Music gives life to everything, Plato once wrote. The Greek philosopher might have added that it’s also the essential ingredient for any good party. In ancient Greece, well before the arrival of Christianity, music was central to the wild celebrations that pagans held to mark the changing seasons. The parties were so good that people clung on to them long after they became Christians. Christmas itself evolved out of the Roman Empire’s Saturnalia festival of light that celebrated the longest night of the year. And both Christmas and Hanukkah have given rise to a tradition of warm, music-filled social gatherings that help us endure those long cold nights.
When it comes to parties, Carnival is the biggest of them all. It began as a Roman Catholic pre-Lent celebration known as Carne Vale, literally meaning no meat, and was later transported to the New World by European colonizers and slave traders. At first, the African slaves were excluded from the festivities. But after emancipation, the freed slaves transformed what had been demure masquerade balls into the raucous street parades, full of the brightly colored costumes and rhythmically lively sounds, which characterize Carnival today. What was once a sedate European festival became a not-to-be-missed event across the Americas that gave everyone a chance to forget life’s troubles.
Carnival traditions have remained strong not only in New Orleans and throughout the Caribbean but also in Toronto, where Canada’s West Indian community launched what was originally called the Caribana festival in 1967 as a tribute to the their adopted country’s Centennial. Held each summer, Toronto Caribbean Carnival is easily one of the city’s most popular events, attracting upwards of two million people to its Carnival Ball, King & Queen Competition and Show, Grand Parade and showcases featuring reggae, soca and calypso and steelpan artists.
With globalFEST’s Creole Carnival Tour, audiences get a chance to experience the heat of African-based Carnival traditions from Brazil, Haiti and Jamaica. From Jamaica, where Bacchanal is the island’s annual masquerade and dancing parade of soca, reggae and dancehall music, comes Brushy One String. Born Andrew Chin to a musical family (his father was Jamaican soul singer Freddy McKay, while his mother, Beverly Foster, toured as a backup singer for Tina Turner), Brushy rose from playing pans as a child on the streets of Ochos Rios to become an unconventional guitar virtuoso. Mixing reggae raps and bluesy howls, he derives an astonishingly diverse array of sounds from his one-string guitar, using its low E string to play walking basslines and the instrument’s lower body as a hand drum. With songs like the light-hearted “Chicken in the Corn” and the Rastafarian ballad “Boom Bam Deng,” Brushy has thrilled festival-goers at Austin’s SXSW and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage.
In Haiti, where Carnival is known as Kanaval in the Creole language, compas and rara are the indigenous musical forms. Haiti’s Emeline Michel blends those sounds together with jazz, bossa nova and samba to create her own funky Creole style. Born in Gonaïves, Michel sang gospel in her local church before moving to the United States to study at the Detroit Jazz Center. When she returned to her native country, she was an experienced vocalist. Singing in both French and Haitian Creole, she began mixing topical songs with romantically themed numbers. With Montreal’s Justin Time record label, she released several albums, including Tout mon temps, which featured the global hit “A-K-I-K-O,” a buoyant track that called on Haiti to quell its political unrest and rediscover happier times, and Cordes et ame, which won Haiti’s Musique en Folie award for Best Haitian Album. Michel’s next album Rasin Kreyol included the song “Beni Yo” (“Bless Them”), which became an anthem of hope during Haiti’s political turmoil. Having performed at Carnegie Hall and the Montreal Jazz Festival as well as for the Clinton Global Initiative, Michel has earned acclaim as Haiti’s biggest star.
Like New Orleans and its Mardi Gras, Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival is a massive annual tourist attraction that draws millions of visitors eager to party in the streets. While Mardi Gras has its krewes and their extravagant parade floats, Rio’s event has its schools and blocos that mobilize crowds to dance in the parade to samba, the Brazilian music most closely associated with Carnival. Keeping the samba tradition alive is Casuarina, a young group formed 14 years ago in Rio’s Lapa neighborhood by five teenagers dedicated to playing old-school samba and choro, its wilder, improvisational variant. Casuarina is made up of Daniel Montes (seven-string guitar and arrangements), Gabriel Azevedo (tambourine and lead vocalist), João Cavalcanti (tan-tan and lead vocalist), João Fernando (mandolin, backing vocalist and arrangements), and Rafael Freire (cavaquinho and backing vocalist). Performing original compositions and recreations of classic tunes by such legends as Baden Powell, Vinicius de Moraes, Dorival Caymmi and Paulinho da Viola, the group has recorded four studio albums and a live recording and released one DVD, 2009’s MTV Apresenta: Casuarina.
Critics have praised Casuarina for putting a fresh spin on tradition, making contemporary versions of old sambas and keeping the rhythm alive among young people. The group approaches its work almost like it’s on a mission, diligently researching the sambas the once defined the Brazilian identity and were at risk of becoming forgotten. The music is now in their blood and represents a collective calling. “We listen to sambas, write sambas and make our livings out of the samba,” acknowledges Cavalcanti, who is also the group’s lyricist, “a little due to our inclination, and a little by accident, because nobody writes sambas just for choosing to do so.” From Jamaica and Haiti to Brazil, the Creole Carnival tour brings audiences deep into the African-style festive spirit that was born centuries ago to mark the end of slavery. Carnival is ultimately a grand celebration, where having fun and making fun of life’s problems go hand in hand with losing oneself in the music’s rhythms. Dancing is not compulsory, but you just might find it difficult to stay in your seat.
A former editor and music critic at Maclean’s, a columnist at eye weekly and a contributor to the Toronto Star and other publications, Nicholas Jennings is also the author of two books: Before the Gold Rush, about the Toronto music scene in the 1960s, and Fifty Years of Music: The Story of EMI Music Canada. He produced several CBC TV documentaries chronicling Canadian pop from 1960-2000, and, with an interest in local heritage, leads a series of popular music-history walking tours of Yonge and Yorkville.