By Rhoma Spencer
Caribana, now known as Toronto Caribbean Carnival, was presented as a gift to Canada as part of the country’s centennial celebrations in 1967. Trinidad and Tobago nationals and their Caribbean counterparts came together to give Canadians a taste of the Trinidad carnival, the pre-Lenten “farewell to the flesh” that culminates in two days of rivalry, debauchery, satire and social commentary on the streets of the twin-island Republic.
On J’ouvert Monday morning, Trinbagonians take to the street as the ultimate freedom from all their social wear and tear for the entire year. They poke fun, comment and satirize social, political and international issues and scandals of the day. Later on that day and the next day, they adorn themselves in their pretty costumes vying for Band of the Year. The music of Steel and Brass Bands, Popular DJs on big trucks drive the masqueraders into a frenzy for the Roadmarch title.
In 1967 Canada, North America was in a hostile upheaval. The Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam made for a tense atmosphere that did not go unnoticed to the Caribana organizers, who later became the Caribbean Cultural Committee. Knowing full well that our traditional mas is born out of protest, organizers were quick to stymie the traditional mas element of our carnival and present the ‘pretty mas’ aspect of the carnival traditions. They feared that people would seize the opportunity to protest their politics – a reasonable concern.
This dumbing down of the Carnival then remains to this day. The present purveyors of the Carnival as well as the Carnival Mas Bands continue to miss the opportunity of a traditional mas’ element inside the Toronto Carnival. The average Canadian onlooker and the millennial mas’ player would not know the traditional masquerade of such characters as “Bookman” or “Beelzebub” if they see it in portrayal. They would not understand the significance of a masked individual carrying a placard with a statement on it. This lack of awareness illustrates the actions of Toronto police, bringing my theatre company’s traditional Mas band to a halt.
In 2006, Theatre Archipelago collaborated with OCPA (Organization of Calypso Performing Artists) and the Toronto Island Mas Band to participate as a guest band in that year’s Caribana. An overzealous police officer came running towards us to ‘halt!’ in a move to prevent us from parading. He feared that we were protesters who came to Exhibition Place to disrupt the parade that summer. The same year that the Jamaican T-shirt bands were abolished from the festival. There was an apparent bulletin to look out for some fallout from the ‘yardies’ it seems. Luckily, then Caribana Board member, the late Mr John Kam, came rushing to our assistance, informing the police that we were a registered guest band with every right to participate.
Our presentation was titled, Côté ci Côte la. It consisted of a group of LGBTQ2S blue devils led by Artist Educator, Natalie Wood; Ole mas presentations and traditional carnival characters. I recall the opposition by some members of the Caribbean Cultural Committee, that we don’t ‘harass anybody.’ The arrogance of such a statement from a designated road Marshall. The perfect example of ‘playing sailor mas and fraid powder’.
Needless to say, once we hit the road, the marshalls were quick to hustle us along, depriving all of truly experiencing the mas’. Traditional mas’ is not a Santa Claus parade. Each character has either a narrative or a pantomime to perform. They don’t just walk along the road. You play your mas to collect money from the bystanders literally. The better you play, the more you collect.
The Canboulay riots of 1881 signaled the African presence in the carnival. These ancestors fought the colonial authorities to stake their claim to play their mas’ without harassment from the town folk and the police. Their creations are still portrayed today and form part of the pantheon of traditional carnival characters.
If indeed the Toronto Carnival is inspired by the Trinidad Carnival, then traditional carnival must have a presence. It is an acknowledgment of the post emancipated African contribution to the occasion. Our ancestors who created Jab Molassie, Dame Lorraine, Pierrot Grenade and Baby Doll to name a few; playing this mas’ every year in the same costume, maybe a new sequin, or patch here or there is highly nuanced and ritualistic.
Alas, 54 years later we hunker down to another virtual carnival and the traditional mas’ forms still struggle for recognition. The “virtual carnival” of 2020 pointedly refused to spotlight those of us who donned our traditional mas’ costume and got on to the Zoom presentation, reinforcing the weak-minded notion that Traditional
Mas’ has no place in Toronto Carnival.
Rhoma Spencer is an Actor, Playwright, Director, Comedian and Cultural Critic. When not doing any of these she can be seen as a Chef turning out TnT cuisine in her neighbourhood weekly Cultural Bazaar.