Notting Hill Carnival mas parade
Feathers, sequins and spectacular costumes – discover our guide to the mas (masquerade) parade
The streets become drenched in colour when the mas extravanganza takes over. But there’s a whole lot of stitchin’ and sequin-sewin’ behind Carnival’s parade. Find out how the Genesis mas band prepares for Carnival in the video below, and read our mas guide to find out more. Read Zena Alkayat's account of Genesis mas band's preparation for Carnival.
See how the Genesis mas band prepares for Carnival
What is the mas parade?
Mas traces its roots to the ‘carnevales’ held in pre-Lent Italy, which were in turn taken by French plantation owners in the 1780s to the West Indies. Slaves mimicked – or mocked – the masked balls, adding their own African influences and Indian fabrics to the mix. The first Carnival proper was held in Trinidad in 1833 (although this date is disputed; some say 1834, others 1838) to mark the end of slavery in the Caribbean, and there are now Carnivals around the world.
Some mas bands are comprised of just 30 members and a soundsystem; others have more than 350 masqueraders, all in matching costumes. Each band chooses a theme for their extravagant outfits and make-up.
How do the mas bands prepare for Carnival?
Mas paraders spend a full year preparing for the Notting Hill Carnival – unsurprising, when you see their fabulous, intricate costumes up close. Mas bands can be formed by small community groups right through to professionally trained paraders. The children’s mas parade takes place on Carnival Sunday, while the adults shine on Carnival Monday.
Zena Alkayat meets the Genesis mas band
A swarm of chattering girls and women are busy with sequins, rolls of iridescent fabric, sewing machines, scissors, glue guns and feathers. Men lift giant costume wings and line up tunes on the laptop. This kaleidoscopic, friendly group is mas band Genesis – and I’m at their annual ‘mas camp’ in a west London industrial unit.
I’m supposed to be helping with costume-making and, though my craft skills aren’t up to much, there’s plenty to do ahead of Notting Hill Carnival’s masquerade (‘mas’) parade. This will see 80-odd mas bands dance through the streets in a vision of themed outfits and colourful floats, set to a pulsating soundtrack from DJs and steel bands.
There are about 15 volunteers here today, and among the bubbling workshop chaos, Symone Williams is at the helm. She has managed the band since her father Vernon Williams passed away in 2002. Vernon was one of the founding members of Notting Hill Carnival in 1964, going on to become the don of costume-making when mas became popular in the ’70s. He created forward-thinking designs with a nod to tradition (that is, Europe’s aristocratic masked balls) as well as his roots in Trinidad, where mas has existed for nearly 200 years.
For Symone, her dedicated mother Allyson Williams MBE and her hands-on brother Kevin, the 31-year-old Genesis will always be a family mas band, for whom mas camp is key. At their Ladbroke Grove base, anyone is welcome to come along and try their hand at costume-making. Young people in particular are encouraged to volunteer – a chance for the Williams family to pass down knowledge – and the nurturing environment, full of soul food and music, has given plenty of children and teenagers a sense of achievement.
As the last of some 200 costumes are finished off, Symone hands me a pair of scissors. ‘It’s simple – honest,’ she encourages. I nervously start cutting scales for a mermaid skirt. With a bit of luck, my contribution will blend in to the band’s riotous theme for this year: ‘Myths and Treasures Beneath the Sea’.