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Monday, 13 February 2012

The changing face of Carnival

Minister of Culture, Winston “Gypsy” Peters, at a mas camp in
 south Trinidad.
Carnival has always been colour: flashy sequins, lavish fabrics and wit used as a weapon. There’s a reason why Trinidad Carnival has spawned several children all over the globe and is well-known as the greatest spectacle on earth. But a debate has been raging for years over this spectacle and whether or not it has been losing its value because of new trends in costuming.

The importation of mas causes some tempers to flare and presents a lucrative business opportunity for others. In fact, Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism Winston Peters announced last month that the Government was in discussions with Chinese businessmen who are interested in setting up Carnival costume factories in this country. Factories and foreign investment mean bigger business as this development could mean that Carnival mas-making may finally become an organised part of our manufacturing sector instead of an isolated group of cottage industry centres. But if the Government takes a decision to stimulate a Carnival costume industry with foreign rather than local investment, the impact, whether good or bad, will reverberate throughout the existing local industry.

Why import?
The minister’s announcement last year to increase the customs duties on completed costumes imported into this country means that the idea of Chinese mas factories may be welcomed for many bandleaders who would love to bring their supply closer to the demand. Island People Mas is one band that imports certain elements of their costumes from suppliers in China and Pakistan. Bandleader Dane Lewis told Guardian Media reporters the Island People committee would love to produce all their costumes here, but it would compromise the value of the work they produce. “The cost difference is not really the issue. The issue is workmanship,” Lewis said.

Island People’s production manager Tisha Nielson who has visited factories in China and Pakistan is convinced that it would be impossible for Island People to produce mas without these international partners, because she cannot find the quantity of artisans she needs to make the thousands of costumes for the band. “There’s very intricate stitching for all the beadwork. When I went to China especially, they are very diligent and very, very fast. And I don’t know anybody in Trinidad – maybe one person, actually – who would sit and do hundreds and hundred of costumes within the time frame.”

Even those bandleaders who have said they won’t use Chinese mas factories if they are established think of this development positively, once locals are involved. “It stops us from going outside and bringing it into our country, so now we can at least say that it’s being made here,” said Brian Mac Farlane, leader of the Mac Farlane Mas band. His band has won the National Carnival Commission’s (NCC) Band of the Year competition five times. “What I would like to see is that when the expertise comes, that we’re going to teach and train locals, that locals will actually be running the factories and creating Trinidad mas.”

But if the Chinese costume plants do become a reality, the traditional space where mas is now created – the mas camp – will definitely fall under fire. Hammering copper breastplates, wire bending, sewing and gluing – these skills are all very important for even the ordinary masquerader to learn. UWI visual arts lecturer Lari Richardson fears that the demise of the camp could mean the end of that blend of creativity, “where you would get somebody who worked on the production line in a factory mixed with a seamstress who is accustomed to making clothes for weddings, mixed with somebody who came out of an art school design programme, mixed with a banker. And it’s that combination that has always fascinated me.” However, the mas camp institution may already be on its last legs.\

It is true that skilled Carnival artisans are now in the minority, said bandleader and master wire bender Steven Derek. He estimates, for example that there are only four skilled wire benders still practising in this country. At his workshop on Kitchener Street, the traditional definition of the mas camp is alive and well; people cutting and sticking, even the King of the Band was there building his costume. But Derek maintains that the local industry can be built without foreign investors. “It’s high time we sit down and study what we doing and start training our young,” he said. “I want to see us import the technology, set up business and employment, the works. But I am not in favour of Chinese businessmen coming into Trinidad to set up shop and manufacture Carnival costumes, because that would be a lot of foreign investment going back out.”

Bikinis and beads business
It’s no secret that mas bands usually import materials from China, India and Pakistan to produce what is commonly known as ‘bikini and beads’ mas. Unlike traditional costumes which required the masqueraders to act or play their character in the theatre of the streets, the new type of mas mimics the costume of the Las Vegas showgirls. It’s all about stimulating the wearer to lose his or her inhibitions and participate in the huge street party that Carnival has become. Tribe is one of the largest and most popular bands in the country. Bandleader Dean Akin is very clear about what his objectives are as bandleader; and they do not necessarily involve maintaining the art and theatre traditions of yesterday’s Carnival.

“Our priority is not the art aspect of it; that’s important, yes. But our priority is ensuring that our masqueraders have a fantastic time in this street party.” To those who believe that bands like Tribe have foisted this new, party-oriented costume on the population, Akin countered with an experiment the committee conducted a few years ago. The band created artistic, elaborate costumes as well as a selection of smaller, showgirl type costumes and brought in loyal masqueraders to critique them. The masqueraders chose the Las Vegas costumes every time.

Akin doesn’t see this as a loss; he says that the uniqueness of Trinidad Carnival comes from the fact that masqueraders have a choice between “playing ah mas” in traditional costume or in the protected street fete experience that he offers. “It makes no sense to force a different type of mas onto our market. We know our niche; that’s what they want, that’s what we deliver,” Akin said. But those who value the artistic elements of Carnival higher than its entrepreneurial opportunities believe the performance aspect of playing mas is what truly makes our Carnival inimitable. If it disappears, with it goes true artistic design and innovation – something that Trinidad is well-known for globally.

“I’m an artist. I’m not a businessman,” Derek said, “and I was always under the impression that Carnival is supposed to express the way of a people. You’ve lost it from the time you take the people out of it. “Bikini and beads is not unique to Trinidad, so it is not really Trinidad Carnival,” said Felix Edinborough, one of Trinidad’s last Pierrot Grenade players. The Pierrot Grenade is a colourful Carnival character who needs to interact with crowds to fulfil his role; he spells words phonetically usually weaving an amusing story in the process. Edinborough is part of a dying age of mas performers, a time when the costume and performance was the most important aspect of Carnival. “Brazil Carnival is not bikini and beads; there are some bikini and beads masqueraders, but they are in the very slim minority. In Trinidad, they are in the majority.”

Death of an art form?
Characters like the Pierrot Grenade and the iconic Tan Tan and Saga Boy are what once attracted people to Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. But Trinity Cross awardee and Band of the Year winner Peter Minshall no longer designs Carnival costumes like the giant puppets he once masterminded. He is convinced that the new trends in Carnival have killed art. “Over the last 50 years, the country has changed. The culture of the country is greed and power from the top down. The Carnival is there for certain people to make money from it,” Minshall said. “The bands have got monumentally large, not to make better mas but to make better money. And all the small and beautiful and precious things died on that desert of a stage.”

Not everyone feels that the change in Carnival is bad, though. Kenwyn Critchlow, a visual arts lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus, believes a new kind of performer developed because of a shift in the demographics of the masquerade. “When I was growing up, Carnival was a ‘man mas’, because there were hundreds of thousands of men on the streets. But then women began participating in all aspects of Carnival, so that there is a new form to design for. And there are young women, and we all read a lot of their presence as sexualised. So it’s not only that the women want to present themselves that way; they know that people want to see them. The Carnival must have a space for that kind of performance.”

Whatever the reason for the change in costuming, when it comes to money in mas, it seems that today’s climate affords the artistic Carnival bandleader only prestige and respect to live on. Mac Farlane admitted at a recent press conference that his mas band barely crosses 1,000 masqueraders in any given year, and some of his raw materials in years past were specially ordered abroad. The band has always made losses financially, “and last year was our biggest loss,” he said.

Mas revival
The clash between the traditional and modern tastes has been going on for years in Carnival, without resolution. But there are those from both camps who feel Carnival can go forward into the future with both the creative innovation of its history and the business sense of the future. Designers like Darren Cheewah show that a revival in artistic mas may be on the horizon. His new band X has ten sections, each a colourful, modern and sensual play on the traditional sailor costumes. “X was formed to bridge the gap between the traditional mas and the sexy mas,” Cheewah said. “If your base is a bikini and beads, there aren’t too many variations you can get on that. You can’t tell me that what differentiates your plume from somebody else’s in that your plume is six inches taller. That is real stupidness. Demand is what you feed people. If that’s what you’re giving them, that’s what they will want.”

And Tribe’s leader seems to agree. “We do have a future plan to develop a band or section within our band of that theatre-style mas,” Ackin said. “With our ability to market what we have, if we wanted to sell that type of mas, we can.” There are those who believe the purity of mas’ origin will be resurrected once masqueraders start to think critically about what they are doing when they play mas. Robert Young is the bandleader of Vulgar Fraction, a small band that allows patrons to help create their own costumes. Young, along with fellow designer Lupe Leonard, produce components that masqueraders dress anyway that they like, and he calls his concept “anti-commercial mas”.

“We have to unoccupy our heads from believing that things are right just because they are so. There is nothing that is supposed to be so. Young asks, “Why does it have to be like that? It could be like this? I have been doing this band for 20 years now and there is no reason for it to be more than 50 people.”

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