Saldenah is King of Toronto Carnival
October 3, 2019
On his death bed in 1985, mas’ section pioneer Harold ‘Sally’ Saldenah Sr. last words to his youngest son – Louis Saldenah – were, ‘Don’t let them run you’.
Frustrated that he was losing money and the band wasn’t growing, he pledged that the 1982 competition was his last after winning his third Band of the Year title.
“I said that’s it for me, but Noel Audain encouraged me to do ‘Symptoms of Carnival’ with him which I did in 1983,” Saldenah recalled. “I didn’t play the following year in which my dad returned to Trinidad and was diagnosed with cancer.”
Honouring his father’s last wish wasn’t difficult for the younger of the two sons.
“I said, ‘Okay, I will come back,” said Saldenah.
He did and has had enormous success.
With his 20th Band of the Year title and his third in a row wrapped up last month, Saldenah is by far the 52-year-old Toronto Caribbean Carnival most successful bandleader.
Success, sometimes, can lead to complacency which isn’t in the mas’ leader’s vocabulary. He believes in the old adage that success breeds success and expectations rise with every victory.
“I always want to do better than I did the previous year,” he pointed out. “It’s that competitive spirit that drives me. In my mind, I am yet to put my best band on the road.”
Saldenah pointed to one of his earliest presentations — A High Mas’ that was ruined by bad weather — as the closest.
“We had about 400 members and the whole band featured back pieces,” he said. “The parade was on University Ave. and there was a rainstorm and high wind that lasted about 15 minutes and wrecked the costumes. I still believe that was the best band I produced, but no one got an opportunity to see it. The only consolation for me that year was that we won the King and Queen along with the Male and Female Individual titles.”
Lying at the foot of the Laventille Hills in northeast Port-of-Spain is Belmont which is home to many eminent bandleaders and designers, including Harold Saldenah Sr.
Beginning his carnival career in the years after the Second World War under the tutelage of some of Trinidad’s top bandleaders such as Mansie Lai, Harold Tang Yuk and Harry Basilon, he designed his first mas band, ‘Quo Vadis’, in 1953 with Roman soldier helmets made of papier mache painted to look authentic. In 1955, he introduced metalwork to mas’ by employing Ken Morris to fabricate copper breastplates for Roman soldiers in his winning Band of the Year presentation, ‘Imperial Rome 44BC to 96AD’.
In 1972, the six-time Band of the Year winner was awarded the Trinidad & Tobago Public Service Medal of Merit Silver for his role in carnival development. The twin-island republic fourth highest honour is awarded in gold, silver and bronze.
Louis Saldenah felt his father’s contributions deserved higher recognition.
“This was a man that introduced sections and short skirts into mas’,” he said. “I was very disappointed when he got that silver medal and I vowed I would never return to Trinidad to play mas’.
Resident in the Greater Toronto Area since 1970, Saldenah has kept his word.
“For nearly 40 years, my older brother (Harold Saldenah Jr.) was behind me to change my mind and come back to play mas’,” he said. “I, however believe a grave injustice was done to my father and I will never change my stance.”
Being the son of a mas’ producer meant that Saldenah cut his teeth in Carnival at a young age. Painting sticks and ‘standards’ (poles with costumes depicting the mas’ design) before his 10th birthday, he played in his first Kiddies Carnival in 1962.
“The band was called ‘Siam’ and me and my brother played Buddhas,” he recounted. “We were dressed in yellow and our hair was cut very short.”
Saldenah played mas’ in Trinidad eight consecutive years before migrating to Canada as a 19-year-old to pursue Accounting studies.
“I just wanted to get away from home and do something different,” he said. “I went to the parade here in Toronto for a few years, but I had no interest in getting back into mas’.”
That changed when his father came to Toronto in 1977.
“He had accomplished everything he could in Trinidad and had just lost the desire,” said Saldenah. “But when he landed here, his idea was to put a sailor band on the street for our carnival. I told him no, suggesting that if he lost, the bandleaders here would boast that they beat one of Trinidad & Tobago’s top mas’ men. He insisted on putting out a band and I came up with the theme, ‘Shangri-La’.”
With just 98 members, including Jean Jankie who played every year until 2018 when she became ill, the outfit won the Band of the Year title 42 years ago. That was the only year that Harold Saldenah Sr. produced a band in Canada.
Saldenah paid homage to his dad in 2009 through the theme, ‘A Tribute to Harold Saldenah Sr. The Golden Years 1925-85)’.
“I just felt that the time was right to do that,” he said. “I had solid numbers with which I could portray what he did in the past. I tried to play some of the fantasy mas he did like ‘El Dorado’ that people could relate to. I, however, couldn’t play themes like those with breast plates because I knew people wouldn’t go for that now.”
In much the same way that Saldenah followed his father’s footsteps, his children have done the same.
Ronny, Aaron, Ariel and Anton -- an Ontario Provincial Police Sergeant -- are all Saldenah Carnival section leaders.
“They all became involved at around the same age I was when I started,” he said. “I am a very organized person and my costumes have to be of a very high standard. My dad taught me that and I have passed it on to my children who understand that and wanted to assume leadership positions.”
The turnover in Saldenah Carnival section leaders is extremely low. There were 35 applicants for this year’s carnival even though there hasn’t been a vacancy in the last 13 years.
“To be a section leader in my band, you have to be involved in mas’ for a certain amount of years and I have to know you well and trust you because you are representing the Saldenah brand,” he said. “They are the people that see my dream and turn it into reality. The section leaders do the real work and make me look good. To be successful in anything you do, you have to be surrounded by good people. I am blessed to have great people around me.”
Hayden Harbin is the longest serving section leader with 30 straight years under his belt.
“We have a great relationship and very good understanding of what it takes to put together a winning product,” said Harbin who migrated from Trinidad & Tobago in 1969. “We have a grasp of what is best for the band and the participants.”
With the cycle for the new mas’ season starting at the end of October, Saldenah is enjoying his downtime.
At the end of each Carnival season, he takes a vacation and plays golf.
“I don’t talk about mas’ for two months and most of my friends know that,” said Saldenah who was in Jamaica for 10 days. “If anyone breaks that rule, I walk away from them.”
Usually, he comes up with a theme before the end of October.
“Right now, I have no idea what the next one will be,” Saldenah, who stays in the background during the Carnival celebrations, said.
Sometimes, it happens on the spur of the moment as was in the case in 1981 when he was driving home in the wee hours of the morning from a social event.
“It was around 2 a.m. and the radio station was playing romantic music,” he recounted. “During a break, the announcer said it’s ‘Night Out’ and that’s why we are playing this type of music. ‘Night Out’ stuck with me and I went with that as the theme that won the Band of the Year crown in 1982.”
While cleaning up the mas’ camp after the 2012 parade, Saldenah noticed one of his friends sitting in a corner.
“He was kind of high and I asked him, ‘Where are you in life, Heaven or Earth’?
‘Heaven or Earth’ was the band’s 2013 theme.
Once Saldenah comes up with one, he researches it and hands out 35 section names based on the theme to the section leaders. The order of selection is determined by seniority.
“In November and December, the theme is developed, colours are selected and the focus turns to the design of the costumes based on the sections’ name,” he said. “Early in the New Year, material is sourced, individual section costumes are prepared for the photo shoot in early April and the band launch takes place in the last week of that month where we have about 2,000 people. The mas’ camp opens shortly afterwards with registration being done during the first week.”
Elementary school teacher Michelle Reyes said the band launch stands out.
“Most of the band launches are fashion shows,” noted the 2018 Ontario Science Centre Innovation in Mas’ Award winner for ‘The Rise of the Cherry Blossoms’. “After Saldenah’s band launch, people stick around and they have a good time. I attend with my mom who is there with me in the mas’ camp. In the last two years, I have had offers to play ‘Queen’ with other bands, but when I think about where I could go that my mother would feel comfortable, the resounding answer is always Saldenah Carnival.”
Reyes has been playing mas’ with Saldenah since the 1990s when she was a student at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus.
“On Canada Day Weekend, me and some friends would go to a party at Markham Fairgrounds,” she said. “But before doing that, we stopped at some of the big mas’ camps, including Saldenah’s where I always found a fairly family-oriented welcoming vibe that I really appreciated. The costumes are really appealing and that was one of the reasons why I have played ‘Queen’ for them the last five years.”
Turning 69 in December, Saldenah still enjoys producing mas’ for his band that has averaged 4,000 members in the last seven years.
“I am in good health and I haven’t lost the passion which you can see in the costumes,” he said. “When the numbers start to drop, then I would know it’s perhaps time to step away and play more golf while spending quality time with my four grandchildren who keep me busy and play mas’ in the Kiddies Carnival.”
Before leaving the stage, Saldenah wants to infuse ‘standards’ back into Carnival.
“For the first 20 years I was involved in the festival here, I implemented them,” he said. “But I removed them as changes came in. I won seven Band of the Year titles with Steve Muradali and that was the era when we brought a lot of ‘standards’. We had to move away from that because people didn’t want that type of mas’ anymore. We were stuck at 700 and 800 members and not growing. I had to flip the switch and give the young people what they wanted.”
When he quits as a bandleader, there is one job the bandleader extraordinaire wants to undertake.
“I want to work with the Festival Management Committee or whoever is running the carnival to get things done properly,” said Saldenah who lost his 82-year-mom – Yuklan Lum Young resided in the GTA with her second husband since 1982 and was very active before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease -- three weeks before the parade. “Over the years, there have been so many professionals who have had success in their various fields, yet the event hasn’t seemed to benefit in a big way from their expertise. I believe that too many of the administrators have self-interest and there’s no plan or blueprint to advance the festival.
“Just give me two years and I will clean up what hasn’t been done in the last five decades. One of the first things I ensure is that the parade is orderly. You just don’t see people jumping into the Santa Claus parade or the Trinidad Carnival. If you want to play mas’, buy a costume.”