Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Mas gone awry

TRINIDAD CARNIVAL is many things – music, colour, movement; joyous revelry. Above all, it is supposed to be a spectacle of masquerade where thousands of costumed revellers transform the landscape.

The decades following World War II were a golden age for costume design. Not so in the last few decades where bikinis, feathers and beads are at the top of the lists for so-called mas designers as they come up with a name for a portrayal they feel sounds good and different colours are about the only things that define different sections. In effect, they do not capture or portray anything as their main ‘ingredients’.

This is a far cry from real mas of yesteryear when the people were in awe of presentations by celebrated bandleaders like Harold Saldenah, George Bailey, Edmund Hart, Stephen Lee Heung, Irvin Mc Williams, Wayne Berkeley, Peter Minshall and Raoul Garib.

Saldenah’s winning portrayals - Imperial Rome 44 BC to 96 AD, Norse Gods and Vikings, Lost City of Atlantis, Mexico 1519-1521, Pacific Paradise and El Dorado - City of Gold – were all historical presentations, intensely researched and carefully fabricated.

His series of historical epics were remarkable for the magnificence and splendour of the costumes. Most celebrated of all, his 1955 presentation Imperial Rome 44 BC to 96 AD astounded masqueraders and spectators with its elaborate cast of characters – centurions, gladiators, vestal virgins, and the 12 Caesars, including Nero in a 20-yard cape of purple velvet. Saldenah’s insistence on accuracy forced his Roman soldiers into short skirts.

His legionnaires learned to reflect the realism of the era they portrayed. He used tooled leather and real copper breastplates created by the master of copper work Ken Morris, contributing to a new tradition of metalwork in Carnival design.

During the 60s, as more women joined the masquerade and bands grew larger, Saldenah split up the mass of costumed revellers into different sections, each depicting one aspect of the overall portrayal. He was thus a pioneer of “section mas”. With their different colours and themes, each complete with flag bearer and title, the sections came together in rapid succession to tell a larger story.

“Back to Africa”, “Relics of Egypt”, “Ye Saga of Merrie England, Byzantine Glory, “Somewhere in New Guinea and Bright Africa, all winning presentations from George Bailey were simply out of this world. He first came into the spotlight for Carnival 1957 when he was only 22. That Carnival he led the sensational and spellbinding presentation Back to Africa, and straightaway gave the impression that what the crowd was looking upon was the greatest bandleader the Trinidad Carnival had ever seen.

Relics of Egypt caused a stir. The design and the use of available material was nothing short of magical. Within the band there was competition among players as they wanted to outdo each other in their costuming and Bailey gave them what they wanted. He thoroughly researched his portrayals and came as close to the original living thing as was possible.

This country’s first Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams is on record for telling some school children if they wanted to know of Egypt, go to Bailey’s band.

Bandleaders found difficulty in competing with Bailey with his level of costuming. It was very expensive and very beautiful to watch. Some persons close to Bailey felt that in Tears of the Indies, Bailey was sending a message that the great Creator was calling him home. Bailey died months after this presentation, his last, in 1970.

By JOAN RAMPERSAD Tuesday, January 5 2010
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