeles 400 miles to the
south, the San Francisco Bay Area seems poised to once again capture its historic place as
a capital city-state at the center of the blossoming Pacific Rim just in time for the eve
of the third millennium. Never weak culturally or as a tourist attraction, the Golden
Gateway City could become a center of trade capable of financing a multicultural art
renaissance for a shrinking planet.
Caribbean-Oakland-San Jose Connection
Halfway over the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge our van
pulls off to see Yerba Buena/Treasure Island so can show my guests a semi-Carnival
proposal to build a giant statue here of the late, great Bob Marley at a scale to rival
the Statue of Liberty for a likely defunct 1999 World's Fair. They're amazed that
the Jamaican reggae star is even considered a Carnaval spirit. So our talk turns to
the new alliance between the Jamaican Association and defending grand champion ,
D'Midas California, based in Silicon Valley, who have managed to transcend the
unfriendly rivalry between the two West Indian powers with an emphasis on positive
vibrations. Strong leadership and mutual benefit are key as well. Top Trini D'Midas
designer is Stephen Derrick , who is in town with fellow Jamaican Carnival promoter Byron
Lee's daughter Danielle to oversee his title defense. The backbone of the D'Midas
band is the Seon family, whose four main members, Tomi "Tabu" , his sister Jean,
her daughter Debra and her husband Clint Copeland are now in the thick of the most serious
test ever of their bright, optimistic D'Midas spirit.
Got to pass the culture on and annual traditions work best.
United Sisters backed by Ashton Craig's Panexstacy is a fine headline for the
3rd annual Oakland Caribbean Ball produced by Stephen Colleen Tiffenson. The
Tiffenson's together with co-conspirator Annabelle Goodridge-Lyons of Le Belle's
Caribbean Restaurant have consistently invested the most time, energy and money in
passing on Trinidadean creative arts to kids and the community. Most encouraging, is their
unrelenting spirit to sell the event to the general public. All things in time. As such,
they each wear many hats, for example Stephen is director, d'Fireman DJ and the most
photographed male star in the parade. Famed percussionist Val Serant beat the drum to
connect us with the ancestors and the four sisters made sure that if the spirits showed
they'd find plenty of folks rising up. Be it Pentecostal or Peter Minshal Mas downtown
Oakland needs more nightlife like this. Hallelujah.
The Inner Mission- a New Beat is happenin'
To conclude my role of tour guide I take my
guests to the top SF view spot known as Twin Peaks, despite the crowds and awesome views
one can sense it is a earth power spot where the heavens exchanges energy with the
underworld. Here the ocean fog is usually halted embracing the giant TV trinity tower
which caps this central summit. This phenomenon provides the Carnaval district of the
Inner Mission a warmer mean climate than New York City and one that's never too hot or too
cold. In the Carnaval tradition of bottom up community art, the district is filled
with giant murals, cafes hung with local artist work and inexpensive good ethnic food to
share cross-cultural ideas and inspirations.
The birthplace of SF Carnaval is also the birthplace of the Bay
Area. The Mission was recently voted the most funky town in the USA Signs of alternative,
countercultural life are everywhere. Long the gateway neighborhood for immigrants, today's
historic Mission district is largely populated with families from Central and South
America but the cool, young, well educated, art-attuned tribe which often precedes
gentrification and higher rents is now very visible.
San Francisco is a city of light and shadow and the Mission
showcases this enchanting aspect. As a gateway metro neighborhood with two subway stations
you can find a church and a bar on every block including one major tourist attraction, the
original settlement's chapel built by the now extinct Alone Indians in 1776 and named
after Our Lady of Sorrows (Mission Dolores). There is a gritty urban edge to the
Mission and the City does use the area around the 16th St. subway station as a dumping
ground for hobo overflow.
San Francisco, famous for its compassion without wisdom,
has the country's 4th highest homeless population even though it is only the 14th largest
City. SF's last skid-row district, the notorious Tenderloin is expanding in on the
high-end tourist hotels around Union Square leading some to charge the SF Visitor's Bureau
with conflict of interest in promoting Mission Tourism. But don't let hotel concierges and
dull guide books intimidate you the Mission is happenin. Especially if you are here in the
Carnaval month of May when everyone including the many dressed in black,
20-something, angst-ridden artists of the Mission have a little more bounce in their step
and brighter smile on their face.
Not long ago, the Mission's Catholic St. Paul's parish acted as
launch-pad for ex-Mission performance artist, Whoopie Goldberg to become a star in the hit
Disney movie, Sister Act. A might well be Trinidad Tobago story of redemption
through faith, hope and compassionate connection with others brought about through the
collective expression of song, dance and story. In May, our earth mother's most glorious
month, it is much easier to look beyond the ragged Mission edges where the poor are
getting poorer and its many immigrants, scapegoat of the nineties, seem like they
have too many kids.
Carnaval-San Francisco's greatest statement is multiculturalism
or diversity in unity. The fuel for the vision belongs to the Bay Area's recent immigrants
who gift back to the dominant culture the country's native optimistic vision of itself.
These traditional celebrations of life act as the antidote to the hopelessness inherent in
being a meaningless part of a machine culture with few values beyond bottom line
profit enhancement. Here in the vibrant heart of the City, there exists a healthy respect
for mysteries yet to be revealed through respect for other cultures and the cycle of life.
Even local agnostics too fashionable to revere the hemisphere saint, the Lady of
Guadeloupe, are still expected to pay homage to another similar icon, Frida Kalho the
Mexican artist whose brooding self-portraits have made her a twilight goddess of the
"Elegba is the god who opens or closes the door." says
Ruben Texidor the proprietor and Santeria priest of the beautiful Oya Nike botanica
storefront on Valencia Street as he readies his large band for a stunning parade debut and
tribute to the trickster Elegba. Tricksters are divine messengers or soul guides. Valencia
is the cross-cultural cafe bookstore street which runs parallel to the Carnaval boulevard
of dreams, the Mission Miracle Mile. The so-called "Home of the Miracle Deal"
and metro center for the many working class immigrants of the Bay Area.
Saturday afternoon, near the 16th St.subway station, who should
tap me on the shoulder but Mr. Carnival Ambassador himself, Carlisle. "Have you seen
Patricia Aguayo " he asks abruptly. Apparently he is being avoided by the producing
organization's Chairwoman who has seized control of Carnaval with Roberto's departure.
We talk about Oakland Caribana festival on Monday, which
is more of a cast party picnic and a nice kick-back place to talk shop about
arguably the hemisphere's fastest growing cultural export, Caribbean Carnival. "All
things in time as the carnival spirits are with us." he says in response to my
political analysis of the stalled out growth of Caribana. Then Carlisle slowly descends
the escalator to the BART train which will return him to his downtown hotel.
Joy in the Present
That night the legendary Queen of Calypso,
Calypso Rose blew the roof off at a packed Caribbean Gardens in Burlingame near the
airport. Promoter Orvin Miller from Guyana has created one of the more successful
soca-salsa-samba or "African Latin" clubs in the Bay Area and he plans to expand
his Carnival profile by entering a Calypso Rose band in the '96 parade. "I'm from the
old school so I like the sweeter stuff." he commented regarding on the superb
performance by the great lady.
First lady Hillary Clinton another symbolic Queen of light, at
least for local liberals was said to be available to lead the parade but discussions were
emphatically nixed by parade artistic director Marcus Gordon for fear of complicating his
months old project to have a Polynesian football lineman of the local World Champion
49er s be the parade Grand Marshall and help debut several blocks of Pacific Islander
music and dance.
One advantage of being the greatest multicultural show ever
celebrated is there are always some elements bursting forth. At a time when the lack of
music and arts programs in the schools has resulted in many pathetic thirty minute Bay
Area parades the '95 parade nearly doubled the number of musicians with an emphasis on
hand percussion. The bared Brazilian breast so abundant during the local triumphant '94
World Cup campaign gave way to more artful but still tantalizing attire. Still it's there,
Balcaran managed to spend most of the parade documenting the route of "spiral
girl." a solo painted nude. The ritualistic and mystical Andean (Bolivian) and Aztec
(Mexican) troupes continued their centuries old traditions with new players and
forms. Coming in special from the Bahamas was Ju-Ju band to accompany Miss Bahamas.
An inspired original tribute to the Beatles by Samba do Coracao called Imagine was
a major crowd pleaser . The most extravagant production ever seen in these parts
was by float builder Carnavelesco Kip Farris and his Rio style band Batu Pitu
Kip's artistic temperament is displayed through his passion for
Carnaval and the flamboyant free expression of his own floats. Thanks to a commission to
build floats for the chase scene in the '95 film Jade , our C'SF got a largest ever 200'
float accented carefully with many of the parades sexiest dancers all dressed in the
band's signature primal colors of red, white and black. Big names Roberto Hernandez, Benny
Duarte , and Jose Lorenzo were part of a samba jazz funk big band backing the parade's
biggest voice, Sistah Nedra.
This was good enough for the Best Brazilian title and second
overall. Oju Oba with Betho Filho manifesting a dream of a Golden Buddha
doing a Passion for Peace ended in a tie with Fogo na Roupa for third overall who
portrayed an Afro-Brazilian legend with Divine Buzios . It is an understatement to say
that trials and tribulations marked the journey for the Grand Prize Winner performing
Ebony Ivory one world one peace. D'Midas knows the virtue lies in the struggle not
the prize. As such they were a match for the many barriers placed between their smiling
faces and the judges. In the 24 hours before the parade, their giant truck, the driver,
and both the main and back-up amps quit. Then as they neared the judging TV broadcast
arena several hours late their Queen Debra was hugged too enthusiastically causing the
collapse of her costume and more seriously, her knee. Asked to comment on the
dreadful disasters Debra defiantly smiles and states, " You'll only get positive
statements from me. The spirit is in us to carry our culture forward."
The next day, at Oakland Carnival, Carlisle Hall is a picture of
satisfaction as he spreads his good word through this Carnival gospel magazine. "When
the rhythm is right you feel it with all your senses." he remarks.