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The art behind Baltimore's ever-colorful Caribbean Carnival parade

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It's just one of about 100 costumes that band leader Kenley Shortmus John of Baltimore makes from scratch each year, when his designs will be showcased in the annual Baltimore/Washington One Caribbean Carnival, held this weekend.

"My costumes symbolize the beauty of life in the tropics," says John, the founder and leader of Caribbean Tropical Expressions, one of 15 bands that will participate in the parade that is the festival's centerpiece. "My costumes are an expression of ... our cultural heritage. It tells the story of who we are and where we're from."

The costume, which will be navigated by 17-year-old Baltimore resident Semaj James, isn't even the largest or most elaborate costume that John will design. Her headdress is just a third of the size of the costumes for the band's king and queen, which are so heavy that they're often mounted atop wheeled cages.

"I start on this year's festival costumes right after New Year's Day," says John, who hails from the island of St. Vincent, situated between St. Lucia and Grenada in the Caribbean Sea. He estimates that he spends about $12,000 each year on the outfits; a king or queen costume alone costs about $1,500. John says he gets reimbursed a small portion of his expenses through donations.

"I do it because of the look on the kids' faces when they put on their costumes," John says. "Once the kids start having fun, we know the future of the art form will continue."

On Saturday, as it has for the past 33 years, the parade will kick off from the 900 block of E. 33rd St. at 1 p.m. To the music of steel bands, hundreds of dancers will take their sweet time boogieing down the streets of Northeast Baltimore, arriving at Clifton Park at about 5 p.m.

Even after the parade ends, the party will be in full swing. Elaine Simon of Baltimore, the festival's president and coordinator, said that the entertainment, the cuisine and about 75 vendors selling island crafts will represent the 21 nations of the Caribbean, which include Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados and Haiti.

Musical headliners include Soca (or soul calypso music) stars: The Image Band, which performs at 7 p.m. Saturday, and singers Zoelah and Rudy, who will take the stage separately on Sunday between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Clifton Park will be full of aromas of such favorite dishes as roti bread, rice and peas; jerk chicken; curried goat and plantains.

"You'll see people walking down the street carrying a half pineapple with the top cut off and a straw stuck in the middle, sucking the juice right from the fruit," Simon says. "That's what makes our festival so Caribbean."

But it's the parade — and the chance to win bragging rights for the following year — that have people like John, a construction worker by day, and auto mechanic Shacomba Phipps spending their nights and weekends assembling costumes and practicing the moves they'll make in front of the judging stand at Harford Road and Saint Lo Drive.

The parade is the modern expression of a beloved pre-Lenten tradition called "Playing Mas" — or masquerade — celebrated by slaves on French plantations in the late 1800s. (The HBO television series "Treme" recently cast a spotlight on a similar tradition of elaborately costumed parades carried out by the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans.)

In its current form, Mas has become a celebration that spans nations and lasts for nine months, Simon says, beginning in Trinidad and Tobago in February, culminating in New York over Labor Day, and ending with a final blast in Miami over Columbus Day weekend.

Families and performers travel up and down the East Coast, attending as many of the celebrations as time and economics allow. Baltimore's festival regularly draws 20,000 visitors; the Big Apple's, 2 million.

If the elaborate headdresses and wheeled cages are the parade's pinnacle, its nadir are the mud dancers, an outgrowth of a tradition known as "j'ouvert." Passersby pay a fee to the band director — usually about $35 or $40 — to get "mudded up" from head to toe from a machine mounted on the back of a truck.

"We usually put the truck last," Simon says, "because we don't want to get the other costumes dirty."

Phipps, a Baltimorean whose family came from St. Thomas, will dance along the parade route on 13-foot stilts as a character known as a "Mocko Jumbie" along with his three grown children. (The younger generation, who haven't been practicing as long as their father, will perform on 8-foot stilts.)

"My grandfather brought this tradition over from Nigeria," Phipps says. "A Mocko Jumbie is a spiritual person of the highest level who strikes terror into the hearts of evil-doers."

The men dance masked, which in this case means wearing a black cloth over their faces, while the women's faces traditionally are uncovered to show off their beauty. The mask is just transparent enough to allow Phipps to see figures and shadows, and Simon says it doesn't prevent her friend from moving with astonishing agility and speed.

"He can walk across the street in one step," she says, "and bend down and pick up a baby."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

The 33rd annual Baltimore/Washington One Caribbean Carnival will be held from noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and from noon to 9 p.m. Sunday at Clifton Park, 2701 Saint Lo Drive. $10 daily. The parade will kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday at 900 E. 33rd St. and proceed north along The Alameda to the park, where it will end at 5 p.m. Call 410-362-2957 or go to dccarnival.org/2k14.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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