Like an iridescent serpent, it snaked its way along the waterfront under a blazing afternoon sun. A shimmering, quivering body of rhinestones, feathers and sequins, it wound across more than three kilometres of lakeside Toronto. And the beast emitted a joyful roar—blasting horns, walloping bass and thundering drums—that could be heard all over the downtown area. Toronto’s Caribana parade, held July 31st, was in the middle of its annual orgy of color and sound. Staged by the city’s Caribbean communities, the parade, now in its 26th year, has grown to become one of the largest carnival celebrations in North America. This year, it attracted more than one million spectators, including 300,000 American tourists, who waved and danced as 40 troupes and nearly 10,000 costumed revellers streamed by. There were peacocks and dinosaurs, flowers and sailors, aliens and insects. One masquerader, looking like something from a Woody Allen sex comedy, came dressed as giant male and female genitalia.
Modelled on Trinidad and Tobago’s annual carnival celebrations, Caribana has helped Toronto to loosen up as the city gradually transformed itself from the stiff, Anglo capital of yesteryear into a more liberated, cosmopolitan centre. Toronto’s Caribbean population, more than 300,000 strong, provides the movers and shakers who organize the week-long festival, which includes numerous concerts and costume competitions. And what is surprising is how many non-Caribbean Canadians have embraced the island tradition. “It’s the best party in town,” said Leida Englar, a Toronto theatre administrator. Englar and a group of friends have entered a masquerade contingent, or mas’ band, in the festival for the past nine years. “We’re hooked on it,” she said, “and I’m one of its biggest junkies.”
More than just unlocking pelvises, Caribana delivers a powerful jolt to the Toronto economy—an estimated $200 million in tourist dollars. As well, the event spins off a healthy cottage industry: the mas’ bands spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on costume materials. Perhaps mindful of Caribana’s drawing power, the provincial government has become distinctly friendlier. This year, Ontario Tourism Minister Anne Swarbrick became the first cabinet member to tour the mas’ camps, where the elaborate costumes are created. Still, government funding to the festival is minimal: civic, provincial and federal contributions amount to only $400,000.
At one of those mas’ camps, however, official visits were far from anyone’s mind. It was midnight, the night before the King and Queen of the Bands competition. In a dimly lit warehouse in the city’s industrial west end, a man was embracing what appeared to be Big Bird, of Sesame Street fame. In fact, it was a 12-foot-tall, twoheaded peacock, and Leon Liben, balanced precariously on a milk crate atop a stool, was gluing gold sequins on to its long necks. The creature was the TrinCan group’s official entry in the king competition. Designed by band leader Wallace Alexander, an unemployed Trinidadborn carpenter, the costume took months to construct beginning with a welded steel frame on to which wire, fibreglass and spandex are attached. The weary Alexander was insisting to his volunteer crew that all remaining sequins, feathers and jewelry had to be in place by morning.
Over in nearby Lamport Stadium the next night, Sgt. Steven Clark was warming up the audience with an unscheduled performance of the Donkey, an outrageous new dance imported from this year’s carnival in Trinidad. With his knees together, feet apart and backside sticking out, the policeman bounced away—to the crowd’s delight. A 29-year veteran of the force, Clark later explained that he simply gets a kick out of joining in. Besides, he added, it’s good for public relations. The Caribana Cop then gave way to 73 kings and queens, all strutting their plumed and sequined stuff for the judges.
The competition for Caribana awards is fierce. Some groups, like that of celebrated leader Louis Saldenah, spend up to $80,000 on music, floats and costumes. And designs are a closely guarded secret. But with top prizes a mere $5,000 each for king and queen, the mas’ producers are clearly not in it for the money. Alexander, in fact, lost his job last year because he was devoting too much time to Caribana. He and his Canadian-born wife, Diane Kahler, a federal civil servant, spend six months fund-raising and planning for the festival. For Alexander, it is a tradition deeply rooted in Trinidad’s history, when freed slaves in the early 19th century began taking part in Frenchstyle carnivals by donning masks and making fun of their former masters.
But time plays havoc with even the strongest traditions. Over the years, homespun political mas’ and its satirical sister, calypso, have
given way to more elaborate costumes designed purely for entertainment, and to the fast, frenzied party music known as soca. Caribana, too, has come a long way from its origins as a 1967 centennial celebration, when 1,000 revellers from Toronto’s Trinidadian community played mas’ for a crowd of 32,000. Three years ago, the festival outgrew its central parade route and moved south to the wider Lakeshore Boulevard. This year, to prevent onlookers from overwhelming the revellers, Caribana’s organizers put up barricades. (Crowd safety was also an issue: last year, one person was shot and another jabbed in the neck with a broken bottle.) Critics have complained that what was once an accessible street bash has now been turned into a tightly controlled spectator sport.
By the time the parade began its giddy conga line, however, it was clear that Caribana was still jumping. Flatbed trucks, hauling bands such as Massive Chandelier and DJs with names like Black Sheep, pumped out an endless soca beat. Such hedonistic anthems as Super Blue’s Bacchanal Time and Ajala’s Jump Up and Get on Bad were mixed with the hands-down parade favorite, the United Sisters’ Whoa Donkey, the source of the sexually suggestive mule dance. But the 10,000 revellers were the real stars of the show. Five-yearold Kenneth Struys, who took first prize in a Junior Carnival category, amused spectators with his playfully provocative gyrations. And Jane Lapierre, a member of Saldenah’s 700-strong Light After Dark band, was resplendent in her black,. silver and neon green space suit. “I can’t imagine a year without this,” said Lapierre, a fashion designer who has played mas’ since the age of three. “It’s the one day when you can be truly free.”
Fourteen hours later, it was over for another year. But not quite. In a nearby warehouse, members of Whitfield Belasco’s band were still celebrating. Belasco, sipping a beer, admitted that this year’s festival had cost his band roughly $50,000. Although sponsors and costume fees to band members will cover most of that amount, Belasco reckoned that he will still owe $5,000. For the courier company driver and father of two, that represents a considerable outlay. More sponsors will need to be found. In the meantime, still admiring his band’s costumes, Belasco was willing to foot the bill.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.