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Wednesday, August 25,2010

Diversity on stilts

LCC’s Caribbean Festival turns Lansing into Port-au-Prince for a day

by Lawrence Cosentino
Lansing is already a hub — that’s why it’s here.
But this Saturday, Michigan’s capital will transcend
mere state-itude and blossom into a rainbow-hued,
grooving international crossroads.

With the biggest and most diverse music lineup
yet and a sprawling marketplace
and food bazaar, the 16th annual
Caribbean Festival is expected to
draw tens of thousands of people to
the campus of Lansing Community
College from noon to midnight
Saturday.


In 15 years, the festival has
grown from a one-hour Wednesday
break with punch and cookies to a
day-long bash featuring six bands representing “the
whole African-Caribbean music diaspora,” according
to festival co-organizer Denise Harris.



The only thing this popular, populist festival
doesn’t have is a cattle pen full of elite VIP boozers.
“We exist on the vibe and the love of the day,” Harris
said. “We don’t have to have a beer tent.”


Master of ceremonies Rootsmon Bird, always a
bright and beaming presence, said there’s a big difference
between a mere party and a “celebration” like
the Caribbean Festival.


“A party American-style is when you get a group
of people, some food, and get together,” Bird said.
“A celebration has a connection with the past. You’re
celebrating the ancestors and life itself.”


At last year’s festival, Bird watched a cohort of
grandmas set up chairs around 11:30 a.m. They
stayed all day as the kids and mid-lifers danced
around them.


“They were so cool about it,” Bird said.  “They’d
only get up to go to the bathroom or get more food.”


When it comes to languages, food and music, the
Caribbean is a nexus of dotted lines stretching across
the blue from Africa, Latin America, India
and Europe.  To navigate the waters, the
festival called on Bird, host of WLNZ-FM’s
“Natty Dreadlock Rock Show.”


Bird picked a musical line-up that covers
the waterfront pretty well. Representing
Trinidad and Tobago, the Trinidad Tripoli
Steel Band has played the festival every year
since it began, developing its own fan base
along the way. “They are the foundation, the
gluten of our festival,” Bird said.  On the Latin side,
Orquesta Tradicion will serve up salsa in classic and
updated form.



How updated? “I heard them do a hot cover of an
Alicia Keys tune that just blew me away,” Bird said.



Kids are sometimes rendered saucer-eyed by the
stilt dancers and drummers of Zulu Connection, representing
Haitian history and culture, but apprehension
usually turns to fascination.


The meat of the festival
for many will be a two-hour thump session with reggae favorites Fyah
Wyah, Donovan and the Universal Roots Band. For a closer, Detroit’s
Universal Expression will break out a dance-intensive mix of reggae,
soca and calypso.


“They will have you roll your belly and do the helicopter,” Bird said.


Grandma will probably be in bed by then.


Over
the years, the festival has turned into a “brand” for Lansing Community
College, Harris said. It kicks off a new academic year, shows off the
campus, and draws a broad cross section of the community, many of whom
vote for LCC millages.


Harris
said two marriages and one child “have resulted from” the festival (is
the music that sexy?) and many out-of-town visits are scheduled around
it.


Each year, more
and more folks come for the ginger beer, fried plantains, curry goat,
ox tail, Jamaican jerk chicken and other Caribbean delicacies that are
becoming as American as pizza and chow mein. When T.G.I.Friday’s, a new
vendor this year, introduces a Caribbean menu, you know the culture is
going mainstream.


Racial
commingling is one thing, but the Caribbean Festival even has
management and labor jamming together. This year, the list of sponsors
grew to include Lansing’s GM Delta Grand River plant and two UAW locals
(602 and 652).


“Politicians
talk diversity, but they can’t bring it,” Bird said. “Here is the
festival that brings diversity without a struggle.”


Caribbean Festival. Noon-midnight Saturday, Aug. 28.

Washington Square Mall, Lansing Community College. www.lcc.edu

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