Soca and calypso ruled downtown Raleigh on Saturday.
North Carolina’s capital city was awash in a joyously tropical pandemonium, with flags from all over the Caribbean and brightly colored feather plumage shooting upward and trailing down the backs of young dancers who resembled birds of paradise rolling down Fayetteville Street.
Hundreds of Triangle residents gathered for the fourth annual CaribMask festival, a celebration of Caribbean heritage and culture. During the early afternoon downtown’s main thoroughfare appeared to be a rippling wave of sequins, gyrating hips and flexing muscles following large trucks whose beds were stacked high with speakers playing frenetic soca and calypso music so loud it throbbed inside festival-goers’ chests.
The one break from the soca-calypso mix came from the Helping Hand Mission band, who threw some Washington, D.C., go-go with a New Orleans-style attitude into the cultural gumbo.
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CaribMask is still not quite the affair of the world-famous West Indian Day Parade on Labor Day in New York. Still, Saturday’s festival was not lacking in enthusiasm, celebration and appreciation for all things Caribbean.
Chris Cherry, 48, of Raleigh, was outfitted in yellow madras shorts, flip-flops and a yellow T-shirt. Cherry likened the day to a brief Caribbean vacation, with his wife Debra.
“I have come the last three years,” said Cherry, who works in animal research. “The sights, the sounds, vacation, no worries, no stress – the Caribbean, to me, represents relaxation time.”
More than 10 dance troupes, each following a mobile sound truck, started at Edenton and Salisbury streets, and shook, shimmied and strutted down the street in front of the old State Capitol grounds before making a right onto Fayetteville Street, where hundreds of people lining the sidewalks awaited their arrival.
There was a little extra incentive for the colorfully and provocatively attired members of the dance troupes to show their best moves in time to the energetic songs pumping from the mobile sound systems.
“They’re competing and judged,” said Marcia Knight, president of the Raleigh-Durham Caribbean Association, which has sponsored the event since 2012. The day’s winning troupe was “Unity Mas,” a group of more than 100 zumba dancers and their teachers, outfitted in blue and aquamarine feather plumage. The Unity Mas dancers traveled from Greensboro and all over the Triangle to participate.
Knight, who works with Wake County’s child protective services, is a native of the Virgin Islands. She is a 1995 graduate of Shaw University and now lives in Raleigh.
Jeanette Brown, 26, sat against a pillar near the city plaza stage where the bands were scheduled to perform after the parade ended. Brown, a native of Trinidad who moved to Durham four months ago from Brooklyn to attend law school, grew up enjoying the West Indian Day parade on Labor Day. She said hundreds of thousands of people crowd in the streets and dance to the Caribbean’s top bands, who perform on the beds of trucks.
“I came to compare it to the big Labor Day parade,” Brown said about Saturday’s event. “I’m going to see when the music starts.”
The musical headliners for the main stage were Fusion, a soca band from the Virgin Islands that’s been making waves with the hit “Chippin Down De Road,” and Patrice Roberts, the Trinidadian singer whose 2013 hit, “A Little Wine,” has more than 2 million views on YouTube.
Before the performances began, two DJs on the main stage asked festival-goers to come up and dance while they played music from their respective countries, including Barbados, St. Vincent, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad and Tobago, which drew the loudest round of applause.
“Each country has that thing that makes them a little bit different. Everyone has their own thing,” Knight said, joking about Trinidadians. “Trinis – they think they are carnival!”
Knight said a group of Americans and people of Caribbean descent living in the Triangle formed RDCA in 2011 “to bring a greater awareness of Caribbean culture to the Triangle.”
In addition to the festival, which started on Friday night with a comedy show in Durham, the association volunteers at the Durham Rescue Mission, participates in the Triangle Multiple Sclerosis Walk and gives to needy families during the winter holidays.
“CaribMask is our signature event every year,” Knight said. “Our mission is to promote diversity and greater appreciation for Caribbean culture and support positive things throughout the community.”