A step-by-step guide to Carnival

Playing mas is not a spectator sport

A step-by-step guide to Carnival

Photograph by Melissa Alexander

Winston Munroe has been playing mas for 65 years and he says each year is even more exhilarating than the last. According to the Trinidad native, who is also president of Sesame Atlanta band, Carnival preparations for the next year begin a day after Carnival ends.

“For four to six weeks we sit down weekly and decide on a theme for the next year and decide what worked for us the previous year and what didn’t,” he says. “Then we begin the marketing and fundraising for the band launch.”

Do bands sometimes swipe one another’s ideas? “Rarely,” Munroe says. “I put my idea out there to the band association in terms of themes so that there aren’t any duplications.”

Each band sets a launch date between January and right up to Carnival, being careful not to double book so that they can support each other in their costume reveals.

A step-by-step guide to Carnival

Photograph by Melissa Alexander

Once the band launch is set, Munroe commissions a designer to help assemble the costumes bead by bead, feather by feather, with meticulous precision.

One misconception that Munroe feels people have is that it’s easy to do and it doesn’t cost much money: “That’s totally wrong. It’s a difficult process and it costs between $35,000­–$50,000 to put bands ‘on the road.’”

Playing mas is not a spectator sport. So, you have a full year to claim your band allegiance and get your mind and money right. This is not a drill.

A step-by-step guide to Carnival
For this year’s band launch on January 28th, themed “Next Generation,” Sesame Atlanta president Winston Munroe flew in costume designer Carleen Ramlochansingh from Toronto to complete the costume installations.

Photograph by Melissa Alexander

Step 1 | Budget
Carnival isn’t cheap, so decide how much you can afford to spend. In the end, your budget will impact the type of experience you’re able to have—from the type and number of fetes (parties) you attend and the band you choose to play with, to the type of costume you wear. The total could range from $250 to $2,000—including fete fees, costumes, accessories, and full makeup.

A step-by-step guide to Carnival
The purpose of a band launch is to market the costumes and to entice potential masqueraders to “play mas” with the band come Carnival season.

Photograph by Melissa Alexander

Step 2 | Choose a band
If you’re officially playing mas, and not just spectating, you must join a carnival band. The good news is that—unlike Mardi Gras Krewes, which can be steeped in politics and generational rivalries—Atlanta’s roughly two dozen mas bands welcome anyone who can pay the cost of participation. You don’t have to have a connection to the Caribbean or locale the band represents. You just have to like the vibe. Not that there aren’t rivalries. “But it’s all in good fun,” says Munroe. “The bands get to fight for bragging rights.”

A step-by-step guide to CarnivalStep 3 | Select a costume
Once you’ve chosen a band and have seen their theme for the next year, it’s time to select your costume. Know whether you have a penchant for sparkle and sass, feathers and high drama—or all the above, says Aisha Sylvester from travel blog Island Girl In-Transit. “Pay attention to details such as the style of the bra, the thickness of the waistband, the cut of the bottom piece, and ensure that you’ll be comfortable rocking whatever you choose, in public, all day long.”

A step-by-step guide to CarnivalStep 4 | Purchase fete tickets
Attending fetes isn’t a requirement for playing mas but it is an essential part of building the hype that spills into Carnival weekend. Tickets for some of the season’s best fetes are usually sold out before January, so you’ll want to get a jump on purchasing them. Depending on the length of the season, there can be hundreds of fetes and band launches between New Year’s Day and Carnival weekend.

A step-by-step guide to CarnivalStep 5 | Learn the music
“Costumes aside, playing mas in Carnival comes down to one thing—the music,” says Sylvester. The quality of the songs and your familiarity with them can make or break the experience for you. So, before you even set foot “on the road,” make sure you know the songs of the season. Sylvester recommends you follow DJ Private Ryan to get hip. “Listen to his soca mixes religiously until you can sing every tune word for word.” Popular artists you can also follow include Machel Montano, Kes the Band, Nailah Blackman, and Destra Garcia.

Read the full feature: Atlanta’s Caribbean Vibes

This article appears in our May 2023 issue.