It started back in 1975 Belize and has morphed into the single hottest ticket in the national September celebrations. Belize’s carnival is a fusion of culture, color and creativity in which young and old, men and women are willing participants. Its birth is traced to the tenth of September celebrations which were thought to be drab and dry and desperately needed an injection of life and excitement. Over the next thirty-seven years, carnival has blossomed into a major industry; a celebration of freedom and abandonment. Tonight, we begin a three part series of the history of our carnival. We delve deep into our archives and talk to the organizers of the first carnival to see and hear how it has evolved. News Five’s Delahnie Bain reports.
Delahnie Bain, Reporting
“Carnival is freedom and abandonment beyond description. It is a visual experience coupled with the aromas of Caribbean delicacies and sounds of joyful laughter. Carnival is truly art in motion.” Those are the words of Lawrence Vernon, one of Belize’s most prolific archivists and the researcher, who was commissioned by the National Institute of Culture and History in 2008, to delve into the history of Carnival in Belize. While in other countries, the carnival is a celebration held before the Lenten season, it came to the Jewel as part of the September celebrations.
Lawrence Vernon, Researcher
“It was in 1975 when a few parents put their children in costumes and this was an effort to liven up the tenth of September which was sort of a drab affair with parades. And so to liven up the September celebrations really, these parents saw the need to dress up their children in costumes and let them parade in the streets for a few hours. These were encouraged, I think first of all by Henry Young, from the Committee of Forty and Soli Arguelles. They were sort of pioneers in bringing carnival to the streets.”
Soli Arguelles, Original Carnival Organizer
“I had a dance school and at the time, Ms. Fairweather was starting a dance school, we thought that it would be good exposure for the kids to start learning how to perform on the street as well as on the stage and we needed to bring back some discipline into the way the kids were dancing on street. That was the reason and I liked costuming, I liked to dress children up for dance shows so I took some good students that were kind of prone to going out on the street and we had at the time, it was about eighteen little girls. We had little music and we had little drummers and we had—it wasn’t all the big steel bands and the big boom boxes of today. It was small drumming people and it was something that we really enjoyed just for the day to bring back the patriotism and to show the children—and me, for my part, I wanted to give them a memory.”
Soli Arguelles’ dance students were one of about five groups that participated in the very first carnival road march. It was small, but it quickly became a huge hit, prompting more bands to join. The first groups also expanded in the following years.
“We didn’t have anything structured like the way it is today, it was just street dancing—and we had like Miss Theola Pinks, who decided she wanted to get the poor kids involved and she started. We started as a group of women, Ms. Flowers and all of us, doing costumes because we liked it, we liked doing things for the children and we started making maybe like head pieces and very cheap costumes. But we saw the joy it brought into the girls and children and they looked forward to doing something, dressing up. The second time I had my senior dancers get involved and we made lovely space costumes. I could always remember my husband making a space ship. At that time we had no tools but we made a space ship and we made the girls—at the time the movie came out “Close Encounter of the Third Kind”, so I called it “Close Encounter of the Dance Kind and we had the girls in spaceships.”
Karen Vernon of the National Institute of Culture and History has been involved in the carnival since it started in 1975. She still vividly remembers the excitement and the hiccups of that first day as they got dressed up and danced through the streets.
Karen Vernon, Carnival Reveler
“My first experience in carnival, I maybe was fifteen or sixteen years old and this used to be the Belizean Women for Cultural Preservation. Carnival used to start right out here by Court House Plaza and my first experience with the costume was of course, the ladies were trying their hand at this and they bought some discounted material, which of course, wasn’t as strong as it was supposed to be. And before the carnival started out, I mean the costumes—we were butterflies so we had wings and the wings were ripping apart and they had to be running behind us pinning and sewing as we went along.”
With time, the bands mastered the art of costume making and put countless hours into choreographing dance routines; it was clear that as the carnival was growing, it was also becoming highly competitive.
“In the 1980’s a group of five women formed what was to become the carnival group C-Jam. And from then the competition actually started in that there were several groups which competed each year for a prize. The costumes, of course, became more elaborate and as I said, the competition was always vibrant.”
“I borrowed, begged and stole from everywhere we could get aluminum wiring and cellophane. At one point we even dressed the kids in that blue plastic that the tires came in. We made costumes out of the blue fringes and it took us almost all year to get all the costumes ready but we used to do a whole lot of work.”
“In those days it used to be choreographed moves. We used to actually go every Sunday to a location and practice you know, five six, seven eight, one, two, three, four moves to specific music along the way. And at that time the Paslow Building was still there and that was the judging point and we used to do a full choreographed routine right down by the bridge foot and you know it was fun going through the streets, making sure that the costumes would go around the narrow curves and it was a different kind of excitement from today, but it was exciting.”
Tune in on Thursday for part two of our carnival series.