You might have seen the videos by Machel Montano, Soca in Japan and Ilovecarnivall about Japan Carnaval; the bacchanal on the route at night time, the wuk up, the hose down, bumper in de road, everything you associate with Caribbean carnival. The way I enjoyed that I can’t put into words. It was Euphoric! BUT. This was only for about 45 minutes to an hour out of the whole two day carnival which began around 12:30 and ended at 19:30-8pm. Please do not be mistaken. The rest of the time, the carnival route is based on choreography which is practiced, practiced, practiced.
The Japanese culture is definitely reflected even in the seemingly freedom of expression of carnival. Interviewing individuals such as Chaikii and Selector Hemo lets me know about the presence of soca and carnival in Japan (these interviews will come later). But you really can’t compare carnival in Japan to carnival in Trinidad or London. That’s like comparing apples and oranges. They are both fruit but very different. Comparing the two carnivals and expecting something like Caribbean carnival in general, you will be disappointed, complain a lot and not enjoy the experience for what it is.
Japan carnival is more like a Brazilian type carnival where there are set routines which you have to do on the road. That means learning the routine which was to Machel Montano’s ‘Fast Wine’. And the routine wasn’t any little jump and wave, wine your waist either. There were intricate steps, a full on routine for a little over four minutes. We had four days of practice (each at least an hour long) prior to the carnival. We practiced by ourselves, a small group and finally with the entire band which consisted of 100 masqueraders.
For us it was more difficult as whilst most were practicing to perfect the routine, we were just learning some of the steps. I practiced extra hard as me, dark skin, thick, with faux locs? I stuck out like someone wearing a neon raincoat in a wet fete. And some of it would be broadcast on National TV? No way am I embarrassing myself! I spent more time with the choreographer. I asked a little girl who has been dancing since she was six and had the moves down perfect. I still made mistakes but it was coming a bit more naturally and I was a bit more confident. Practicing the routine is a serious work out so you have to be kind of healthy and injury free I’d say as well. I was sweating all the time. We had time to meet the other Japanese masqueraders. The very friendly and the less shy came to speak to us. We also found out more at the group dinner. Nicole and I were kinda naughty in that we got Judith and Bryan drunk on the Sake and other alcoholic drinks.
Rules, Japan appears to be all about rules and conformity. So for the road, we were told what colour trainers to wear (all plain white), how to wear our hair (up in a ponytail), right down to the make-up we can wear red and gold. I was not overly impressed by this (the hair and make-up bit) and the inner carnivalista wanted to rebel. For me part of carnival is about the freedom of expression and all this total conformity felt like putting a noose around my neck. But this is their house (metaphorically speaking) and we abide by their rules.
There are some things which were familiar about Japan Canaval. There is the waiting around to go on the road. There are masqueraders putting on last minute make-up and fixing or altering their costumes. We then saw that the costume rules were not so strictly adhered to. The leggings under the translucent pants were cut up. We followed suit. They were a bit more extravagant with their make up than we were. The following day we copied. There are the music trucks. There is the road. That is all familiar.
The not so familiar? Along the route, there were many stations for us to get cold tea and sugared drinks to stay hydrated set up the local Kochi population where the carnival was held. Both days were killer hot and I guess they wanted us to remain well. They were also stewards passing around salted sweets as we were not only losing water whilst sweating but salt as well. And they would fan us down and spray us with water using hand water bottles. That was serious personal service! Sometimes, (and I know Aisha had this experience as well) I was sweating so much I couldn’t open one eye for the dripping sweat! Along the route the spectators also had fans and would fan us down as we passed. That interactive experience was nice and a blessed relief for a bit.
The routine is performed at least 6 times on the carnival route on Day 1. initially, it was a bit tense for us as we were doing the routine in public for the first time. We didn’t know what to expect. All the hours of practicing and anxiety had come down to this. Our first couple of times were actually on the pavement not the road. There was something about that. Less informal. But I think it broke the ice. In between stages, we could relax a bit and take in some of the other bands and their costumes. I would say we were the least traditional band on the route. The first day we performed the routine many times at various stages. And at the stages you could win medals which is different. There was one point there was a music truck right by ours and the sound system was serious! We couldn’t hear ‘Fast Wine’ for our routine so we just had to go by what we learnt and what everyone else was doing. I think by that time I just enjoyed the experience and looking around I caught Aisha, Kegon and Bryan enjoying it as well as they were smiling quite a bit.
Most of the stages were on the road. But the main stage was a full blown theatrical production, a serious stage with elevated levels. As the internationals we were right at the top with the pan guys and the hype lady and could free style, meaning we could do anything. I seriously suspect we were not good enough with the routine and would mess up the choreography so we got to be up top. Which was fine by us. The view from the top was amazing looking over the other dancers and the audience. The route ended by 8pm? Afterwards, we had dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant thanks very much to Comi (the boyfriend of Asami Nagakiya who was murdered during Trinidad carnival last year). Some local guys eager to practice their English and tell of their love of hip hop and America found Bryan and he was content. The rest of us watched the local singer and drunk locals before heading to the hotel. Day Two? Now that’s when the real fun began.