Caribbean Beat Magazine

Making mas

Working in Minshall's mas camp

  • Illustrations by Marlon Griffith
  • Illustrations by Marlon Griffith

Think of carnival. Glitter, glamour and good times spring to mind. But like other alluring industries, such as fashion and film, construction work does not sparkle as intensely as the spectacle.

After years of watching carnivals from Leeds to London, I volunteered my artistic skills for the Notting Hill festival. I fell in love with the creativity and camaraderie of carnival work. Within a year I was planning my great escape, to fly to Trinidad and learn from the carnival experts.

In October 1996, when I stepped onto Trinidad soil, I knew no one. But within a few weeks I was working for one of the island’s most prestigious carnival outfits, the Callaloo Company, headed by designer Peter Minshall. I had planned to stay for six months; I worked there for the next three years. Take heed: carnival is addictive. It should carry a government health warning.
My first six weeks at the camp were some of the best days of my life. Working on costume prototypes, experimenting with new materials, surrounded by talented artists in a laid-back environment — all this contrasted sharply with the boring nine-to-five I’d left behind in grey, cold London. The climate, the culture, the creativity inspired me and overwhelmed me; I was in heaven. All day I made things from wire, papier maché, sequins, glitter, cane and fibreglass. I chatted with co-workers, laughing about life, love and the festival. Some children want to run away and join the circus: I had wanted to be a carnival artist, and now, here I was, working with the best.

Carnival camps are like families, reflecting their community origins. They have their own traditions, demand loyalty and are extremely close-knit. Men and women have defined roles, in construction and decoration. As an English woman interested in costume construction, I was challenging a traditionally male bastion. To gain respect,  I had to work hard. The men I worked with did not know the meaning of sleep. They were built like bodybuilders, muscles toned to perfection, strong and wiry from years of manual labour; the work was tough enough without being surrounded by half-naked Adonises.

With the start of the new year, serious carnival production began. The laid-back atmosphere was gone overnight. Over 3,000 carnival outfits had to be produced in six weeks. Each costume had a headpiece, necklace, belt, standard, dress/trousers and possibly a cloak. Every piece involved at least five production processes. The necklaces of doves were made from chicken wire covered in brown paper, painted and glittered, attached to gold braid and ornate lamé tassels. The fabric had to be decorated before it was cut, sewn and accessorised.

We worked in a large warehouse, home to more mosquitoes than sequins. The sea lay 50 feet from our front door, but in three years I swam there only once, so absorbing was my work. In temperatures of over 30 degrees and in 90 per cent humidity, the crew toiled for up to 20 hours a day. Each day we worked an hour more and slept an hour less. It was a true sweatshop, except for the one crucial difference: a passion for carnival united us all. I worked with the core crew. Praise was unheard of. I had no idea how well or how badly I was doing.

In my first year I was part of a human painting machine. Five of us carried heavy wooden trays loaded with paint, jumping on and off 15-foot tables in rotation, splattering, sponging, scrunching colours; creating ornate fabric from brown cotton. The process was completed every five minutes; then we carried the heavy, wet, dripping cloth to washing lines. Once dried, the fabric was sponged with glue and gold-leafed to give that final glitter. Only then was it sent to be sewn.

The following year I was promoted to production assistant. Less physically demanding, the job had challenges of its own. As pieces of costume left and entered the building, they had to be checked. The 10,000 pieces of foam that became dreadlocks attached to headpieces will be forever stamped on my memory. I counted them four times in various states of sleep-induced stupor, where even simple calculations become a Herculean task. The organisation of mass production was new to me. Camps in England concentrated on large individual costumes, and produced a few hundred other costumes at most. As work became more about numbers than creativity, disillusionment set in.

In my final year I kept a low profile. Carnival was no longer my life’s love. The long hours, the hard manual labour, the close-knit workforce, had tarnished for me the glitter of the carnival arts. Absorbed by my new love, writing, I was less inclined to make the sacrifices that festival production required. Weaving, plaiting and puffing transparent voile, I made headpieces that resembled delicate meringues and cheese puffs. I chatted with the new workers, women from Laventille and artists from Hawaii and the US.

But carnival will never lose its glitter. The time-consuming, labour-intensive, highly skilled craftwork will always command my respect. The festival’s spirit is a magnet, drawing me back like a pin. The months of hard work, sweat and tears mean nothing without those few days in the sun.

Seeing those limp pieces of cloth come to life on the streets is the carnival artist’s best reward. Sparkling in the sun. Sequins flashing. Fabric flowing in the breeze. Masqueraders swirling the cloth; the beat, the rhythm of the music pulsing through the crowd. Knowing that each outfit on those 3,000 revellers has been touched by your hand. A small part of your spirit sparkles with each sequin. Amid the noise, the hustle, the gyrating bodies and free-flowing rum, the energy that is carnival is released.
It is then, for those few short days, that life, like the costumes, glitters and glows.