Hard at work in the Roots mas camp: Roots of Carifiesta

Roots of Carifiesta

Volunteers construct costumes at Roots' mas camp
Photo: Richard Burnett

Inside one of the city's mas camps, where costumes are readied for the historic parade

Montreal’s most colourful and exciting parade, Carifiesta, is a tradition born of slavery in Trinidad and Tobago, when French colonial masters hosted huge masquerade balls three days before Ash Wednesday. Slaves got a day off and mimicked their masters at their own parties, a tradition that morphed into Trinidad’s famed Carnival.

That tradition migrated north to such cities as Miami, NYC, Toronto and Montreal. And this year, Montreal’s 20 competing floats, known as "mas bands," will all "play mas" (as in masquerade).

Each mas band must have a theme and at least 35 people in costumes, which are made of colourful feathers and bouncing fibreglass rods. Participants in mas camps throughout the city build mas (stitch costumes and build floats) for competition this weekend.

Over the last three decades, no Montreal mas camp has won more prizes than Roots Cultural Association. "We didn’t do anything special for our 30th anniversary last year," Roots artistic director Stephen Payne told Hour this week, "so this year our theme is ‘Hello Africa.’ We’re going back to the origin of Roots [named after the famed TV mini-series]. We’re going back to Africa."

photo: Richard Burnett

At Roots’ mas camp in Bill Durnan Arena, in Côte-des-Neiges, Payne and dozens of volunteers are currently building thematic costumes for 72 kids and over 100 adults, which will cost participants $50-$150 (you get to keep the costume after the parade). The six monumental costumes – the ones with fibreglass rods and steel wheels – can cost over $600 each.

"We started making samples in February," Payne explains. "You often have to buy materials outside Montreal, like in Trinidad, where you can buy stuff you can’t here, like papier lamee."

Roots is still looking for participants to play mas at Carifiesta ("Everybody is welcome – white, black, brown, Asian – Carifiesta is now part of every Montrealer’s culture") and Payne is excited about parade day.

"That’s when you see everything come together for the first time," he says. "There’s no better feeling!"

Don’t miss these events leaving up to the big parade: Junior Carnival Competition (children’s costumes), at Bill Durnan Arena (4988 Vézina), June 28 at 4 p.m.; King and Queen of the Bands Competition, at Bill Durnan Arena, June 28 at 8 p.m.

Carifiesta Parade of the Bands
Along René-Lévesque between Guy and Bleury, July 5, beginning at noon

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