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Cambridge Carnival International Transforms the City With the Sights and Sounds of the Caribbean

By Pamela Sosnowski

Every September, a section of Cambridge along the Charles River finds itself secretly transformed into a Caribbean island as the sounds of steel drums fill the air and a parade of plumed costumes dance down Massachusetts Ave. This is the Cambridge Carnival International, a jovial tradition with African roots that has been celebrated in the city for 24 years now.

"Cambridge Carnival is for everyone, and all ages, all backgrounds," says Nicola Williams, the festival's president. "Cambridge Carnival is a family-friendly festival celebrating culture, food, diversity. It's Cambridge's largest street party."

As Cambridge's largest outdoor event, it attracts over 100,000 visitors annually from all over the world and requires year-round planning by Williams and her group of volunteers. The carnival promotes, preserves and shares the history and culture of the Caribbean islands with the local community and dates back to pre-Colonial times. "Cambridge Carnival International is a colorful and festive celebration that is rooted in African traditions," explains Williams.

"Carnival secretly allowed public communication and cultural bonding for the Afro-Caribbean cultures from as far back as the 1600s. Today, Carnival traditions are shared publicly with the entire community, with more than 24 Carnivals in North America." Since slavery was abolished in the early 1800's in the U.S. and Caribbean, the Carnival today celebrates that freedom as well as the freedom of expression.

The parade is a highlight of the festival, with hundreds of dancers and performers strolling down 1.3 miles of Cambridge's streets while wearing dazzling brightly colored silks, feathers, plumes, and jeweled and hand-beaded clothing. As Williams explains, "When you visit Cambridge Carnival, all your senses are impacted. Sounds of calypso pans and drums accompany elaborate and colorful costumes that can span 50 foot wide and 20 foot tall. These costume groups vie for the best of Carnival prize and are judged by a panel made up of community members, including artists."

After the parade, attendees often enjoy the smells and tastes of traditional Caribbean fare including jerk chicken, curried goat, roti, roast corn, rice and beans, rum cakes, and more. Most of the food items are prepared by specialty caterers, local restaurants, and food trucks.

A KidsFest section introduces children to the folkloric traditions of Carnival, as well as stilt walking demos, story telling, face painting, and arts and crafts activities. The festival park also features vendors with traditional crafts for sale, and two stages showcase live music and a DJ featuring the sounds of soca, calypso, reggae, zouk, Haitian roots, samba, African music, and other world music.

Much of the festival is located in Kendall Square, giving attendees easy access by public transportation to the parade route. For more information on 2017's Carnival and details about the festival, visit www.cambridgecarnival.org.

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