The story of the last half-century of Trinidad Carnival is a story of brilliant, ambitious, tireless men and women, striving to achieve brave visions. It is a story of masterpieces and failures. It is a story of folk traditions transformed by imagination into art. It is also the story of a young society discovering a new confidence in itself, outgrowing old boundaries and prejudices, becoming more aware of its strengths and weaknesses. It is a story of giddily rapid evolution in creativity, technology, ideas, and understanding.
But there are forces capable of transforming art into something else; old boundaries can long survive undetected beneath the surface; and evolution is not always upwards.
From the 1950s to the late 80s, Carnival’s artistic benchmark was steadily raised. But during the decade of the 90s and into the new century, Carnival observers could not ignore the creative levelling-off and then decline that was happening before their eyes. One generation of masmen and women died or retired, another accomplished its greatest triumphs, but the wave of fresh talent that ought to have swept in — as it had in the 50s with Saldenah and Bailey and Velasquez, in the 60s with McWilliams and the Harts and Chang, and in the 70s with Berkeley and Minshall — was conspicuously absent. (And in recent years both Berkeley and Minshall have lamented that no younger designers have emerged to challenge them.)
Simply put, over the last 15 years, Carnival has been guided more firmly by market forces than by creative ambition. Wayne Berkeley once said that “Producing a successful masquerade band is a combination of both artistry and business,” but in today’s mas the combination is uneven. The cost of playing in a Carnival band has risen constantly, now that masqueraders are paying not just for a costume and two days’ worth of music, but for security guards, drinks carts, and a massive marketing campaign as well. Simultaneously, costume designs grow ever more formulaic — some skimpy square inches of spandex, a few festoons of beads, a few tinselly loops of braid, and a feather or two, with a few dozen colour variations. A Minshall costume still stands out, more dramatically than ever, but otherwise it’s often impossible to tell masqueraders from different bands apart. Bandleaders hire no-name designers to churn out a series of generic sketches. The days when an artist of the calibre of Carlisle Chang would be invited to design a Carnival band are long gone. Bikini mas reigns.
Another worrying development is the gradual re-segregation of the mas, along strictly economic lines. In the 1940s and 50s, the emergence of the upper classes onto the streets proved to be a creative trigger. Nowadays, Carnival is simply too expensive for many, and security cordons separate those who can afford to join the bands from those who can’t. The calypsonian Lord Kitchener famously declared that the road was made to walk on Carnival day, but today non-paying revellers may find their way blocked by a burly uniformed guard.
Of course, every year Carnival still produces flashes of brilliance, perhaps in the form of a headpiece or the combination of colours in a section. Promising young designers like Brian McFarlane, Marlon Griffith, and Patrick Roberts, familiar with the achievements and traditions of the golden age, produce masquerades deserving praise and publicity. But when given the chance to work for one of the large bands, even the brightest are stifled by the emphasis on cost margins, by the need to adapt to a minimum-wage assembly line.
Carnival’s golden age is over. The story has taken a different twist. But who knows what the next chapter will bring, or how the next hero will emerge? Carnival is far from dead. In terms of sheer numbers, more people join the masquerade now than ever before, and the level of enjoyment has never sunk. Traditional characters like the robber and the devil and the sailor still thrive, though on the outskirts of the festival. The sight of tens of thousands of people dancing through the streets of Port of Spain still thrills onlookers, and the euphoria that the masqueraders feel when they get to the “Big Yard” at the Savannah is almost palpable.
All true Carnival lovers must hope that this euphoria, linking hundreds of thousands of revellers over many decades, will eventually be the inspiration for a new golden age, another era of marvels. Cito Velasquez wanted to produce a mas that little children would see and remember even when they were grandparents. There are men and women who can tell you today exactly what they felt when they caught their first glimpse of Back to Africa, or China, The Forbidden City, or River. Fifty years from now, what will today’s children remember? What stories will they have to tell?
Epilogue & Credits
Information for this feature was drawn from a wide range of sources, including Trinidad Carnival magazine, edited by the indefatigable Roy Boyke; the Trinidad Guardian, Trinidad Express, and Newsday newspapers; People Magazine; the special Fall 1998 Carnival issue of the Drama Review, edited by Milla Riggio and Richard Schechner; and features previously published in Caribbean Beat.
We have drawn on articles and interviews, in these and other periodicals and books, by Vaneisa Baksh, Wayne Brown, Ronald C. Emrit, Carlton Francis, Pat Ganase, Colin Hosten, Terry Joseph, Arden Knox, Dalton Narine, Peter Mason, Trevor M. Millet, Kamla Persad, Veerle Poupeye, Joan Rampersad, Krishendaye Rampersad, Judy Raymond, Selwyn Ryan, Valentino Singh, and Pearl Eintou Springer.
Errol Hill’s classic study The Trinidad Carnival (2nd edition, 1997) is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject. The Other Gift (2000), by Frank Seyon, is a comprehensive introduction to the work of Ken Morris, and Wayne Berkeley: Costume Design Vol. 1 (1999), edited by Alice and Gérard Besson, surveys Berkeley’s Carnival presentations from 1973 to 1999, with reproductions of his original drawings. J. Newel Lewis’s Trinidad Carnival: Nobody in His Right Mind (1974) is a lively collection of sketches from the 1960s and early 70s by a former Carnival judge, supplemented by personal commentary.
Harold Saldenah, Jr, provided information on his father that was not available from any published sources. Caribbean Beat’s designer, Russel Halfhide, an avid observer of Carnival since the 1960s, guided this feature in both form and content from its inception.
The material for this feature was researched and collected by Media & Editorial Projects (MEP) staff members Tracey-Anne Gill, Stacy Lalbeharry, O’Leo LoKai, and Dylan Kerrigan, with the help of Jason Nathu.
More in our Trinidad Carnival Artists of the Streets series
- The historian: Harold Saldenah, 1925–1985
- The monarch: George Bailey, 1935–1970
- The copper man: Ken Morris, 1924–1992
- The king-maker: Cito Velasquez, born 1929
- The man of the people: Irvin McWilliams, born 1920
- The admirals: George “Diamond Jim” Harding, 1915–1999; Jason Griffith, born 1927
- The fun-lovers: Edmond Hart, born 1923, and Lil Hart, 1930–1991
- The artist: Carlisle Chang, 1921–2001
- The globetrotter: Stephen Derek, born 1952
- The showman: Wayne Berkeley, born 1940
- The dramatist: Peter Minshall, born 1941
- Bikinis, beads, braids: Epilogue & Credits