The fun-lovers: Edmond & Lil Hart

Edmond Hart and Lil Hart: The Hart's colourful creations demonstrated that Carnival above all is to be enjoyed

  • Kay Christopher as the High Priestess of Ethur in The Etruscans (1963). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Kay Christopher in playing cards (1966). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Edmond Hart and Kay Christopher in Mesopotamia BC (1965). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Edmond Hart in costume about to enter the Savannah stage. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Lil and Edmund Hart in the 1980s. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Edmond Hart, born 1923, and Lil Hart, 1930–1991

“The Hart presentation is a people mas; designed to be worn like fashion, to make the ladies lovelier, and loveliest of all in numbers; and the men more macho.”
Trinidad Carnival magazine

Carnival design has always been a collaborative art. Even the best designers incorporate ideas from their colleagues, and without the host of workers at the mas camps there’s no way that thousands of costumes could be ready by Carnival Monday every year. But the most famous collaboration in post-war Carnival was surely that between the husband and wife team of Edmond and Lil Hart, bandleader and designer.

Their nearly 30-year partnership, from 1962 to 1991, bridged the many phases of modern pretty mas. History, fantasy, indigenous themes, “bikini mas” — they did it all, winning the band of the year title five times. The marriage united Lil’s creative ideas with Edmond’s production skills to produce a trademark style: abundant colour and simple costuming. Their presentations attracted masqueraders from across the social spectrum, and were the direct ancestors of most of today’s leading bands.

Brought up in San Fernando, Edmond Hart was encouraged to play mas from the time he was nine, in costumes his mother made on her hand sewing-machine. When he came to Port of Spain in the early 50s he started playing with Harold Saldenah; in 1955 he moved to bandleader Bobby Ammon’s committee, helping to produce six bands under the Ammon name. When Ammon resigned in 1961, just five weeks before Carnival, the other committee members thrust Hart into the role of bandleader, and the band took his name. His formidable organisational skills kicked into high gear, and on Carnival Monday Was Dis Grace hit the streets. The following year, the colourful four-foot-square flags in Flagwavers of Siena — which, 30 years later, Hart said was still his favourite band — made his 176 masqueraders look like many more.

After Carnival 1962, Hart planned to let someone else take charge of the band, but none of his associates seemed interested. Finally his wife Lil stepped forward to share the responsibility, and the Harts team began its three-decade run. The band carried Edmond’s name, and he always oversaw the actual production of the costumes, but from the beginning Lil was the creative powerhouse, conceptualising the themes, sketching out the sections, and co-ordinating her bright colours (purple was her personal favourite).

Like many young Trinidadian women in the 1940s and 50s, Lil had strict parents who did not think their daughter should be involved in Carnival — but she still managed “to put on a costume and play mas”. Now she had the chance to indulge her artistic instincts, but she never forgot the element of fun. “I make sure my masqueraders enjoy themselves,” she said, “and I design costumes to conform to this.”

The Harts’ first band of the year title came in 1966, when Lil broke with convention by designing a band with a fantasy theme rather than a historical one: Playing Cards. The competition was always important to them. When the Harts’ 1969 band failed to win the judges’ nod, Lil decided to “play devil for them”. 1970’s burning Inferno won her a second title, but it also prompted a call from her alma mater, Holy Name Convent. “The principal . . . called me in and asked how I could come up with something like that. They remembered me as a good religious girl.”

During the 60s, the opening up of Carnival to Trinidad’s full social range accelerated. The Harts saw the faces on the road and in their band changing. They declared that “Carnival is colour” and “Carnival is an escape valve”, and found an answering chord among their masqueraders. Their style was simple, bright, and comfortable. In the 80s, theirs was among the first bands to introduce special sections for the “body beautifuls” — those particularly curvy or muscular masqueraders who wanted to show off more bare skin. When asked about their role in developing so-called bikini mas, Edmond was quick to point out that he and Lil were not the ones with the salacious edge. “We tried to be as conservative as possible. But still there were people, when we give them a costume, they cut and bring it down to how they want to wear it, and since it belongs to them, we can’t do anything about it.”

Mas lovers were taken aback to hear in late 1991 that the Hart partnership had come to an abrupt end. Edmond and Lil separated, then she suffered a severe heart attack which led to her death a few months later at the age of 61. On his own, Edmond produced his final band, Bacchanal, in 1992. That same year, three of the Hart children, all of whom had grown up helping their parents, formed their own band, Young Harts, presenting a tribute to Lil called Total Recall.

Today, Harts — they dropped the “young” after a few years in the business — is one of Trinidad’s most successful bands. And the simplicity of design and emphasis on enjoyment which were Edmond and Lil Hart’s trademarks have become dominant forces in 21st-century Carnival. “We are masqueraders first, and anything else after,” Edmond once said. “We look for a simple costume and have fun.”

Edmond and Lil Hart: Band of the Year Titles

1966    Playing Cards
1970    Inferno
1983    Mas Sweet Mas
1986    Islands in the Sun
1988    Out of This World

More in our Trinidad Carnival Artists of the Streets series

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