Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival rediscovering its roots after half a century

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A report by Mike Adler for Inside Toronto.

Toronto’s Caribbean carnival has made memories for 50 years, and Horace Thorne did his best to preserve them.

Uninterested in wearing costumes, Thorne joined the festival in 1969, and was soon running its Grande Parade. After 12 years of that, he was security chief for 17.

Through it all, as the carnival became more commercial and grew into the largest of its kind in North America, Thorne took pictures.

He’s shot and sorted roughly 3,000 – steel pan players, scenes at mas camps, Calypsonians, festival executives, the nitty-gritty – because he knew participants, or their children, would want to see them.

“We must have some kind of archives we can look back on,” Thorne, 81, said last week, watching visitors to Scarborough Civic Centre follow his 50th anniversary exhibit, ‘From Then to Now’, around the rotunda.

“I was not commissioned to do anything. I did it on my own.”

Thorne’s framed collages – displayed until August 3 – hold such rarities as the first carnival identification badges, which he made, and images of Toronto masqueraders and musicians in Hong Kong for Lunar New Year in 2004 and 2005, when China’s special administrative region was eager to recapture tourists it lost to SARS.

“They invited 50 of us,” Thorne recalled.

The festival, as he said, “has its warts, just like everything else,” and Thorne talked about those too.

One is the pittance governments give the festival compared to the money it brings in.

Another is people feeling entitled to join masqueraders, who pay to wear a costume, in parades. “You don’t go into the Lion Dance, you don’t go into the Santa Claus Parade,” Thorne argued.

Yet another is the festival has gotten away from its roots in Caribbean culture. Some of Thorne’s early parade shots show stilt walkers, Blue Devils and other traditional costumes.

“It’s not only the bikini and the beads,” said Thorne, who wants people to know the significance of carnival and how it began.

“Young people, if you don’t know where you come from, you wouldn’t have respect for it.”

As people get set for the August 3 King and Queen Show at Lamport Stadium and Grande Parade, August 5 at Exhibition Place, mas camps for the 11 carnival bands, 10 of them in Scarborough, are busy.

In Malvern, Louis Saldenah, who’s won band of the year 17 times, and runner up in 13 more, worked alongside some of his 150 volunteers.

He’s supplying 4,200 costumes as the festival’s biggest band. He started with 98 masqueraders in 1977, back when bands were more numerous but smaller.

Federal and provincial governments, Saldenah said, are the festival’s main beneficiaries, but contribute almost nothing. “We, as Caribbean people, should be more politically involved.”

With more money, the festival can properly secure the parade route, bring in young band leaders and double the number of participants, he predicted.

“Instead of having 9,000 people in costume, we could have 20,000 people in costume.”

He said the shift from traditional costumes to bikinis, beads and feathers is one band leaders, including himself, had to make.

“The young people are the ones that are participating, and we have to give them what they want. Otherwise, they wouldn’t buy the costumes.”

People are aware of historical mas, but prefer to play in bands that have two-piece costumes and the seven or eight sections, said Saldenah, whose masqueraders this year include 900 Americans, plus people from England, Australia, Dubai and the Caribbean.

“If I changed to a lot of cloth in my presentation, I would most likely get 500 to 600 people.”

At the Cajuca Mas Arts Producers mas camp in mid-Scarborough, co-founders Clarence and Jackie Forde are strong critics of the predominant festival costumes while reintroducing traditional ones through their Ol’ Time Carnival show.

Last year, they brought back blousey Dame Lorraines, meant to mock slave owners’ wives, Blue Devils, and the tough-talking Midnight Robber.

This time, Ol’ Time Carnival will appear at more places, including Scarborough’s Maidavale Park on August 19, adding new characters, including the stilt-walking orator, Pierrot Grenade, the Shortknee from Grenada, the Soucyant or sucubbus, stick fighters and white-faced minstrels – all spawned by colonialism in the Caribbean.

“We do this because it’s not just beads and feathers,” Jackie Forde said.

Nearby, finishing a costume panel, was Gemma Nicolson, one of many Scarborough volunteers toiling with pins, glue guns or welding torches to make carnival possible.

“If you were born in Trinidad, you know why. Everybody gets involved,” Nicolson said.

Cajuca is theatre, not a festival band. But there are signs some bands also want to return to carnival’s cultural roots.

“You’re going to be seeing traditional mas on the road,” Venom Carnival’s first-time leader Hayden Joseph said Monday.

On costumes, Joseph said, Toronto’s band leaders “follow what’s in Trinidad, but Trinidad is going backwards to the old days.”

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