Emmanuel Gallant writes: I just returned from my vacation in Florida when I heard about the festival “Island Soul” at Harbourfront Centre. The name Island Soul instantly brought back memories of my trip to Key West: sun, beaches, palms, mojitos…
I am eager to grab a bit more of the Caribbean. I head to the shore of Lake Ontario. Thirty minutes later I am standing in the middle of Harbourfront. My camera is in my hand, ready to shoot the Caribbean performers on the main stage. But something strikes me. The band that is on the main stage is dressed in typical African costumes and equipped with drums. The performers do not seem to be about to dance to a Latino beat. Did I miss something? Is it an Afro-Caribbean Festival? I start to think that I should have checked the website more accurately.
I look around. On top of the World Café stands a banner marked “Caribbean”. Booths are selling different products from the Islands: coconuts, bracelets, necklaces, spices. I see silk sarongs, but aren’t they from Indonesia?
As I walk among the stands, one of the vendors asks if I feel like testing his hot sauces. He is representing the company Dee’s Food Ltd. It offers a large choice of hot sauces, a lot of them displayed in front of me. I’ve been a bit leary of hot sauces since my last trip to Thailand a couple of years ago. Indeed, my stomach still has strong memories of the Thai conception of a “not too spicy dish”. It is a tad different from mine. I was brought up in France with French-taste-buds, after all.
But we just live once, right? Interested in grabbing a bit of Caribbean taste, I wisely choose two of the “mild” sauces, mango and lime, to put on top of a chip. In the meantime, Brian, the seller, explains that “the taste of the mild sauces don’t stay long in comparison to the hot sauces”. The “mild” tastes good and it would definitely stay long enough to satisfy my weak resistance to spices.
My mouth on fire, I keep walking to the back of the square to the source of some Latino music. People are enjoying shows with women dressed in girdles of long leaves. From Brazil to Cuba, three different styles of dances are being performed in front of the crowd. The shows end with a salsa lesson enjoyed by all the performers …or almost. (See links to the videos at the bottom of the page).
Right after the end of these shows, I go back to the main stage. The African band is now performing. I have a few friends from Central Africa, so I already know a bit about African dance steps. But I must admit I have never attended anything so dynamic. The music is really catchy. Two members of the band, a man and a woman, are swaying their bodies in all possible ways, guided by the African drum beats. They grin broadly while jumping and agitating their arms, as if the more they jump the better they feel. That’s part of the magic of Africa. I hear that they come from Burkina Faso. This brings me back to my befuddlement. More than ever I want to know why some African bands are performing today.
Two calls from the receptionist of the Center and ten minutes later, I am meeting with Nadine McNulty, Guest Artistic Associate, Island Soul. She has kindly agreed to take thirty minutes of her very busy schedule to answer my questions. A talkie-walkie is in her right hand and a stylish pair of sunglasses is on her nose. Under the shade of Harbourfront’s restaurant, she warns me she will try to answer my questions as efficiently as possible in a few minutes, even though the simplest overview of the Caribbean would normally take hours. Deal! I open my ears carefully, ready to listen to the story. At that moment, I don’t feel the burning in my mouth any longer.
“First and foremost, you have to know that the Caribbean is an amazing multicultural place, with all kinds of cultures. Inviting some African bands to perform today is a way of paying tribute to their indigenous roots. They were brought there as slaves right from Africa, by the Europeans, centuries ago. Now, certain islands such as Haiti or Trinidad and Tobago have a more African background. Others like Puerto Rico have more Spanish influence.
“That is the reason why, today, Island Soul gathers all types of artistic expressions from the Caribbeans in dance, music, film and others. You can listen to some soca music or calypso songs performed with steel pans, but also reggae from Jamaica, or again merengue or salsa from the Dominican Republic. Overall, we try to balance as much as possible old and emerging artists, selecting groups on how they relate to the Caribbean.”
I can feel her struggling to explain while trying to stop and go back to her “marathon of the day”. Before leaving, she kindly introduces me to photographer David Ayres, author of the book Caribbean Festival in Photos. He is seated at the entrance to the square with his marketing assistant. I take a look at the book and discover interesting portraits of Caribbean bands as well as pictures of different ethnic groups at Toronto’s carnival. A little chat with him gives me a bit more knowledge about this Toronto event. Unfortunately I could not attend it.
In any case, I am glad I got the answers to my questions and even some more. Now, I feel like taking a deeper look into the whole story of these multicultural islands. I have a new set of questions.