The History of Mas

Exploring the origins of Mas and its significance to Notting Hill Carnival.

By Notting Hill Carnival

Elimu (2013)Notting Hill Carnival

What is Mas?

Mas Bands are one of the ‘five key arts’ of Notting Hill Carnival. Mas, short for ‘masquerade’, participants dress in costumes, masks and other disguises to dance through the parade route. These costumes bring an artistic narrative to the heart of carnival, and carnival-goers are encouraged to join a band and play Mas.  

Dame Lorraine (2018/2018) by Sebastian BouknightNotting Hill Carnival

Is Mas all the same?

Traditionally, Mas bands select a theme and have a King, Queen and further individuals to represent this theme. Specific ‘characters’ are often depicted, such as the Dame Lorraine (pictured), Moko Jumbie or Midnight Robber

Vibrance Mas Band by Vibrance Mas BandNotting Hill Carnival

Over recent years costuming in Mas bands has developed significantly, partly due to the influence of Brazilian samba costumes. There has been an increase in pretty Mas, with costumes made up of bikinis, beads and feathers, as opposed to traditional narrative or thematic costumes.

Early Mas in TrinidadNotting Hill Carnival

The Origins of Mas

Mas originates from the 1800s with the emancipation of slavery in the Caribbean, and has developed to combine a variety of different influences. 

Negue Jardin (1959/1959) by Carlisle ChangNotting Hill Carnival

The Origins of Mas

A now extinct character was the Negue Jardin (‘field slave’), deriving from pre-emancipation festivities in which plantation owners would mimic their slaves. Following the abolition of slavery, former slaves reclaimed this character by ironically imitating plantation owners and combining elements of their African cultural heritage to create mas. 

Elimu (2013)Notting Hill Carnival

The Diversification of Mas

Mas has become a key part of Caribbean carnival, with its fashions and characters developing as an amalgamation of African and European traditions and culture. Today, Mas further combines elements of the traditions from the Brazilian diaspora.

Jab JabNotting Hill Carnival

J'Ouvert

A key element of Mas at Carnival is J’Ouvert, which marks the start of the festivities on the first day of Carnival. Before daybreak, J’Ouvert revellers cover themselves in mud, oil, paint and even chocolate, acting as a celebration of liberation from the constraints of the past.

Cultural symbols can be seen throughout J’Ouvert, involving Mas characters such as the Jab Jab (Devil Mas, pictured).

Similarly, Dutty (dirty) or Fun Mas sees participants dancing in brightly coloured paints and powders in a display of mayhem, revelry and pure bacchanal.

Notting Hill Carnival Mas (1994/1994) by Steve Eason/Hulton ArchiveNotting Hill Carnival

How was Mas Introduced to the UK?

Mas is widely thought to have been introduced to the U.K. in the 1960s, when Trinidadian-style Mas camps became popularised in the local Trinidadian diaspora. However, locals desired more, wanting a Carnival experience that truly replicated the masquerades of home.

Early Mas in Notting Hill Carnival (1978/1978) by Frank BarrattNotting Hill Carnival

Mas and Notting Hill Carnival

In the early 1960s, several Trinidadian women from Notting Hill approached Rhaune Laslett to replicate the Trinidadian Carnival experience in London. The subsequent street festival saw children and adults parading through Ladbroke Grove in costume. This was the foundation of Notting Hill Carnival; one in which Mas played a central role.

Mas in Notting Hill Carnival 1973, from documentary Mas in the Ghetto (Eyeline Publications, 1973)

Genesis Mas Band Costumes (1980/1980) by Genesis Carnival BandNotting Hill Carnival

How has Mas shaped Notting Hill Carnival?

Over the years, Masquerade’s presence at Carnival has grown and developed significantly. The tradition expanded from its Trinidadian origins, gathering wider participants from the Caribbean, Africa and South America to contribute towards Notting Hill Carnival festivities. 

Carl GabrielNotting Hill Carnival

As Carnival expanded, there emerged a need for Masquerade funding. By the mid 1970s, a Carnival Development Committee was founded, and by 1980, the Arts Council recognised Mas as an art form, providing monetary support for Mas bands and designers participating in Notting Hill Carnival.

Notting Hill Carnival Mas (2012/2012) by Oli ScarffNotting Hill Carnival

What is Playing Mas in Notting Hill Carnival like today?

Mas bands today typically follow a similar pattern in their Carnival participation. Bands hold a launch event between April-July, during which they exhibit samples of the years’ theme and costumes and open registration for participants.

Notting Hill Carnival Mas (2006/2006) by Chris JacksonNotting Hill Carnival

By Notting Hill Carnival in August, all costume sections of the Mas band are complete, ready to be judged at Great Western Road during the parades on Bank Holiday Sunday and Monday. The winning Mas bands in each category are then announced on social media.

Notting Hill Carnival Mas (2018/2018) by Getty ImagesNotting Hill Carnival

The Significance of Mas to Notting Hill Carnival

Masquerade has established itself as a crucial element of Notting Hill Carnival, with approximately 15,000 bejeweled, feathered costumes made each year. 
We encourage any future Carnival-goers to engross themselves in the spirit of Carnival by playing Mas!

Watch a video of Fiona Compton discussing the importance of mas and her heritage to her Notting Hill Carnival celebrations. 

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