Caribana Queens, Part 1: Exclusive Nurse Karen Interview

July 31, 2010

Words by Erin MacLeod


When Caribana time came around, we sent out the call northward for a Canada-based correspondent who could get us the inside junglejuice. The universe came back to us with Ethiopia-scholar and lover of Caribbean culture Erin MacLeod, which proves the universe is still capable of small moments of generosity, in spite of everything. When she is not researching her thesis on the impact of Rasta repatriation to Ethiopia, she writes about music for the Montreal Mirror and has a thing for veggie loaf and cranberry wata. Fortunately for us she was in a position to break loaf with not one but two major power sources in the Caribana movement, both of whom just happen to be women. What follows is her extensive Q&A with soca-specialist Nurse Karen covering everything from the history and key components of the festival to the hottest new artists putting Toronto on the map. Look for part II covering the clash side of things with selector Tasha Rozez soon! -LU

Co-host, alongside Doctor Jay, of the only soca-saturated show on commercial radio in Toronto, Flow 93.5’s “Soca Therapy,” Nurse Karen helps to provide much-needed medicine for what she calls a “huge subculture” of local soca fans. Given her soca-specialist status, Karen’s the ideal source for all you need to (and should!) know about soca at Caribana, North America’s largest Caribbean festival which is unfolding as I post this in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The city that David Rudder calls home will host acts from the legendary Mighty Sparrow to recent stars JW and Blaze—the folks who hopped their way to success with the biggest soca tune of this year, “Palance.” Karen took some time out to provide Large Up with the details on an event that attracts more than a million people a year, giving Toronto a welcome shot in the arm.

Nurse Karen (left) and Soca Monarch Faye Ann Lyons

Nurse Karen (left) and Soca Monarch Faye Ann Lyons

LU: What’s important about Caribana?

NK: Caribana is a huge celebration. It’s one of the major ways in which the Caribbean community gives back to the city and Canada as a whole. The first year Caribana came about was in 1967, the year of Canada’s centenary celebrations. A group of Caribbean immigrants, most of them quite recent, got together and decided to throw a party in honor of Canada’s 100th birthday. It was never meant to be something that was just for us, it was always meant to be something for the entire community to learn what Caribbean culture and Caribbean people are all about. So having grown up in Toronto, for my parents, raising children outside of their home country, it was really important for them to bring us every year to see the parade, dress us up in our national colors, look for other people who were dressed in those colors just to kind of see who dem might run into from home. And that has always been the thing I look forward to most—it’s always been a big gathering of people from everywhere.

Q: And the soca scene in Toronto?

A: In the West Indies, soca’s the music of carnival, so in most countries you really won’t hear soca played on the radio or in the clubs outside of the carnival season. It is carnival music, but with Toronto having its carnival set at a time that’s different than the traditional February time in the West Indies, we have always had our ear to the ground about what’s happening in the Caribbean earlier in the year and we have our time later. As a result, DJs and promoters have taken advantage of the in-between time when the music starts to be released for Trinidad, say September running through to Carnival in February. On shows on community radio and my show, we’re revving people up with the latest songs.

We are one of those few places where you have die-hard soca fans who listen to it as their favorite style of music, who come out to soca events every week. We have live shows with artists from Barbados, St Vincent, Grenada, St Lucia, Antigua, regularly coming up. Soca shows regularly sell out a venue called Koolhaus, down by the waterfront. Soca artists will sell out that space—2,500 to 3,000 people—but hiphop artists and folks like M.I.A. will come up and won’t fill it!


Q: Any events you’re looking forward to at Caribana?

A: This might take a while. A lot of places have carnival, and generally speaking, there will always be a couple of days where there’ll be large events and of course a parade. In Toronto that does happen, but Caribana has a month full of activities. Children’s events, the launch, a fundraising $160/plate charity gala, there’s an art exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, I could go on—and these are all official. Then you have private events organized by the DJs, the promoters and whoever else. One of the big ones that people look forward to is J’ouvert (“jou-vay”). It’s a patois term for “journée ouvert” or “opening of day”. Literally what happens is that it’s a party that happens at daybreak. In the Caribbean, this means that people leave their houses at 4am and meet up with a J’ouvert band. They get ready to charge the town. J’ouvert bands have a color associated with them or a particular substance that they put all over their bodies: it could be powder, paint, or mud! And then the bands collide in the city. In Toronto there are a couple J’ouvert parties, and one that’s nearing fifteen years old is the K.O.S—Kingdom of Soca—J’ouvert.

Doctor Jay is the promoter and this is something he started because Toronto didn’t have J’ouvert and I don’t think it’s for lack of trying, but it is something as a whole that the city doesn’t really understand—like the messiness of it. That event is something that you have an indoor party that wraps up at around 4am. Usually it will be pretty messy inside, but then the doors open and everyone is pushed out into the parking lot with paint, mud, everything, a big water truck to hose people down and you have rhythm sections with guys playing odd auto parts, spoons–anything–playing Caribbean rhythms. People party until the sun is high in the sky. So that’s awesome. The expression of J’ouvert in Toronto is unique because you don’t have bands, you just have everyone rolled into one.

The next day there’s the Caribana parade. I like to play mas; I’ll be playing mas with Louis Saldenah Mas-K Club, the winningest mas band in Caribana history. They’ve won 15 times over the four decades of Caribana. Everything in carnival is competitive. The music is all released for competition—Calypso and Soca Monarch for instance. The bands are a show, but it’s also a competition.

In Toronto there are also, in the week leading up the parade, tons of boat rides. In little ports all over the city—every single day at various time slots there are boat rides. All mas bands have them, everybody has a boat ride!

Q: How do people determine the hottest songs?

A: It’s so hard because soca is unlike any other music market in that the industry is not organized like the hiphop or R&B industry. You don’t have labels pushing artists or a network of radio stations. Because the carnival seasons in various islands go right around the calendar, different songs get popular at different times of the year and the music is coming from at least 10 different places.

Of course, right now the big song is “Palance.” In Toronto we haven’t had the chance to do it on the road yet. I can guarantee that it will be heard a lot on Caribana Saturday and they are booked solid at every event. They will also be popping up on some boat rides for sure and be performing on the road with Tribal Knights Mas Band. It’s quite lucrative for bands when they have a hit song to come to Caribana. Another artist that is becoming a big favorite in Toronto is Skinny Fabulous from St. Vincent and the Grenadines and this year he won his third soca monarch title. He’s done parties already and he has four or five performances on the nights of Caribana. Normally people pop in for 15 minutes at a party and then they’re on to the next.

Nurse Karen and Skinny Fabulous

Nurse Karen and Skinny Fabulous

Q: How do you see the role of women in carnival and soca?

A: The woman’s role in Carnival is really large. We are not there to entertain or assist the men. It’s ours too. When you play mas, what you start to realize is that when you are dancing, in many bands its many women with few men. Some of the costumes are sexy, some are not, but it’s not about that. Sure, we may do surgery on our costumes to make them sexier, but carnival is about that little last moment of reckless abandon before lent. It’s about not caring what anybody thinks. It’s an empowering thing that we don’t see that here as women. We know that on Monday when we go to work or Sunday when we go to church that nobody is really going to care.

In the music, things are changing. Women are no longer taking a backseat. An example of that would be Faye-Ann Lyons in Trinidad who last year was the first female Soca Monarch. The women didn’t used to have the crowd support. Up-tempo soca requires a big, strong voice and high energy and the ability to rile up the crowd in a rowdy way and it’s not normally the type of thing you attribute to female performers. But Faye-Ann won it, and many argue that she should have won it a year sooner. And she’s not the only one that has that kind of support. And in other islands this is not new. Guyana has had female soca monarchs; in Antigua, Claudette Peters has won it many times. Soca is not for men only!

Though Nurse Karen’s blog always has the latest, she’s given Large Up the lowdown on some hometown soca favorites that deserve a second look.

Ms Paige: Toronto-bred soca stylings that have spread to the Caribbean, she made some waves at Barbados Cropover.

Kerwin Dubois: Pickering, Ontario-based producer who’s worked with everybody in Trinidad.

Slammer Cutter: A Toronto Trini who is gaining fans in the West Indies.