Last-minute mas

Judy Raymond watches artists Ashraph and Shalini Seereeram whip up a Cat in Bag Carnival band full of style and satire

  • Ashraph leads his 2010 band, Cobotown. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell

Feathers are in vogue for this year’s Carnival, but Richard “Ashraph” Ramsaran isn’t exactly following that trend. Though his band will feature birds, they’re not the glamorous variety. His masqueraders will wear chickens’ heads and sailor suits, and carry flags embellished with a printed cockroach.

Ashraph didn’t have a glitzy band launch six months ago. There are no sample costumes on show, and you can’t see them online. In fact, work on producing the band’s 50 costumes won’t begin until a week or two before Carnival.

By last November, Ashraph had a provisional name for the band: Cockroach Have No Business in Fowl Party. He also had an idea what the costumes would be like: they’d incorporate garage bags, and the headpieces would be made – naturally – of chicken wire. He’d gathered swatches of fabric, and was working out a budget. Cat in Bag’s costumes are sold at cost price, with a limit of TT$500.

Ashraph and his co-designer, Shalini Seereeram (who has done several illustrations for Caribbean Beat), are both artists. He also runs a frame shop, which doubles as the mas camp.

Ashraph, 46, used to play mas with Edmond Hart, but helped out in Peter Minshall’s mas camps. He started in 1990, cutting stencils for Tantana, and was there in 2006, working on the king and queen of The Sacred Heart, Minshall’s last band.

The following year, he brought out a tiny band of ten or 12 costumes, at the urging of members of the rapso group 3Canal. And in 2009, a week or two before Carnival, he and Seereeram decided to produce their first real band, Thin Cow, Fat Cow.

Named from the lyrics of a 3Canal song, it featured white costumes dappled with black patches, and elegant, streamlined cardboard cow heads.

“I wanted Shalini to design the costumes, and I had an idea how to make them,” Ashraph remembers. “I knew how to bend and fold cardboard, from Minshall.”

From the traditional “ole mas” satire of J’Ouvert morning, the band borrowed the use of placards. On Carnival weekend the masqueraders – many of them musicians, writers and fellow artists – come and paint their own slogans.

The antithesis of the temperamental artist, Ashraph isn’t at all precious or possessive about his band, and, while cleverly crafted, the costumes are simple and have an improvised air.

“I think some of them take themselves too serious,” Ashraph says of other bandleaders. “You have to have a sense of humour.”

So Thin Cow, Fat Cow announced: “The people must be herd” and “Patrick’s National Moovement” (a reference to the ruling People’s National Movement, led at that time by Prime Minister Patrick Manning).

The following year’s band, Cobotown, also made a joky (but serious) political point. The masqueraders were cobos – vultures – in long black capes. “Let us prey,” read one placard. Ashraph’s headpiece was in the shape of the Red House, the seat of government: “It was about the cobo in there – the Prime Minister – and the decay in everything.”

The cobos came fourth in the Small Band of the Year competition. Snakes in the Grass, 2011’s band, won prizes too. Inspired by the way Manning was treated after his party lost the 2010 general election, its messages included “The Law is an Asp”, and “Venomy of the People”.

Whatever last-minute magic Ashraph and Shalini Seereeram conjure with chicken wire and garbage bags for Carnival 2012, Rhoda Bharath will be wearing it. She has played with Cat in Bag every year so far, though she had never played Monday and Tuesday mas before.

“I like the element of protest and subversiveness in J’Ouvert,” she says, explaining the draw of the band. “Ash and Shalini allow me to play J’Ouvert for two more days in the hot sun. The mas is political, clever and cost-effective. Not excessive and exclusive at all. Which is what Carnival should be.”