You already know the Cayman Carnival Batabano of today: the colourful costumes; the booming, energetic music; the parades that bring adults and children alike into the streets to celebrate. Carnival festivities like those returning to Grand Cayman in May — including the vibrant adult parade and Junior Batabano — have become such a rich tradition that it can feel like they’ve never changed.
But the very first Batabano, recalls costume designer Reba Dilbert, was a vastly different affair when it was started by the Rotary Club 35 years ago.
“We didn’t know anything about a carnival,” she laughs, explaining that in the very first Cayman Carnival in 1983, her mas band — the term for the tribes of revellers who dance through the streets in coordinated costumes — was made up of children. The theme? Fashion in Bad Taste. “I could sew, so we came up with big bows and little polka dot dresses,” Dilbert says. “That year was a lot of hilarious stuff. [One reveller] came in a wheelbarrow. In those days, we didn’t really know about costumes. People made hilarious, jokey things.”
The name ”Batabano” refers to the tracks left in the sand by sea turtles and Cayman’s turtling heritage. Finding these tracks has always been a reason to celebrate, and although Cayman’s first carnival may have been a novice effort, it was well attended. Dilbert says as many as 20 mas bands participated that first year, and children and adults shared the street. “It was a family parade,” she says. “All the children were in front [of the parade], and drinks could be served in back with the adult bands. We had wee kids, pre-schoolers, primary school students, all the way up to college kids and adults.”
Dilbert may have been a novice designer three decades ago, but in the years since, she’s never missed a Batabano — and her sewing skills have come a long way from “fashion in bad taste.” Carnival experts from destinations like Trinidad and Guyana trained leaders of Cayman’s mas bands in the early years, and Dilbert researched costuming methods on her own as well. Soon, she was embarking on artistic themes made to reflect the culture of the Islands. Shuffle Up My Deck featured playing card-themed outfits, in response to political grappling over gambling in Cayman. She even created mosquito costumes one year, dusting her insect-ified mas players in glitter. She also gave kids their own Junior Batabano parade on a separate date from the adult Batabano weekend, creating a more family-friendly oriented environment for Cayman’s youths to participate in the carnival.
“The most amusing theme I did was Hakuna Matata, from The Lion King,” she remembers. “I did all the creatures [in costume form].” Dilbert’s creations were such a standout that she nearly swept that year’s parade awards. “I won seven trophies,” she says proudly. “The only thing I didn’t take that year was king and queen of the carnival.
“We made our mistakes in costumes, but each year we got better. I’m 63 now,” she says proudly, “and I’ve been doing Batabano for 35 years… I’ve never missed a year. One year I was sick and I had to go in a wheelchair. The doctor wouldn’t allow me to walk. They had to push me,” she laughs.
Dilbert’s not the only one with a steadfast passion for Batabano. Donna Myrie-Stephen, chair of the volunteer committee that produces the festivities each year, took the reins in 2001 — but she’d been a major player in carnival culture well before that. The 1981 Miss Cayman Islands winner led her own mas band and often travelled to other Caribbean islands to check out the competition.
When she joined Batabano in an official capacity, Myrie-Stephen recalls, “The thought was to develop it [more] as a tourism product.” That’s a heavy undertaking, especially for the small volunteer committee that Myrie-Stephen led. But her team’s commitment to producing a worthwhile event has overcome obstacles big and small.
“I pretty much run the carnival out of my retail store,” she says. “We’re all very passionate about [Batabano] so we give our time. We don’t have formal offices or salaries. But the carnival is growing and we believe in it.”
Myrie-Stephen’s first order of business was to expand the parade beyond George Town and up the hotel-heavy stretch of West Bay Road, giving tourists an easier opportunity to experience Batabano for themselves. She also gave kids their own Junior Carnival, separating the festivities into family-friendly and more adult categories. Those were the first of dozens of major milestones that Myrie-Stephen and her team helped to bring about, each pushing Carnival in a bigger and better direction.
“Getting the government to endorse and recognise it as the national carnival, that’s been pretty big. And we got our national flag carrier, Cayman Airways — they’ve been
on board ever since [before] I’ve taken over. They bring in all the entertainers.”
And two years ago, Myrie-Stephen helped make Cayman history through Batabano. “For the first time ever, we were granted legal permission to have music, dancing and alcohol on the road at the break of dawn for the first ever Cayman J’ouvert Parade,” she explains proudly. J’ouvert, which is the traditional opening of carnival festivities in the Caribbean, brings revellers together in the early hours of the morning to ring in the celebrations as the day breaks with drinks, music and paint- and mud-flinging. “Most islands do it automatically, but it was very hard for us to get approved. We’re a very conservative island,” Myrie-Stephen explains. “That was the first time ever that any such permissions were granted.” J’ouvert has been a part of Batabano ever since.
Myrie-Stephen believes one of the keys to Cayman’s success is the Island’s location, and the ease of travel provided by Cayman Airways and others around the Caribbean diaspora.
“We have a great island that’s safe and a good parade route, and it’s easy to get to. Look at all the different places that Cayman Airways flies out of. It’s not like Trinidad. Trinidad is the mecca of Carnival, but it’s hard to get there. We’re relatively easy — a hop, skip and a jump away.
Author: Ciara Ebanks