Sunday, March 21, 2010
MINSHALL THE MAS MAN WITH THE DANCING MIRROR BY DALTON NARINE
Producer/Director Dalton Narine posted this on the Peter Minshall Face book Fan page, so im going to share it with you...
And this is not because I have produced a film, Mas Man, about Peter Minshall. But, like lions and tigers vanquishing old foes, citizens of Trindad and Tobago ought to conquer their own demons about celebrityhood and its antisocial sidekick, lest they become blasé about their blessed culture. It might be even refreshing to wrench themselves free to immortalize the man who, for three decades, adventured his point of view of man in his incompleteness, his environment and spirituality; the fancy-sailor and bat addict whose shoulders they rode so they could see who they really are, what they’ve become.
Come now, it’s time to put Peter Minshall in his place – in the pantheon of Carnival art and Olympic glory, where no nitpicking is allowed. After all, the Trinity Cross and Emmy Award winner staged the first nighttime Olympic opening ceremonies (Barcelona). He became the only artistic director to brainstorm three Games, including Atlanta and Salt Lake City, the mas serving as resume. Minshall, influential observers around the world noticed, makes small things look big in large open spaces.
When Pat Bishop, practitioner of the arts, declares that the great thing about mas is that it dies, but tells us more about life than anything, no wonder it leaves attorney Martin Daly worried about Minshall’s legacy – that the mas man would be so far removed from people’s minds he’d be better remembered abroad. Underscore Daly’s perspective: “We suffer from small-island mentality, and the best accolades we give an artist [like Minshall] is to make sure his work lives on.”
Will that ever happen? Minshall says if there’s another band, he might call it Paradise Regained, capping off Paradise Lost (1976), the first mas band he designed in Trinidad.
I’ve heard masqueraders, particularly the bikini all-exclusives, confuse themselves with trite comments about the mas, the greatest show on earth and all that, but I don’t believe they believe it. It’s a throwaway line, something to say when there’s nothing to say. Instead, Carnival, as I knew it during my formative years, was like an ugly song with poetry lyrics, a pretty melody with ugly lines, and if you didn’t get that in the traditional mas, Minshall would later rewind the power of the art so it’d stick.
The old mas, informed by craftsmanship emerging from the alleys and warrens and hills of East Dry River, from Belmont to John John, over the years turned that quadrant into a repository of traditional characters like dragons, devils, imps, bats and midnight robbers, and flourished it with fancy sailors from Fascinators and City Syncopators, steel bands that created jewel boxes stuffed with crabs and elephants, cameras and clocks; augmented by Cito Velsquez’s Eden of fruits and flowers, and Desperadoes’ double-take special, Primitive Man and Extracts of the Animal Kingdom, a mas that bridged history and fancy sailor.
[Yet, the middle class wasn’t to be denied. Woodbrook mas, in particular, was outsourced to history books and the encyclopedia. It won everybody’s hearts, though, during George Bailey’s reign.]
Six years following Bailey’s death in 1970, Minshall, at a Woodbrook mas camp, began to speak the Dry River truth of the robber talk; and ballet-dance of the dragon’s oh-so-cocky steps; and flap his arms like wings of the aerodynamic bat. Bollixing up all of that in an abstract whirl.
He would set the bar with Paradise Lost, raise it with the first trilogy (River, Callaloo and The Golden Calabash), and, some would argue, reset his greatness with the second (Hallelujah, Song of the Earth and Tapestry). Between those bookend sagas about “sin and the good deed,” there was plenty else to tell about for years to come.
Bishop says Minshall tells stories. The key is how you receive the communication.
When I interviewed him at dusk, at the dawn of the first trilogy in ’83, he lit a candle on his kitchen table and asked if the pen could see the paper. Neither of us knew it then as the candle flickered wanly in its gluey wax, but River would wind through the streets as folklore on acid. I envisioned Mancrab as the lagahou my great-grandmother had related to a family gathering as we gathered around a campfire swapping scary stories. She described a horrible event on the way home from church one night. Yet, in Minsh’s eerie kitchen, Mancrab and the Bible shared a bipolar world in both River and Callaloo. The final chapter had evil squaring off against good in The Golden Calabash. Two distinct mas bands in a single presentation.
I’d never heard such spiel coming from Mama, and in her 98 years she would’ve seen infinitely more than Minshall, who really didn’t need to see at all. As Uruguayan artist/art critic Luis Camnitzer said at his home in Long Island, New York, “It’s up to the ritual to be strong enough to absorb you.”
So, no – in reference to Saul’s conversion in the book of Acts, you didn’t need to pry scales from Minsh’s eyes. You left him alone to think up whatever rattled us, the world, Heaven and, of course, hell. Then he’d gather his tribe of artisans at the camp to unveil his story in order for them to build the mirror for us to peer at the state of affairs in our lives. It was the mas man’s monologue that passed the word on to the woman from John John to jump into costume and perform the character as if possessed.
And always, it appeared as if it behooved Minsh to prove something to the god of Carnival, only that the god of mas was himself. He shaping his art by kneading in the richness of tradition, the sole commandment from that other god. Well, in the mas, that’s the side I saw – every facet from theme to design to performance spelled out the word – perfection (maybe moreso than Bailey, Harold Saldenha, and Wayne Berkeley; or, maybe their approach differed). And if the mas exposed a dark side, what did God reveal to us in Nazi Germany, or brutish Rwanda, or anywhere in a time of HIV-AIDS?
In River, the evil Mancrab, the best costume Bishop says she’s seen here or abroad, rubs off on artist Christopher Cozier in a media-centric sense. He terms the new pop culture performance by the crab “the politics of location” because if it were presented in New York or Berlin, the event would have played on CNN, opening a whole new portal to, as Minsh is wont to finger-quote, “the playing of the mas.”
River’s stagecraft, though, ascribed to the pollution of location, what with man and the environment (our forebears, our selves and our future) grabbing starring roles in Minshall’s self-described best mas.
“It’s like going to a bullfight and seeing an elephant running around,” Camnitzer says. “Minsh makes you think.”
Minshall also finds himself in the same room with a different elephant of sorts, Richard Wagner, the German classical music composer who tried to pack every idea on his scratch pad into his rich, monstrous works.
Within Camnitzer’s elastic purview, Catholic Mass and the bullfight are mired in the same stagnant process. Though always the same, both are nevertheless beautiful.
Yet none of Minsh’s mas copied the other. Not for once his themes had you thinking, ‘Did I see this last year, or the year before?’
Peter Samuel, his multi-crowned King, resists such notion, saying Minsh never did frivolous mas. He cites Callaloo Dancing Tic Tac Toe Down the River and The Sacred and the Profane. Because of its girth, the former depended on precision to sashay on Dimanche Gras as if the mas owned the Savannah stage. So Samuel and his boss rehearsed Callaloo’s steps in the car park of a gas station in the dead of night.
With The Sacred and the Profane, a key element of the mas was in the detail. Minshall spent six and a half hours on the floor moulding a body suit around Samuel’s torso and limbs. Later, at the Savannah, spectators walked up and touched him, checking out the lifelike portrayal. The Papillon king took the mas to a higher level, Samuel said.
“Minsh has an antenna,” Camnitzer says. “This is crap. This is good. He helps create identity. Their (Our) own identity.”
If everybody’s watching themselves on Minshall’s masterpiece theater, has anybody been listening? One cannot be inherently evil or entirely good. How can one be in an artistic alliance with both and not have static or back talk spilling over the creative process? Creativity’s frayed edge almost always trips up the eavesdropper, the all-yuh-ent-hear-wha-Minshall-say posse – media, of course, sating their appetite for maco-mess.
Let’s reload the news Minshall made about the musical Carnival Messiah, and the Beijing Olympics. Why should the mas man’s frankness fog his remarkable achievements? You’d think he had graffitied La Pieta, Michelangelo’s marble sculpture in Vatican City. What’s all this gnashing of teeth about? Chatter, chatter, chatter! Hardly do I recall such ole talk madness gushing over Minshall’s 1997 tribute to Wilfred Strasser, the non-pareil King of still-life mas, as the band Tapestry was wheeling out a real-life tableau of Jesus draped across Mary’s lap in the wake of the Crucifixion.
That La Pieta!
Could it be the chatter boxes didn’t see La Pieta for the Carnival Messiah, for Christ’s sake? Yet, whenever they’re alone it’s a safe bet they always eat out of the pot. So what’s wrong with that? You guessed right!
Artists ought to be judged by their work.
For example, hear Minsh on the hue of his band, Picoplat: “Just the repetition of a theme changing the colours from deep ultramarines into the explosion of Saldenha’s orange, black and white, bringing it back to a kinda sapodilla brown mixed with pommerac pink, but right after that a sour pomme cite colour and you’re just orchestrating the colour, and all the movement was like Waltzing Matilda to a hot calypso beat, and no two people dancing the same – but all were in a kind of synchronized wonderment as they floated across the stage.”
Even when he uncaged Picoplat it appeared as birds that squeak like a door in the wind, the mas blending with flying colours. It was perhaps the sweetest music and the loudest colours in the Carnival.
Look, I’m no shill for Minshall. I’ve become a soul on ice. Not that I won’t hand him props for The Sacred Heart, a small band, mounted in three weeks, lifting the soul with 1,000 images and a million words. That’s the magic. No matter what, he’s still genius.
“I do not for a moment doubt that the mas moreso the poem, the painting and the song, is absolutely water drawn from the well of the people,” he said at one time during the three years of the filming of his portrait.
One of those at the well, Mervyn Taylor, a poet, tells of a teacher who solicited students to draw what mas meant to them.
“Everybody drew beauty. But a young boy drew an empty street with one character, a man in a sailor suit in the middle of the road, and the kid says it’s the last mas going home. With Peter, that’s the sadness of it.”
Even sadder, now that the music in the jewel box has worn down, who will hold the mirror to those that have pawned their conscience?
Dalton Narine is the producer and director of “Mas Man – Peter Minshall, Trinidad Carnival Artist.”SEE THE MINSHALL FAN PAGE