Mas Players to Spectators: ‘Respect the Culture’
Community insiders weigh in on the beauty of Carnival and what’s needed to maintain it
The 49th season of Toronto Carnival is here. And as revellers get ready to enjoy the culmination of a month-long celebration of Caribbean culture, lifelong Carnival devotee Sophia Rickson says more people need to see mas for the art form that it is – and respect it. This will allow Toronto’s Carnival to be more open like it is in Trinidad and other islands, she adds.
“There is such a spiritual and emotional connection happening when you’re playing mas,” says Rickson, who is the production and costume designer of Devyani Costume Design, and has designed costumes for bands like Tribal Knights, Fantasia, and most recently, Saldenah’s Outta Africa theme.
This year the fences separating the masqueraders from the festivalgoers will be reduced from the eight to 10 feet they were previously, to a mere four.
“I personally didn’t like the caging . . . it made us feel like cattle when going through the crowd,” says Rickson. “It made the relationship between the spectator and the masquerader even worse.”
The face of this year’s Toronto Caribbean Carnival, known more popularly within the community and abroad as Caribana, Azalea Hart, says “stormers” are a major reason for the strained relationship between spectators and mas players in the first place. Stormers is a term used to describe people who didn’t pay to be inside of Carnival, but try to break through fences and disturb the masqueraders and other performers along the parade route.
“They think it’s a free for-all street party with half-naked girls and it’s not,” Hart says. “I’m not really sure how we can change it other than educate people.”
Hart is of Trinidadian heritage and first became involved in Carnival as a teenager by modeling different mas camp costumes. She started a vlog series “Carnivlog with Azalea Hart” on her YouTube channel, which documents her Carnival experiences all over the world from Trinidad and Jamaica to Miami and the Cayman Islands. “I really want to use my vlogs to educate people on what Carnival really is about.”
“They think it’s a free for-all street party with half-naked girls and it’s not.”
Hart, who proudly states that she’s dedicated her life to Carnival, has observed that other festivals she’s been to are not fenced in because people understand and respect the culture of playing mas. She says it’s important for people to remember that Carnival is a competition first.
“The best thing about all those places is that it’s not fenced off, it’s open, but it’s open and you’re still not being bombarded by people coming at you from every place.”
The shorter fences are just one of the changes to the Toronto Caribbean Carnival in recent years, starting with the name change from Caribana in 2011. This year will be the first that Scotiabank will not be a title sponsor and the second that the Grand Parade event will follow a new route — starting at 10 a.m. inside the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) grounds, leading down onto Lakeshore Boulevard West and then back into the CNE.
“Carnival is a street parade . . . it’s not a parade where you get locked into a certain area . . . it’s about expression, you’re expressing something.”
Louis Saldenah, band leader of the Louis Saldenah Mas-K Club, which has won band of the year 17 times, has seen the Carnival through many changes over his 30-plus years of experience. He says that the new route introduced last year shook things up for all bands including his own.
“The thing that affect us, and affected a lot of people, is the route . . . a lot of people don’t like the route,” he explains. “Carnival is a street parade . . . it’s not a parade where you get locked into a certain area . . . it’s about expression, you’re expressing something. [The new route] is a serious problem and it has to be corrected.”
The art and science behind mas is what prompted the Ontario Science Centre (OSC) to partner with the festival in 2010. The organization awards a costume each year for its innovation and sets up a community activation at Junior Carnival that aims to expand and challenge young people’s perceptions of what is considered science and who can become a scientist.
“The fantasy and the creativity, it takes you out of your everyday world and puts you in a place that you could not be before.”
Vishnu Ramcharan, Visitor and Community Engagement Coordinator for the OSC, says Carnival reflects some of the core things that the centre best represents. “I found that this festival was the most stunning example of science and technology that is happening in popular culture [in Toronto].”
He adds that changes like the new route and shorter fences appear to be an effort to improve the experience for everyone involved in Carnival. “I think they’re looking for a balance between the masqueraders, spectators and bands . . . sometimes both parties need to have compromise to make this enjoyable for both sides.”
Having been born and raised in Trinidad, but not allowed to participate in Carnival due to his upbringing in the Evangelical church, Ramcharan has truly grown to appreciate Carnival in Toronto for the sense of freedom it gives people, and the imagination involved. “For a short time you are no longer a store clerk . . . For that day you are the Queen of the Nile or the jewel in the crowd or the fish that can fly. The fantasy and the creativity, it takes you out of your everyday world and puts you in a place that you could not be before.”
Carnival 2015 Archive Photos © Janelle Scott-Johnson & Urbanology Magazine