Anton Gabriel: the man with the golden boots

T&T Carnival now has a home in the east end of Toronto, where Anton Gabriel has founded his own museum of mas. Donna Yawching dropped by

Anton Gabriel with some of his carnival memorabilia. Photograph by Donna YawchingGabriel’s crowded quarters boast more than 200 costumes. Photograph by Donna YawchingThe costumes date from Caribana in the 80s to Trinidad 2010. Photograph by Donna Yawching

Boots on the ground. That’s where it all started for Anton Gabriel.

The 63-year-old accountant retired from his corporate job two years ago, and promptly started thinking about what to do next. Trini to the bone despite 42 years in Toronto, he wanted to get involved in something connected to his culture.

“Believe it or not, I decided to make mas (Carnival) boots,” he chortles, holding up a pair of gold-painted leather boots, ideal for chipping down the road in a sequinned bikini.

Toronto is internationally famous for its Caribana festival, a riff on Trinidad’s Carnival that has become a major date on the summer calendar. Fifteen or 16 costumed bands, thousands of masqueraders, and more than a million onlookers flood the city’s streets in late July.

And, declares Gabriel, “Most of the kings and queens (of the bands) wear my boots.” It’s not difficult to understand why: apart from their decorative aspect – so much more stylish than running shoes, and fancy designs can be airbrushed on them  – the smooth leather soles slide easily on the pavement, making a day on the road less exhausting.But the boots were only the beginning, for this endlessly energetic man with the youthful face and infectious grin. As it happens, his wife had a long history of playing mas in Caribana, and their basement was filled with her sparkly costumes. Gabriel decided to find a place where they could be displayed to the public and (ever alert to the business possibilities) where visitors might suddenly feel the urge to buy some golden boots.

He rented a small storefront in an unprepossessing industrial neighbourhood on the eastern outskirts of the city, and before he knew it, other mas-players were donating their old costumes for his display.

“They were so happy to take their costumes out of storage and show them off again,” he recalls. The Mas Camp Centre was born – not to make mas, but to showcase it.

Today, two years later, Gabriel’s crowded quarters boast more than 200 costumes – headpieces, beaded bikinis, backpacks – crammed into every corner, suspended from ceiling and walls, gracing shapely mannequin torsos. They date from Caribana in the 80s to Trinidad 2010, and everything in between. There are even a few collectibles from Trinidad’s mas auteurs Peter Minshall and Brian MacFarlane. A small television in one corner plays carnival videos; books, magazines and other resource materials peek out from behind the feathers and frippery.

“I tell people this is the ultimate show-and-tell of Carnival costumes,” Gabriel says. “Everything can be touched, inspected up close. This is a place to bring people to experience mas outside of the mas season.”

A back room houses a kitchen where Gabriel – who a few years ago won Toronto’s first ever curry-duck competition, and has a full-page newspaper spread to prove it – is happy to show off his “sweet han’” when visitors are expected. His aim, he explains, is to “capture the essence of a mas camp – the visuals, the food, the music; to make it easily accessible and encourage people to come check it out…This place has atmosphere like crazy, once we get the food and music going.” One can only wonder what his more sedate neighbours in the adjoining units must make of all this bacchanal.

Not surprisingly, the Mas Camp Centre is a popular destination for many within Toronto’s Caribana community. Its location may seem out of the way to the average city-dweller, but as Gabriel points out, the east-end suburb of Scarborough, home to a large West Indian population, “is really the centre of mas in Toronto. There are five mas camps and a steelband within ten minutes of here.” Bandleaders drop in to do research and “shall we say, get inspired.”

But Gabriel’s project is not just intended to preach to the converted. His wider goal is to introduce “a new demographic, people who don’t know what Carnival is” to the creativity of mas. Accordingly, he is always willing to take his show on the road. On request – and for free –  he will happily transport a selection of his costumes to schools, along with some fabric and feathers, beads and sequins, to allow kids to experiment with costume design and fabrication. He has done public displays at community centres and international days; and hopes in the near future to organise costume design contests among schools in outlying areas. He has even done outreach among First Nations (indigenous) groups, with whom he believes Caribbean people have much in common.

An important part of Gabriel’s game plan is to help young Torontonians to view Caribana not merely as a big one-day party, but as a year-round business opportunity, involving everything from design to production, administration to marketing.

“There is a total economic world in mas production,” he insists. Many current bandleaders, he believes, do not make the most of this opportunity; motivated by their passion for mas rather than business sense, they don’t make much money. “They’re not true businessmen,” says Gabriel. “They do it because they love it.”

Ironically, he is doing much the same. The Mas Camp Centre is self-funded – so far its founder has not received a cent of government funding or corporate sponsorship. Taking the term “non-profit” to a whole new realm, Gabriel pays the rent for his showroom “on my own dime”; friends and colleagues have donated sundry bits of furniture; shelves and other fixtures have been salvaged from roadside discards.

Yet he has never charged admission, nor asked for remuneration for his displays and school demonstrations. Coming from a corporate background, he understood right from the beginning that his project would have more credibility if he could get it up and running, rather than going cap-in-hand for start-up funding.

“I wanted to establish the fact that this is needed, and that we can do it,” he says. “Now I can tell people, this is what I’ve done, this is what I want to do. The challenge now is to get recognition and take it to another level.”

Whether that will happen – the market for recognition is highly competitive – remains to be seen. But Anton Gabriel is in no big rush. The centre, he says, “gives me a reason to get up in the morning.  I’m having fun.” He is there most days, organising the costumes, figuring out how to display them, rotating them so regular visitors don’t get bored. Once a year – at Carnival, obviously – he spends a month in Trinidad, volunteering with the band Kaotic and scouting out new costumes to “refresh” his display. He’s also involved in Toronto’s Caribana, visiting all the mas camps and helping out with band administration – though he no longer plays mas himself.

He is happy that his project is gaining word-of-mouth fame in the community. “People tell other people,” he says. “When they come they are sort of enlightened. People sometimes bring their kids and grandkids to see their old costumes: they tell them, ‘Your granny danced in that.’”

Gabriel attributes his unflagging enthusiasm for his mas camp project to one simple fact: “When I set my mind to do something, I want to be the best at it.” Few would argue.