Wednesday, December 10, 2014

We Kind ah People The Trinidad Carnival Masquerade bands of Stephen Lee Heung by Tang and Funk.

It is argued in some circles that Trinidad and Tobago does not have an intellectual culture. While there is a culture of political tribalism and plenty debate along such lines in the public discussion, there is not a critical popular public discourse on the history and social significance of  art forms such as mas, thus there is hardly ever any discussion on or about the people who made Trinidad carnival the greatest show on earth.

And even less books on the subject.

While there are articles on various mas men and band leaders written in magazine and news paper articles there are not much books written on the works of these artist or the impact and importance of their contribution to carnival history and the history of the wider society.

For example in my personal  collection of books, you can find, fashion books on Mugler, Lacroix and Rabanne, art books on Giger, Warol and Chagall, stage set and costume design books on Taymore and Ishioka , and yet, I have only ever got my hands on published books on  Wayne Berkeley and Peter Minshall. when it comes to mas, despite the fact that mas and mas bands go back to the  emancipation period in history.

Cover: We Kind ah people
In the period known as the golden age of carnival alone, there is a pantheon of mas men whose work,
talent, productions and philosophies have given  Trinidad carnival the reputation of being the greatest show on earth. As individuals, these artists may have each compiled a body of work to rival any master of art or fashion in Europe or America. Yet there are a lack biographies or documented collections on these men and women and their works.

‘We Kind ah people the Trinidad carnival Masquerade Bands of Stephen Lee Heung’, by George Tang and Ray Funk, Is however a recently published book that has in a small way documented some of the work of the late bandleaders productions.
The book takes the reader on a photographic voyage through some of Lee Heung’s presentations, from 1974 through to 1994, giving some insight of each of those presentations and the people behind them.

1987 Cocoyea Village. Pg63 in the book.
The Lee Heung name and presence was an important part of Port of Spain’s carnival genealogy and the history of Trinidad carnival. If Lee Heung and associates was a football club or basketball team it would be an all star team. Lee Heung’s band probably more than any other band boasts some of the most eminent names in mas, to come out of, or work under any one banner.

Reading this book I got the impression that Stephen Lee Heung, a product of the golden age seemed to have the eye of a strategist, choosing talents to design and work with, that ensured the Lee Heung name was in winners row (top 3) for most of four decades, securing both the lee Heung legacy and the establishment of those that worked under his organisation.  
To understand the creatively epic period in which Lee Heung existed in, and the rich intellectual environment that that flourished during that time, there is a passage in the book   that explains the production  of the band ‘Japan land of Kabuki’ in 1964 his first band after an absence of several years, the band came,

...third after George Bailey and Harold Saldenah...some were seriously impressed including the then Trinidad Guardian arts reporter and later Nobel prize winning poet and dramatist Derek Walcott...”

As a source of information on Lee Heung and his presentations, the book is informative, while it is not a biography, the book does provide a little information on his origins, that he came from a mas family, but nothing on what were the external influences on him. The book also reveals his efforts in exporting mas around the globe. 

With about 158 photos in 120 pages there is a lot to see of the Lee Heung legacy but it is also evident that  there is still a lot that has not been revealed especially of the 1980s which would have been designed mostly by the late Wayne Berkley.

While photos of George Tang , are beautiful and capture the spirit of these past carnivals they lack the quality seen in books such as  the late Noel Norton’s  book, ‘20 years of Trinidad carnival’ the photos seem dark, sharpness and details are lost in shadows, however because of the scale of the costumes standards and headpieces shields and capes there is still that impact of the spectacular.
The images also provide evidence that the 20th century was definitely the zenith of expression and creativity in Trinidad’s carnival and if we dig deeper into this period the assent of the golden age probably goes hand in hand with the intellectual rise of the wider society of TT.

Comparing  the themes and costumes of Lee Heung to those of popular bands today, it is clear that the carnivals of, History, geography, literature, Royalty and nationality has been overrun by a light weight quasi fantasy mas, with the dominating emphasis on an invisible ‘service’ and not the tangible art form that could be photographed and admired.   

Because 'We kind of people' is published by Tang and Funk in Hardcover, it comes at a somewhat high price of TT475, this can be seen as hefty when compared to Michael Anthony’s ‘The Carnivals of Trinidad and Tobago’, or Hollis Liverpool’s Rituals of power and Rebellion, two titles that come with considerably more history within the pages of the books.
 (Maybe a soft cover edition may be a good idea)

That being said we kind ah people does ‘ hold it's corner’ for what it is and will make a valuable addition to any personal library of carnival literature or carnival study collections.

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