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It’s Caribbean carnival time!


Photo by Eric Parker licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

Every summer, over one million people come to Toronto to celebrate a festival of Caribbean culture and tradition. It is North America’s largest street festival and runs for three weeks, ending with a spectacular Grand Parade of Bands. And this year, the festival is turning 52 — happy birthday!

When did the Carribean Festival start?

woman in a beautiful costume

A reveler takes part in the 2010 Caribana parade. (Adrien Veczan/Canadian Press)

In 1967, an organization called the Caribbean Central Committee organized a festival as a gift to Canada in celebration of its centennial year (that's 100 years).

That year, thousands of people visited the Centre Island in Toronto to enjoy Caribbean music, food and culture.

The main event was a great parade right downtown with mas bands and the sounds of calypso music and steel drums.

Today, the grand parade takes over the waterfront and includes costumed performers, floats and music during the summer in July and August.

What’s a ‘mas band’?

mas band

(Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)

All the different people that come out to walk and dance in the parade are divided up into mas bands — which means "masquerade group."

Each group is headed by the band leader. They design the theme and all the different costumes for everyone in the group. There can be many sections to a mas band, each with their own costumes and sounds.

Each band also has a King and Queen. They wear the biggest, loudest and most beautiful costumes.

With so many people participating, some of the bands can have several thousand masqueraders!

It’s all about the music

a Caribana steelpan band

(Photo credit: Fort George G. Meade on / CC BY)

You can’t have a festival without music!

The sounds of the Caribbean festival come from the steelpan, often called a steel drum.

Unique sounds and notes are made by hitting different grooved parts of the drum with special padded drumsticks. The musicians who play the steelpan are called pannists.

They entertain the masqueraders with calypso, a kind of rhythmic West Indian music. They also play soca, a more energetic mix of calypso and East Indian rhythms.

Pannists also get to show off their musical talents in a grand steelpan competition at the end of the festival.

Costumes fit for a King and Queen

One of the most beautiful parts of the parade are the costumes.

Once the band leader comes up with the designs for the costumes for each section of their band, the big work begins.

Sewing, gluing, welding, applying feathers, sparkles and glitter all by hand requires a lot of skill and patience.

It may take a long time, but it’s all worth it in the end when the awards for King and Queen are given out.

Don’t forget the food

a plate of deep fried plantains

Fried plantains. (Photo credit: Tony Webster on VisualHunt / CC BY)

The Caribbean festival brings together food from several different backgrounds. There's Spanish, Chinese, Indian, French, African, English and even Dutch. This means there is a great variety of dishes to try.

Some traditional foods include meat dishes such as roti (a wrap stuffed with curried meat), jerk chicken (very spicy!) and Jamaican patties (pastries filled with spicy beef or chicken).

You can also get ginger beer (a soda made with ginger and sugar), rice and beans, coconut water and fried plantains (a type of banana). Yummy!