Why Nothing's Like Playing Mas at Caribana

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.

Numerous events are held beginning two weeks prior to Caribana leading up to the massive festival, which will be held this year on August 3. Many big and small events also follow, and each event caters to visitors young and old. 


From boat cruises to fetes (the French-creole word for festival but often used to refer to parties) visitors to Caribana can enjoy a laid-back night on the water in Lake Ontario or opt for a more upbeat, fun-filled night at one of the local night clubs or outdoor parks where many of the big names in Caribbean music also come to perform.

One main event leading up to the Caribana parade is the King and Queen Show, which will be held at Lamport Stadium on August 1. The leaders of each Caribana mas camp will don their costumes and showcase them to parade judges while onlookers admire. At the end of the night, a king and queen are crowned.


During the parade the mas bands are also in competition to be named band of the year; a judging spot they must pass by as they trek down the road rates each band on costume design, creativity, presentation and energy of the masqueraders.

Caribana marks a day of pure celebration of all things Caribbean, and it's a time when we all raise our flags in unison, each representing every single Caribbean nation — a clash of cultures in celebration.


After the festivities of the Caribana carnival are over, cool down that same night or the next day by exploring Toronto's tourist gems.

The Toronto Islands are a scenic mini-getaway within a getaway. This small chain of islands offers a panoramic view of what is considered North America's cleanest city. Ferries to the islands leave from the Ferrydocks (9 Queen's Quay West). Explore the Centerville Amusement Park at Centre Island or the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse.


You'll most definitely work up an appetite after Caribana. Ritz Caribbean Foods (211 Yonge St.), not far away from Dundas Square, will satiate your appetite for rice and peas and oxtail or jerk chicken, which you can eat while treading down Lake Shore Boulevard.

Bond Place Hotel (65 Dundas St. East) is a prime place to stay overnight. Located just a minute away from Toronto's version of Times Square, Yonge-Dundas Square, Bond Place Hotel is within walking distance to many of the area's attractions, including the Eaton Centre Mall and the Art Gallery of Ontario.


I've been to Caribana three times, and each time I felt at home again; every sense was awoken as I reacquainted myself with my Guyanese culture and basked in the sun, the sweat, the good vibes, the music and the delicious food, including barbeque and jerk chicken and roti served with chicken curry.

The festival welcomes everyone from North America to Europe and even Africa, bringing together all of the cultures who helped shape the Caribbean — though this time, not under the iron fist of colonialism, but under the welcoming smiles and open arms of celebration. That reason alone is enough to go, give it a chance and, as one popular soca song urges, get on bad.


Click here for The Root's ultimate summer festival guide, and find out where to eat, sleep and party while you're attending some of the season's hottest events.

Lisa Fraser is an award-winning multimedia journalist and storyteller who resides in New York City.


Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Share This Story