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Monday, 26 January 2009

Memories of Carnivals past

WITH CARNIVAL 2009 right around the corner, veteran masman Stephen Lee Heung, 88, a man who for half a century produced some of the most extravagant Carnival bands in the era when costumes were much more than just bikinis, beads, braid and feathers, sits quietly among his albums, awards and scores of trophies at his Woodbrook home.
Lee Heung with a photo of Tessa John
 who was chosen Queen of the World for
 "Up and Away"
The five-time Band of the Year winner has been out of the Carnival fray for quite some time, having suffered a stroke 12 years ago while on his way to Houston via Miami for a family gathering.

“I left here quite well and nearing Miami, my ticket fell and I just couldn’t pick it up. I said nothing and just transferred to the Houston flight, using a wheelchair. As soon my sister saw me after landing, she knew I had suffered a stroke.”

Lee Heung’s memory and speech are very good. He has limited movement with the help of a walker.

Lee Heung lost his wife, soulmate and mas partner, Elsie, just over two years ago, and now lives with his older brother, 90-year-old Francis, and son Shane. He has one daughter, Maureen Cabral, three grand children and three great grandchildren.

With the annual celebration currently underway, the band leader extraordinaire says he does not miss what was an integral part of his life for 50 years.

“It does not worry me because when you see one band now you see all. I do not miss it because I look at the television and see the same thing over and over. The bikini stage started late 90s so I never brought out a band with bikinis. Neither did my good friend Edmund Hart “

Lee Heung brought out his first band in 1946 out of San Juan, Two Ten Carmen, which featured Egyptian costumes. Siam was next and in 1948, Lee Heung’s wife, sisters and female friends introduced women to the streets, in The House of Hanoverians. At that time the only women’s band on the street was Nurse Reyes’ Bajan Cooks.

“With Hanoverians,” says Lee Heung, “we stopped wearing masks – seven kings and two queens cost $75 each, but then satin was 24 cents per yard. Music was just $240.” Lee Heung’s trek to the top started in 1964 with Kabuki which placed third in the Band of the Year competition to Silver Stars, the only steelband to have won a Band of the Year title with Gulliver’s Travels, and Harold Saldenha.

He reminisced: “In 1965 we placed second with Versailles and in 1966 Crete, the first production from this house 4 Alberto Street, was again runner-up.”

The Lee Heungs won their first Band of the Year title in 1967 with China - The Forbidden City. “The only Carnival Band to have been used on a postage stamp” he says with great pride.

In 1975, ’76 and ’77 they won the Band of the Year title and retained the Angostura Challenge Trophy which occupies pride of place among his trophies. Those bands were We Kind Ah People, Paradise Lost (his largest band) and Cosmic Aura.

In 1983, the Lee Heungs were back in winner’s row, one final time, with Rain Forest and Elsie Lee Heung won the Queen of Carnival as :Diana Goddess of the Hunt” a beautiful part macaw and part Scarlet Ibis costume. She won the title a second time, while the band produced three Kings of Carnival.

“In those days competition was hard, with costuming by George Bailey, Saldenha, Hart, Mac Williams, not like now when everything is the same.”

The Lee Heungs led with band launchings and mounting drawings of the costumes in the mas camp.

“My theory was put the costumes up - the most they can take are your colour schemes, certainly not the designs. I started inviting other band leaders to the camp. The Bandleaders Association was formed in this yard in 1967. . In the beginning there were no money prizes, it was a silver cup, glass bowl, thermos flask, and you paid 50 cents to register your band.” A National Carnival Bands Association’s (NCBA) plaque which was presented to Lee Heung some time ago reads: “ In glowing tribute for his dedication and contribution to the development of mas.’”

In 1975 Lee Heung received the Humming Bird Medal - Gold. China the Forbidden City was the first band sent abroad by the government to the Montreal Expo in 1967, and then on to Toronto’s Caribana. We Kind Of People was sent to the Dallas Trade Fair in 1975.

Lee Heung took members of his bands to Carnivals in Jamaica, Barbados, St Vincent, Antigua and Bermuda. In 1994, Tessa John was chosen Queen of the World portraying “Up and Away”.

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