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Five things to know about Toronto Caribbean Carnival, aka Caribana

Bee Quammie

 // Jul 29, 2016

It’s almost here! The biggest celebration of Caribbean culture in North America is about to culminate in an orgasmic long weekend full of music, food and feathers, so that means Toronto’s Caribana is just around the corner.

While now officially called the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, this festival will forever reside in the hearts of many as Caribana. Whatever you call it, it’s the place to be — so check out these five pointers that are necessary for understanding and enjoying Caribana:

Photo: Teeography

Carnival Nationz Band Launch 2013

1. Caribana’s history: The festival started in 1967 by the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC), a community group formed as part of the celebration of Canada’s centennial. The CCC created Caribana to showcase the rich Caribbean culture many people have brought to Canada, and transported the vibe of Carnivals across the Caribbean (particularly Trinidad’s world-renowned festivities) to Toronto. Through the years, various financial and ownership issues have snaked through Caribana’s existence, seeing it move from the hands of the CCC to Toronto’s Festival Management Committee (FMC) amid much controversy. Operating sponsor Scotiabank came on board in 2008, and in 2011 the festival’s name was changed to Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival. Scotiabank ended its sponsorship of a number of initiatives, including Caribana, in late 2015, so its name is now legally “Toronto Caribbean Carnival.”

2. Caribana is more than a parade and parties: Caribana usually officially launches in July, with a number of events leading up to the big parade weekend, which always lands on Canada’s Civic holiday weekend. Notable events include the official launch event, Junior Carnival (also called Kiddie Carnival, a parade for the little ones to take part in), the annual gala, the King and Queen competition, the Panorama/Pan Alive steel pan show and other events around Toronto.

3. What the parade is all about: The history behind playing mas is a rich one. Michael La Rose, a cultural and political activist and chair of the George Padmore Institute in the U.K., wrote that “Carnival is where Africa and Europe met in the cauldron of the Caribbean slave system to produce a new festival for the world.” In Trinidad in the late 1700s, French plantation owners would host masquerade balls that tied the beginning of Lent and the sugar cane harvesting season. While they were hosting their grand events, their African slaves had the chance to wear masks and costumes to masquerade as their owners, mocking and mimicking them. This tradition carried on and eventually developed into Trinidad’s Carnival, which Toronto’s Caribana (and other similar events in New York, Miami and Notting Hill) is based on.

4. How to be a masquerader in the Caribana parade: Some of the most known mas bands in Caribana are Carnival Nationz, Saldenah, Toronto Revellers and Tribal Knights. Each mas band comes up with a unique theme each year, which determines the style of their costumes. Every spring, mas bands hold a fête (party) called a band launch, where you come to party and see a fashion show of all the costume selections. Each band is made up of different designers who create their own sections, so one theme will have a variety of costumes. Mas registration usually opens at the band launch or shortly after, where you can order and pay a deposit on the costume of your choice. From there you’ll get info on when to pick up your handmade costume and any details you need to know for parade day. Popular costumes sell out quickly — you need to stay ready or be prepared to watch from the sidelines. In recent years, fences have been installed along the parade route in a controversial move aimed at keeping people safe both on and off the road. Regardless of your position on the presence of fences, one tip stands firm: Be smart and safe about your participation.

5. Stay up on the latest chunes (not tunes — chunes): Carnival is huge for the Caribbean music industry, particularly for soca/calypso/chutney artists. Any DJ who doesn’t have the newest chunes in their lineup is not to be trusted, but partygoers can prepare with a simple Google search. Search “Soca 2016” or “Carnival music 2016” and you’ll undoubtedly find the newness from Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, King Bubba, or Destra (to name a few) to get you ready for the celebration. If you come from out of town for Caribana, put a soca fête on your event list. The beats, rhythms, and vibe will infuse you in a way that’s almost indescribable, and you might catch a nice wine or two. Want a guide on how to dance to soca? Check out this blog post from Radial — a new soca music streaming app.

So there you have it! A bit of history, some information on getting involved, and some preparation to help you loosen up your waistline. Are you making the trip to Toronto for this year’s celebration? If yes, I might see you on the road. And if not, well, you have a whole year to practice your dance moves for 2017. Happy fêteing!

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