Miami Carnival 2017: Taking the Plunge

Last Thursday’s full moon in Aries sought to imbue us with the courage to take risks and turn ideas into action. I spent the weekend celebrating Miami Broward Carnival with my cousins. At every step, I was guided and inspired by my cousin and host Stefanie Johnston, a natural hair stylist, salon owner, carnival entrepreneur— and an Aries herself.

She first attended Carnival in Trinidad shortly after opening her own salon and barber shop with her husband, Kieyn. “I remember looking at [my cousin] Nina and both of our faces were just in complete shock. We couldn’t believe it was really happening.”

A carnival party is commonly known as a  fête—a tidbit you won’t soon forget when you begin listening to SoCa music. My own devotion to the genre was cemented when I put it on as the soundtrack to my runs. The pulsing energy of a SoCa mix does not pause between tracks—and you won’t want to either. The beat stays at a consistent fast pace to pick you up during power cardio.

It’s not uncommon to experience a similar connection to the overall Carnival experience. “It’s always been a rejuvenating trip for us,” Stefanie says. “You fly home, go to work and think, okay, time to make sure I can go again next year.”

For me, attending Carnival for the first time meant falling into tradition. Members of my family have been going for years and returning with smiles and stories that whispered a ‘someday’ into my head. Carnival has always been a steady component of their lives, and thus would surely become a significant part of mine.

Dive In.

My flight touched down in Miami early Wednesday evening, and I immediately coordinated my Miami Subs fix. We then commuted to the warehouse that would host PLUNGE, an annual breakfast party coordinated by Carnival Addiction, Stefanie’s event-planning business. The energy of the weekend to come pulsed through the warehouse hours before the first guest would arrive.

Plunge was headlined this year by Lyrikal, a Trinidadian SoCa music artist. “[My husband and I] met him a few years ago when he came into the shop, and we immediately clicked,” says Stefanie. “He started making up songs with my daughter, who was 8 at the time. Right away, we were family.”

Such a keen connection is potently emblematic of Carnival weekend and its enchanting spirit. The main event is a parade through the Miami-Dade County Fairgrounds on Carnival Sunday (October 8th this year). But carnival fêtes pop up as early as Wednesday evening. In some ways, it’s unjust to call a Carnival fête a party, as the word implies an event with set structure, guidelines, beginning, and end. The trick to uncovering a true Carnival experience is to remain fluid, gently coasting through scenes as they unfold in front of you. When you’re planning a night out, stow away questions about the what, where, when, and how. All that matters is who, and the time is right now.

“A fête is just family havin’ a time. We set out to bring people into that energy and have them feel welcomed, ready to let go and be free.”

Your don't want to miss next year #plunge #miamicarnival2017

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Carnival Addiction

Leadership comes naturally to Stefanie. Like Carnival, she exudes warmth, energy, and confidence that can’t be described—only witnessed. She describes the roots of her salon business in a simple formula: drive + passion + skill. “I love seeing people happy, and that ties into cosmetology very well. I get to help people do something nice for themselves, and feel happy.”

Each year, upon their return from Trinidad, our cousin Nina puts their pictures and memories on a slideshow set to SoCa music. Stefanie would play the reels in her salon, giving her a boost of energy in between vacations. Her clients began to catch the contagious Carnival vibes. “They started asking me, how can we go? It looks so fun! A lot of them wanted to do a girl’s trip with their friends.”

After seeing her clients catch the Carnival itch, Stefanie knew she wanted to find a way to bring the experience to more people. She first brought her friend Shirley Louis, now one of three co-owners of Carnival Addiction. “We were walking through the airport, and her suitcase just stopped rolling. She didn’t want to leave! We got back and both of our bags stayed packed for days.”

There’s even a word for the feeling:

In its early days, Carnival Addiction was a concierge service, selling tickets and event packages for a week of celebration. “Sticking to a strict traveler’s itinerary kills the Carnival vibes. That’s not what it’s about. You’re supposed to feel free, not worrying about being on time, or missing this or that. So we went back to the drawing board.”

Rather than create schedules, the Carnival Addiction team decided to recreate the magnetic pull of a Carnival fête. The spirited union of good food, drink, music, and ~wine~ 😉 ensures you can’t quite leave until you figure out how to come back again.

Carnival Addiction’s annual breakfast fête is hosted by Soca ambassador and radio personality Giselle D’ Wassi One. This year marks her 30th year as a bandleader, and it’s clear to see how her Carnival family continues to grow and come back for more. As an MC and host, she is the easy-going spirit of the islands personified.

I spent the morning at my post, collecting and selling tickets near the gated entrance of the warehouse. The new admissions didn’t stop or slow down until the end time listed on the tickets and flyers—which even I knew wouldn’t ring true. I joined the crowd at Plunge at around 2pm on Thursday afternoon, finding the front of the stage just as the clouds began to clear. I  took a breath and put back some Cran-Henny just as Giselle affirmed, “the only thing the rain stops is the crickets.”

Your don't want to miss next year #plunge #miamicarnival2017

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Rise and Shine

Most of the Carnival action happens under the sun, in climates that spread light and breed joy year-round. But hurricane season in South Florida posed no threat to the Miami Broward celebration. Carnival itself is a force with a life of its own. Carnival’s devoted black and Caribbean following ensures its lasting impact and legacy.

For Stefanie, carnival was at the intersection of family and business. Giselle D’ Wassi One, who hosts Plunge each year, was named the Mother of Miami Carnival this year. She also holds the title of Stefanie’s aunt-in-law.

“She’s the sweetest, most loving person on earth. We’ve been in her band since the beginning. She sat us down and showed us the ropes when we first got into the business.”

Giselle’s own breakfast fête takes place annually on Carnival Friday, the day after Plunge. Traditionally, Rise and Shine is an all white party on the beach. This year, it was held indoors due to early signs of poor weather. If anything, the false whispers of rain enhanced the event’s warm and welcoming atmosphere. With the stage in clear view from the second floor balcony, the rainout venue gave the show the carefree and buoyant feel of a family reunion.

rise and shine fete
The Wassi One’s Rise and Shine breakfast party, hosted in America’s Backyard.

Your turn—take the plunge!

If you’re itching to book a flight and dive in, you’re in luck. On the horizon, the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, andTurks and Caicos all have festivals to gratify you during the winter months. And of course, tradition will soon return to the island where it all began. Trinidad Carnival takes place over first week of Lent, concurrent with similar celebrations in islands such as Cuba, Martinique, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

The best advice I can offer you is to accept yourself as you are, and be willing to receive the day as it comes. Don’t impose expectations on any one event or person—including yourself.

As for your first time taking the plunge, plan a visit Miami in early October and consider Carnival Addiction in the search for your fix. In addition to coordinating the Plunge event, the company creates parade costumes and plays mas as part of Giselle’s band. If you’re looking for a warm-hearted introduction to the Carnival spirit, there’s no better place to start.

“That’s who this business is for,” Stefanie proclaims. “Newbies who experience it for the first time and get hooked. You just have to come see it for yourself. Leave the bad at home, and come fill up with the good.”