Caribbean Beat Magazine

Robert Young: Carnival in the belly

For designer Robert Young, leader of the “misfit” mas band Vulgar Fraction, the best way to navigate Port of Spain at Carnival time is by following one’s appetites. As told to Zahra Gordon

  • “Misfit” masqueraders in the Vulgar Fraction band. Photograph by Maria Nunes
  • Robert Young at his Propaganda Space in Belmont, east Port of Spain. Photograph by Maria Nunes
  • The annual re-enactment of the 1881 Canboulay Riots commemorates ordinary Trinidadians’ resistance to attempts to ban Carnival festivities. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Blue Devils in the village of Paramin. Photography by Maria Nunes

Robert Young’s name is synonymous with his clothing label The Cloth, which started twenty-seven years ago in Trinidad as a design collective. The Cloth’s signature patchwork appliqué has become iconic, worn by everyone from society ladies to stage performers like David Rudder, rapso group 3Canal, and the Lydian Singers choir. Fewer may know that every Carnival season for the past fifteen years Young has also brought together a group of self-described “misfits” to form his small independent mas band Vulgar Fraction.

In 2011, both the label and the band acquired a new home in the heart of Belmont, the east Port of Spain neighbourhood as famous for its narrow lanes as it is for fostering creative talent. The Cloth’s Propaganda Space at 24 Erthig Road shares a building with the art space Granderson Lab.

Carnival is a time of great significance to Young, but not for the most predictable reasons. He’s a sometimes harsh critic of the commercial instinct that drives so many aspects of the contemporary festival. According to him, something as basic as food is just as important as the costumes or the parties. His guide to Port of Spain during Carnival time uses opportunities for eating as guideposts for experiencing parts of the festival that get overlooked among the massive masquerade bands and all-inclusive fetes.

“I like to test out small food establishments,” Young says. “There is a deliberate reason why I don’t follow the new forms of Carnival — the kind of heavy, commercialised Carnival. There is a kind of vicious form of greed that functions in some parts of the Carnival, and there is a matter of contestation that happens. Carnival for people who are working-class stops on Carnival Friday, after Soca Monarch.”

“Basically,” he adds, “I would tell people to try to do the non-tourist things, and build relationships with people they meet while searching for food. Of course, they also have to visit Propaganda a few times.”

Follow your appetite

“Food is how you show people a place. Where there is good food, there will also be good people.

“Propaganda is in Belmont, right behind the area where my mother grew up. Historically, Belmont is one of the first spaces organised by free Africans in this country. Belmont is like a village in the city, and there are lots of good food places here.

“Go to Al’s in Belmont on the corner of Observatory and Oxford Street around 6.30 in the morning, and hang out with all the city workers who go there for breakfast. They have a good smoked herring and bake. On Friday nights, on Jerningham Avenue and Erthig Road there is a lady who sells geera neck and pork, souse and fried chicken. On Cadiz Road and Norfolk Street, there is a good pizza man. The place is called Alfredo’s, and you get can pizza, lasagne, anything, at really good prices.

“There are a few steelbands on this side, like Renegades and Desparadoes. Renegades is a good lime, and one of the band’s players, Candace, sells lunch there daily.”

Play yourself

“Vulgar Fraction is a truly independent mas. It’s so independent that the designers will come up with a theme to guide people and give you some components, and then you build the rest with your own craft skills, or you get some help from someone like a tailor or wire bender.

“With Vulgar Fraction, you masquerade yourself and you play with a very small, loosely held and close-knit group of misfits, who move through the city later on Carnival Tuesday, until about 8 pm. We work without our own music, because I think there’s a lot of wasted sound on the street. We use the sound systems of other bands until we get put out, or until we get bored or lose somebody.

“It’s really an all-inclusive band because we have to include everybody in our economy. We buy food and alcohol on the streets, and then we eat somewhere collectively. Most times it’s at Ann’s on the corner of Piccadilly and Besson Streets in east Port of Spain.”

The weekend before

“On the Sunday before Carnival Sunday, go and do mas in Carapachaima [in central Trinidad]. That is the longest organised carnival in Trinidad run by a family. It’s over fifty years old. There you’ll see Burrokeets and Wild Indians and Jab Jabs — an old craft that kind of scares you, because of the beating with the whip, but that is also a kind of element that Vulgar Fraction tries to emulate.”

Friday morning

“On Carnival Friday morning, if I have enough energy, I usually go to the Canboulay Riots re-enactment [at Piccadilly Greens]. The best part is waiting for the chocolate tea they have at the end.”

Monday evening

“On Carnival Monday, I usually go immerse myself in Paramin with the Blue Devils before I make mas for Tuesday. I go for two reasons: the fried chicken and the pastelles [a traditional year-end dish of meat wrapped in cornmeal]. There’s a man in Paramin who sells pastelles from Christmas until Ash Wednesday.”