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Broward Caribbean Carnival Outshines Miami

This past Sunday, Broward County's West Indian community was alive with music and culture as the sixth-annual Broward Caribbean Carnival rocked Lauderhill in grand fashion. According to early figures, it may have also surpassed the 24th-annual Miami Carnival in attendance for the first time.

Upward of 11,000 people showed up at the Central Broward Regional Park to eat, dance, and celebrate Caribbean culture. That's on a par with last year's figures for Broward. Meanwhile, according to the Miami Herald, only 7,000 people, a lower figure than usual, made it to Bicentennial Park for Miami's version. If the numbers are true, it's a tremendous success for Broward's Carnival, which is looked at by many as a well-supported yet second-tier version of the carnival to the south.

Although Broward's achievement should be received as good news from a partisan standpoint, to some it's even more evidence that the days of a divided carnival are possibly drawing to a close.

Francis Ragoo, an organizer for Broward Caribbean Carnival, used the news to advocate for unity. "I don't want to glorify one over the other," he says. "It shows that there's growth and potential for us to come back together. The people want one carnival. The vendors want one, the sponsors, the masqueraders, everyone wants one carnival. Next year will be the 25th anniversary of carnival in South Florida. Forget about Miami versus Broward. Can we make that magic 25 a unified carnival? That's a goal I hope we can achieve."

All week, a current has surged through the local Caribbean community that next year the two carnivals will reunite and return to the way things used to be before the split. And with the untimely death of Miami Carnival's longtime organizer, Selman Lewis, two weeks ago, it's now more likely.

The bicounty events currently draw tens of thousands of tourists to the region each year, many coming from as far as New York, Canada, and Trinidad. But once these tourists arrive, they're forced to pick and choose which parades they attend, because Miami and Broward carnivals take place simultaneously.

As a spectator for the first time at Broward Carnival this year, I could only imagine how impressive an event it would be in a unified setting. On Sunday, the streets of Lauderhill overflowed with energy, and I knew it was going to be a raucous event when I could hear the paraders and masquerade bands a half mile from the venue. Trucks filled with large speakers and sound systems cruised down U.S. 441 blaring soca music as people danced on the sidewalks.

Inside the park, colorful dance troupes entertained onlookers for hours as groups sought the approval of judges. Children as young as 4 wore festive attire, and steel bands kept the traditional sounds of calypso and soca flowing throughout the park. A group called Pure Steel from Trinidad used six steel drums, six oil barrels, tambourines, whistles, cowbells, and anything with metal to make music. That's part of carnival's spirit: using whatever resources you can to have a good time.

During the concert portion of the evening, Broward Carnival Chairman Andy Ansola announced a major accomplishment: Starting in 2010, the history of Caribbean carnivals will be added to the history and culture curriculum in Broward County schools. The move should ensure that carnival culture thrives in South Florida for years to come. It also further drives home the point that, like New York and Toronto, South Florida can continue to be a major carnival hub on an international level.

"If we market it right, this can be the largest tourism activity in South Florida," Ragoo continues. "Within five years' time, I can almost guarantee that close to 100,000 people would be in attendance if it's marketed correctly." Although that's a huge figure, expectations of that proportion shouldn't be laughed at considering South Florida is, when you include the Latin influence, basically the North Caribbean.

"Let's not look at it as Dade County or Broward County and look at what's in the best interest of carnival short term and long term," Ansola says. He too wants to revisit the idea of having just one carnival but questions whether the community can properly be served in that fashion.

"Where could we go that could accommodate that many people?" he asks. "Would it do our community justice? We'll have to do surveys and be sure this is what the people want. I just want to serve the interest of the community."

One surprising part of the concert took place when 9-year-old singer Tatyana Heyliger came out to perform. After a short delay with the sound crew, the music was cued up to her new song, "Vote Obama." Onlookers cheered as she bounced all over the stage singing, "Vote Obama/No McCain or Sarah/Vote Obama/vote for him for president." She then prodded the audience to get out and vote. "Are you gonna vote?" she said, pointing at one section of the crowd, then another, and then another. "Come on, people, get out and vote!"

Selwyn Smith of Trinidad couldn't help but laugh. "Look at this," he said with a smile. "A little youth is wising up all the elders. Now, that's a beautiful thing."

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Jonathan Cunningham