Mas protest: How traditional Carnival was born out of resistance

Storyteller and champion of Caribbean theatre Rhoma Spencer pays homage to the activist origins of Trinidadian Carnival.

Rhoma Spencer pays homage to the activist origins of Trinidadian Carnival

(CBC Arts)

You may have noticed something something strange happening in the Bentway under the Gardiner expressway — a motley crew of colourful characters dancing in procession to the riddims of a four-piece band.

While it celebrated some of the same spirit as Caribana, it wasn't hard to tell this was something different. This was traditional mas lead by the "Midnight Robber" Rhoma Spencer as a way to pay homage to the origins of Trinidadian Carnival.

Watch the video:

Rhoma Spencer's activism-inspired mas

3 years ago
There's a different kind of Mas taking place at The Bentway under Toronto's Gardiner Expressway 4:20

Spencer is a seasoned storyteller and champion of Caribbean theatre. While she does not take issue with the droves of bikini-clad dancers and feathered floats that take to the streets every year for the Caribana parade, her reason for displaying this parallel parade was simple: "There is more to the Carnival than that."

(CBC Arts)

Mas, short for masquerade, started in the late 18th century. French plantation owners would organize masquerade balls, dinners and parties from Christmas to the commencement of Lent. It was a lavish tradition which slaves were aware of, but barred from participating in until post-emancipation. So, they created their own mas — one that was celebratory but woke.

Mas and activism go hand in hand. When the post-emancipated took to the streets to celebrate his emancipation, he was protesting as well.- Rhoma Spencer

"It's very important to look back and say: 'Where did these things come from? How did these beautiful and amazing art practices emerge?'" says Jade Lee Hoy, executive director of Friends of the Pan Am Path. Spencer hopes to provide a few answers to those questions as she encourages curious onlookers to jump up, join in and play mas with her.

(CBC Arts)

Viey La Cou, or "The Old Yard," is a celebration of traditional Carnival characters. It depicts common players such as:

  • Midnight Robber: a mas inspired by the costumes of spaghetti westerns
  • Baby Doll: a statement on absentee fathers, involving a woman holding a doll which is meant to symbolize an illegitimate child
  • Pierrot Grenade: a take on the French "sad clown," this character is a scholar, regularly quoting literature and teaching in his own unique manner
  • Dame Lorraine: a mas performed in drag and meant to satirize the French aristocracy
  • Speech Band: in the tradition of African griots, a character who would share stories and use humour to call out the hypocrisy of the scandals of the day (think Trevor Noah, but using rhyming couplets)

This piece was part of the Untold Futures Series put on by the Friends of the Pan Am Path, a not-for profit organization activating the 87km Pan Am Path through arts.

(CBC Arts)

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Lucius Dechausay is a video producer at CBC Arts, as well as a freelance illustrator and filmmaker. His short films and animations have been screened at a number of festivals including The Toronto International Film Festival and Hot Docs. Most recently he directed KETTLE, which is currently streaming at CBC Short Docs.