Mas (masquerade) costumes towering as high as nine metres and weighing as much as 150 kilograms are trollied around Lamport Stadium year after year for Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival. Costumes sprouting yards of bedazzled fabric and feathers styled into massive dragons, eagles, smiling jesters and even teeth-baring lions earn the mas band leaders the title of king or queen at the annual fest.
But the months leading up to the shows are when the real work happens.
Every year hundreds of volunteers divide their time between their day jobs and several facilities across the city where they help handcraft carnival costumes in what are known as “mas camps.”
Inside of the Carnival Nationz (CNz) mas camp on Dynamic Drive in Scarborough, dozens of volunteers painstakingly glue and stitch together themed costumes to be worn by the thousands of people who signed up to play mas this year.
In carnival, every steel pan note, dance movement, and calypso lyric tell a story. And the costumes are no different.
The architects behind them conjure up tales to tell with each band and, with no professional background in costume design, astonishingly engineer garb that bring each tale to life and illicit awes.
For CNz, headed by it’s two band leaders Marcus Eustace and Bryce Aguiton, that story is one about Canada. The Armed Forces, Her Majesty, in honour of Canada’s 150, Horseshoe Falls representing Niagara Falls, Snow Angels and More Life, named after Drake’s latest album as homage to the Toronto musician, are a few of the costumes put together in this particular facility.
Blues, oranges, and pinks inundate the eyes as calypso music playing in the background provides a score to the conversation.
“It feels like a home,” Deborah Chang Kit-Minott, a Trinidadian-Canadian costume designer with Carnival Nationz, tells me. “We’re like a big family.”
The volunteers at mas camp return every year, where they spend as many as 20 hours a week starting in early May, when camp convenes to begin preparations for the upcoming festival, until the week of what was once called Caribana on the first Saturday in August.
Chang Kit-Minott took NOW Magazine on a tour of CNz’s mas camp recently ahead of Toronto Caribbean Carnival’s grand parade on Saturday (August 5).
How long have you been involved with mas?
Over 20 years. In helping out, volunteering first, then becoming a section leader and then I started building the big costumes.
Do you make yourself a costume to participate in the parade?
Yes. This year I’ll be wearing an Armed Forces costume. Usually, I have two costumes.
Why did you first get involved with costuming for Toronto carnival?
I came to Canada 40 years ago. My second year in Canada I started going to Caribana, just to see it.
Then I thought, “Maybe I should play mas.” And then I started to play and I said, “Well, it’s not enough for me.” So I started to volunteer. When my last boy was about nine, he wanted something big. So I started my first big costume.
It’s my culture. This is something that I was born into. My father was also a mas builder back home. My grandma took us as young children – my aunts, my uncles and my sisters – and we went to carnival back home. So this was something that I grew up with.
What keeps volunteers returning every year?
They like the idea that they’re helping. When you see the costumes in the parade, it gives you a sense of pride, that this is something that I helped with.
How much does it cost to rent a mas camp facility?
It can cost anywhere between $2500 to $5000 a month, depending on the number of units. Then you have to pay, of course, your hydro, insurance and things like that.
What happens to costumes after the festival?
They’re usually thrown out. You get used to it. [But] this year I’m donating one to the Heritage Toronto museum. I did an exhibit at Market Gallery for Canada 150 that focused on Caribbean culture. I was asked what we do with the costumes. I said they’re thrown out and the museum said they’d love to have one. So I said, “sure.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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