A carnival is born
With the launch of its inaugural carnival in May, Guyana aims to become the next must-visit destination for international revellers. Jesse Serwer finds out why
May 2016 was an exciting time to be in Guyana. As the country celebrated 50 years of independence, large numbers of its diaspora returned home for a month-long Golden Jubilee, which included concerts, pageants and a special edition of the Mashramani parade typically held in February. Hotels across the country were booked solid; airlines serving Georgetown’s Cheddi Jagan Airport added flights. All told, Guyana received 25,000 international arrivals – about twice the number the Land of Many Waters typically welcomes in a month.
“I have never seen that many people visiting Guyana at one time,” said Melissa Noel, a Guyanese-American journalist who covered the celebrations for NBC News. “I was meeting people who had come for the first time from around the world. Whether you were from there or not, it was such a good vibe.”
As smoke from the fireworks cleared and receipts were tallied, many in Guyana got to thinking: why couldn’t something like this happen every year? The parade, held on Independence Day (26 May), had been a focal point of the celebrations, creating a carnival atmosphere as masqueraders, floats and trucks blaring soca filled the streets of Georgetown. Kerwin Bollers and Rawle Ferguson, the owners of Hits and Jams – a media and event production company that produced several concerts in Georgetown during the Golden Jubilee – saw no reason why that energy couldn’t be reproduced. The independence celebrations had proven that, with the right timing and promotion, the diaspora would return in large numbers – and another celebration could also be used to lure travellers from other Caribbean nations to Guyana.
This is the thinking that led Bollers and Ferguson to create Guyana Carnival, making its debut this year over ten days in May. Along with the main carnival parade on Independence Day, there are concerts, boat rides, cooler fetes, breakfast parties and – the essential kick-off for any Caribbean festival – a pre-dawn J’Ouvert street party.
“We thought it was a good opportunity,” said Bollers, whose company also owns the Hits and Jams TV station and BOOM 94.1, a popular FM radio station. “There is nothing in terms of [other Caribbean] carnival celebrations in May. We are creating a destination event [that] doesn’t rely only on the local market. It’s to get people, Guyanese and non-Guyanese, to visit Guyana.”
Over the past few decades, the concept of carnival in the Caribbean has evolved and expanded considerably, becoming a major economic engine for countries in the region. Though steelpan orchestras and moko jumbies remain essential components of carnival in Trinidad, Barbados and other islands, traditional elements have been all but drowned out by ‘Pretty Mas’, with its armies of coordinated masqueraders in feathers, beads and bikinis.
For today’s carnival enthusiasts, especially those who come from abroad, one lure is the all-inclusive experiences provided by popular masquerade bands, and the themed fetes that take place around the main event. Band launches, where one can preview and put a down payment on costume designs, have become lavish, hotly anticipated events in their own right, extending the season of some carnivals practically year round.
For many in the Caribbean and the diaspora, chasing the thrills of carnival has become a year-long pursuit. Driven in large part by Instagram and social media, an economy has emerged catering to the so-called carnival chasers – mostly young Caribbean professionals who hop from island to island, and to diaspora enclaves such as New York, Miami, Toronto and London, checking carnivals off their bucket lists. Jamaica Carnival, a peripheral blip on the circuit just a few years ago, has become a major regional attraction. Entrepreneurs in Bermuda and Los Angeles have created new, privately owned carnivals to capitalise on the phenomenon.
“It’s an addictive hobby,” said Marissa Charles, the owner of Global Bacchanalist, a website dedicated to the carnival-chaser lifestyle. “It has almost replaced vacationing on its own for a lot of people. Instead of going to Spain to relax, you are going to replace that experience with another carnival. FOMO [fear of missing out] is a big thing. With the rise of social media, there is coverage from every angle, and people don’t want to miss out.”
This is the clientele Guyana Carnival’s organisers aim to attract with their inaugural edition.
“These carnivals like Trinidad and Jamaica have gotten so big, you have people worldwide who just live for the next carnival,” said Ashley Peroune, marketing and events coordinator for Guyana Carnival. “That’s our audience.”
It’s an audience that Guyana, for a number of reasons, has never really courted with its official festival, Mashramani, celebrated annually since 1970 on 23 February, Republic Day. (Guyana officially attained republic status four years after its independence in 1966.) ‘Mash’, as most Guyanese call it, shares many characteristics of a Caribbean carnival – a soca-soundtracked parade, costumed revellers, a weeks-long prelude filled with musical and cultural competitions – but differs in a few crucial regards. The name Mashramani translates as ‘the celebration of a job well done’, in the language of the Arawaks – one of nine indigenous groups that call Guyana home – and it remains largely a government project, with floats celebrating local communities and the spirit of cooperative work. The privately owned, branded mas bands that fuel the region’s major festivals are not represented.
“Mashramani is more of a cultural celebration, which is similar to a carnival but is not really a carnival,” Bollers said. “There is little or no tourism, few people who leave other countries to go to Guyana for Mash. It has really been supported by the locals for the last how many years.” The organisers of Guyana Carnival insist that there is room for Carnival and Mashramani to co-exist and even benefit one another. “We are not taking away from Mash, or saying this is Guyana’s only festival,” Peroune said. “We are adding something else.” Bollers concurred: “I think it can only benefit the economy if we have two events bringing in money.”
By timing the carnival in May, organisers believe they’ve removed some of the obstacles that have limited Mashramani’s drawing power. Notably, it doesn’t suffer from proximity to Trinidad Carnival – the gold standard of Caribbean festivals – which typically falls in February, often overlapping with Mash. In the period before Lent, and again in the summer, carnival chasers are spoiled
for choice. Not so in the springtime. “That time of year seems to be convenient for foreigners,” said Peroune. “It’s right after tax returns.”
Though not a government project, Guyana Carnival was planned with input from the Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA). The agency is offering its support through advertisements and social media. “[Our] mandate is to develop, market and promote Guyana as a nature and adventure tourism destination, but we also promote events which are considered the heartbeat of a destination,” said Carla Chandra, the Tourism Authority’s Deputy Director. “The [GTA] has been advocating for event promoters to raise the standard of events being promoted in Guyana, to attract visitors from around the world and the diaspora. The calibre of the Guyana Carnival is exemplary in this regard.”
To lure the carnival chasers, Hits and Jams is partnering with some of the top brands and experience curators on the Caribbean party circuit. Tribe and Aura, among the most popular masquerade bands at Trinidad Carnival and Barbados Crop Over, respectively, have their own costume sections, as does soca star Destra Garcia. The organisers of Soca Rave, a concert held during Miami Broward Carnival, are producing a version of that event. And Trinidadian entertainment company Scorch will bring its popular party series.
“The idea is to create packages and events with people and promoters from different areas to inspire their supporters to come to Guyana and experience a different carnival,” Bollers said.
Designed by nature
In this first year, Guyana Carnival will feature just one band, called Genesis, with the theme ‘In The Beginning’. Six designers were engaged to create costumes for the band’s sections: Natalie Fonrose, David Dewer, Sandra Hordatt and Shawn Dhanraj of Trinidad, and Randy Madray and Olympia Small-Sonaram of Guyana. Each one has as its theme a different icon of Guyana: Kaieteur, Roraima, Amazon, El Dorado, Stabroek. Costs range from US$350 for men’s outfitting to US$800 for an elaborate women’s design with tall vertical wings created by Small-Sonaram.
Much of the marketing for the event has been directed at New York, home to the largest contingent of Guyanese living overseas (some 140,000 Guyanese reside in New York City, comprising the fifth-largest immigrant population in North America’s biggest metropolis). Launch events were held in Brooklyn and Bloomfield, New Jersey in February.
Peroune estimates about 1,000 costumed revellers will participate in the Carnival parade. She anticipates up to 6,000 will turn up for J’Ouvert and the parties and concerts. These are small figures compared with Trinidad Carnival or Toronto’s Caribana, where annual attendance is about 1.3 million. But for Guyana, with a population of just 773,000, where the relatively young tourism sector is mostly driven by small-scale eco-resorts, it represents a significant step.
“We see the numbers continuing to grow in the coming years,” Peroune said. “Carnival is becoming international. People are always looking for the next big entertainment to enjoy themselves, to get a break.”