Normally when a man proclaims himself “El Rey del Millenio” [sic], we lament the pitfalls of unchecked ego. But when I meet the King of the Millennium for tea at Oakland’s Alice Arts Center, he clearly has enough personality to back up the title. Sitting downstairs at the center, where he lives, works, and dances, the King greets every drum-lugging student or dance-sore body that enters the cafe with a regal smile, and they return it. According to the King (aka King Theolonius I, aka T.W. Williams), the people have smiled on him ever since he arrived late one night last year at Roccapulco and was pulled from the crowd by the woman dancing on stage. Before the night was over, they had been crowned King and Queen of Carnaval, the Bay Area’s Caribbean arts festival — belated cousin of New Orleans’ pre-Lenten Mardi Gras.
If you did not know that in your most jovial, life-affirming moments, you are ruled by the King’s “carnaval spirit,” that has something to do with the underpromotion of last year’s San Francisco Carnaval, which alienated some of the faithful with reduced programming, high ticket prices, and a move from the Mission District to Civic Center. While Carnaval is back to a two-day celebration in the Mission this year, there is more programming in the Oakland component of the area-wide event, which is expected to draw people with its warm, all-in-the-family and out-in-the-parks vibe.
The separate Oakland schedule isn’t surprising, since the King often claims, “I represent Oakland,” and attributes his success to the city’s multicultural awareness. “When we won,” he recalls, “we really didn’t have any type of formal introduction to the community. It was just like, hey, we’re building you guys a float; show up at this time, and that was it. So the Queen and I decided to [create a] platform for [our successors] to come out and present themselves.”
Saturday’s party “Cuíca y Clave” presents 2002 King Noberto (of Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco) and Queen Maisa (of Energía do Samba Dance Company) to the masses. The party celebrates Carnaval’s fusion of African and Latin cultures with the salsa cubano of Fito Reynoso’s Ritmo y Armonía and the Brazilian world beat of Carlos Aceituno’s Fogo na Roupa; it also kicks off a weekend of after-parties at Oakland’s Black Box Theatre.
But as Carnaval stretches into more activities on this side of the Bay, Oakland Carijama remains the hub. Started in 1984 at the Caribee Dance Center, Carijama now draws thousands each year for a free day of Caribbean music. “There aren’t more parties this year,” says Jackie Artman, Carijama cofounder. “They’re better promoted.” On Monday, it’s possible to go from Carijama’s daybreak celebration at 6 a.m. to the Jouvay.com after-party at 10 p.m. without breaking stride. With growing crowds comes the need to preserve Carijama’s history, which explains this year’s theme, “Tribute: Respect for the Past,” honoring 97-year-old Carnaval matriarch Constance Williams, and the first-ever production of a Carijama magazine, with articles on the histories of the Bay Area’s different carnavals. For Oakland’s Sun King, the equation is simple: “If you’re cool, you’re gonna be at Carijama.”
Carijama is Monday, May 27, parade at 11 a.m. at Mosswood Park, 3612 Webster St., Oakland. 510-535-2450. The weekend kicks off with Cuíca y Clave on Saturday, May 25, at 8 p.m., with after-parties Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. All events at the Black Box Theatre, 1928 Telegraph Ave., 510-451-1932. For more info, see www.carnaval.com/sf, www.jouvay.com, and www.gofogo.com