Why Nothing’s Like Playing Mas at Caribana

Summer Festival Road Trip: The annual Toronto carnival's worth a visit, whether you're in costume or not.

Caribana 2011 (Parand Eshraghi/CaribanaToronto.com)
Caribana 2011 (Parand Eshraghi/CaribanaToronto.com)

(The Root) — Underneath a sun-drenched blue sky, the noises of the steel pan pierce the air, their jubilant sounds forcing us into hip-swaying and rump-shaking as we trek down Lake Shore Boulevard in a blissful state.

Everyone is under the influence of the infectious rhythm that the Caribbean music carries, while others find themselves under the influence of an attractive person of the opposite sex who has managed to make eye contact and — to use Caribbean parlance — “thief a little wine.”

The road is ours. And we are “chipping” down the street, enjoying the sun, the music, the people, the dancing, the happiness, the food, the stares and the exquisite feeling of what it’s like to participate in the festivities.

It was 2007, and it was my first time at Caribana — North America’s largest Caribbean carnival, held every August in Toronto. The all-day festival brings in more than 1 million revelers each year, all of them descending upon Lake Shore Boulevard to witness and be part of the beauty and the pageantry of all things West Indian.

I was taking part in the masquerade portion of the festival, also known as “playing mas,” which requires partakers to be clad in colorful, bedazzled costumes. All of the costumes are made locally by masquerade camps such as Carnival Nationz, Louis Saldenah and the Mas-K Club and former NBA player Jamaal Magloire’s Toronto Revellers. They each represent a particular theme, often related to nature, Caribbean history or Caribbean mythology, showcasing things like distinct birds, flowers and native tribes.

My cousins and I were clad head to toe in blue and gold and outfitted with feathery headdresses; the overarching theme was the rainforest, and we were the colorful blue-and-yellow Macaw parrots found in the Caribbean and South America.

The sounds of calypso music, along with its more racy and rambunctious cousin, soca, a blend that fuses East Indian and African beats, and chutney, which utilizes traditional East Indian rhythms, wafted out from the speakers of trucks that led the way for the parade floats showcasing each individual mas camp’s theme. 

As masquerade players danced on and around the trucks, lead mas players walked front and center showing off their one-of-a-kind costumes. The festival brings many big names in calypso, chutney, soca, reggae and dancehall music, including Machel Montano, Kes the Band, Alison Hinds, Ravi B., Beenie Man, Sean Paul and Mr. Vegas.

Caribana was first established in Toronto in 1967. It takes its inspiration from the Caribbean island-nation Trinidad’s Carnival, the acclaimed two-week celebration culminating in a two-day parade, which happens every February before Ash Wednesday.