Saldenah Carnival: A Legacy
Written by Felicia Gopi
Sunday August 6, 2023
Image courtesy of Sunny Zendeli @sunnygzen
Toronto Carnival is revered worldwide as a place to let loose, celebrate and free up yourself on the road. The annual Caribbean Carnival Parade, better known as Caribana, is held on the Saturday of the Civic long weekend here in Toronto; but for the Saldenah family, the road to Carnival is much longer.
Ronny Saldenah is the son of Louis Saldenah and grandson of Harold Saldenah, a lineage of trailblazers and leaders in the Toronto Mas scene. Before we really dove into our interview, I told Ronny about my unforgettable experience playing mas with Saldenah and stressed how organized their process was, to which he replies, “Masqueraders, that’s our number one priority, to make sure that they’re having a great time”.
Ronny has been a section leader for Saldenah Carnival for over ten years. His siblings (Anton Saldenah, Aaron Saldenah and Ariel Saldenah) also lead sections among other artists, creating a place for masqueraders to come experience carnival alongside a family with roots in the long-standing celebration.
They have also had the privilege of working with notable members of the Caribbean community like Shal Marshall, Nadia Batson, Dr. Jay (aka the Soca Prince) and of course, Machel Montano.
Of his role in all of this he says, “I’m just doing my part in the culture, making sure that Saldenah is out there and everybody knows what Saldenah is all about.”
I asked Ronny about his grandfather, Harold Saldenah (better known as “Sally”), an innovator in mas and carnival who brought the Saldenah name to Toronto from Trinidad.
“Every time I hear that name I think of so many stories…” he reminisces before pointing out, “the most important thing mas-wise, is that he was a historian, he was an individual who liked to do a lot of research.” Ronny went on to describe his grandfather as someone who took great care to ensure he researched and executed his themes to a tee. He used newspapers and frequented libraries; he was determined to have his band reflect all the intricacies of the historical times his themes represented.
He tells me about a Roman theme from the past, “he wanted everything to look like Rome, everything with plates, helmets, they made sure they had the sandals…” He was beaming with pride as he recalled his grandfather’s work ethic, which he then told me also rubs off on him. “Anytime I want to do anything costume-wise, section-wise, I always want to make sure I’m following it to a tee.”
Deciding on this year’s theme, Unmasked was the first order of business in a nearly year-long process that began last November. Ronny’s dad, Louis Saldenah comes up with a number of themes, determines the winning choice for the year, and then kicks off the entire operation. All the section leaders then brainstorm colours and different ways to reflect on the chosen theme.
“Fast-forwarding to the launch, which happens usually in April, [...] that’s the first time that everybody gets to see all the costumes,” he explains.
Of course after a successful launch in April, where the group builds an incredible amount of hype and anticipation to see, feel and experience the costumes in real life, registration began. Registration is a special time for Saldenah Carnival, it’s a time for them to meet their masqueraders, hear their stories, and build bonds with them (and sometimes…fall in love (more on that later).
We joke about the healthy competition that registration ignites, that always ends in a toast to the section leader who sells out first!
At the mas camp, the team works diligently to hand-sew, and glue each and every stone, bead, feather, etc. to the thousands of garments needed for their masqueraders. It’s very clear how important it is to all the section leaders that the costumes their supporters receive reflect exactly what is shown at the launch.
“Mas camp…we’re in there for three months, and everybody’s dedicating that three months for that one day.” A statement that offers a unique perspective on the amount of work that goes into the entire Carnival experience. Of course, we know it’s worth it, but Ronny’s words describe it perfectly.
“At the end of the day, when we cross that stage, and get to finally see the final product on the stage, [it’s] something that you can’t even describe.” He expresses the excitement he feels when he wakes up on Caribana morning, heading down to the lakeshore and seeing each and every masquerader show up to gather in their costumes. Many of us may never be able to grasp what that feels like for the Saldenah family, and how overwhelming that joy must be.
We took a moment to discuss the inclusivity of mas, and at Saldenah Carnival in particular. Whether it be folks of different backgrounds looking to join in on the celebration, or those with different body types; Ronny emphasizes “Mas is for everybody…it’s a time to free up yourself.” He also points out that Saldenah Carnival has always made it a point to introduce a number of options for their masqueraders to wear to feel comfortable in. While he admits he can understand peoples’ feelings of insecurity sometimes, he says “when you get on the road and you look around, nobody cares, nobody is judging.”
For any new masqueraders feeling the FOMO and wanting to get on the road next year he has two critical pieces of advice: hydrate and get enough sleep! “You gotta pace yourself.” Walking in the parade is no easy feat, it’s a long and usually hot day so come prepared.
Things got a little personal with Ronny opening up more about, not only being prepared for a long day on the road but also potentially falling in love on the road. For those wondering, yes it can happen. “You end up finding this one person, and they chip down the road for the whole day”. He opened up more about meeting his girlfriend at registration, then remembering her when he saw her the morning of the parade…the rest as they say is carnival history.
After the coveted Caribana Saturday, Saldenah Carnival celebrates their success (they’re twenty-one time ‘Band of the Year’ winners) on Sunday at their annual Saldenah Sunday boat cruise, before taking some well-deserved time off until the coming November when they start it all up again.
Ronny can’t help but look to the future as he tells me a bit more about his father’s plans “I feel like he already has a theme for next year, but he doesn’t like to tell anybody,” he teases. Knowing his dad plans a few years in advance he predicts that, “He probably has a little book that has so many ideas that nobody has ever seen.” He laughs at the possibility of ever getting a glimpse into all the ideas his father has circling in his head.
As masqueraders, onlookers, and eager bacchanalists already looking forward to next year, Ronny has the perfect message for you, “Carnival is Saldenah.”
“When you join Saldenah mas band, and you put on that costume, it’s almost like [putting on] all of the history that has passed” Saldenah Carnival is one of the very few bands that uses their last name as their brand. Masqueraders need no reminder but it’s worth noting that by choosing Saldenah, they are choosing to carry on a history and add to the legacy of this quintessential family.
He also shares that his grandfather, Harold’s vision was for his family to carry on the legacy of being bandleaders for generations to come. With three generations already paving the way, it’s safe to say, Saldenah Carnival isn’t going anywhere.
It’s amazing to listen to someone speak about their grandparent’s and parent’s influence over them and see how traditions are preserved, especially in a Caribbean family that is also building moments and history around them for all of us to be a part of.
About the Author
Felicia is the editor in chief of Story, a newsletter by the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association. She also works in digital marketing with a background in beauty and fashion. She began volunteering with the Indo-Caribbean Association to contribute directly to her community and to learn from other like-minded individuals.
For more information visit feliciagopi.ca