Harold Saldenah: the historian

Harold Saldenah 1925 - 1985: Sally's historical extravaganzas were famed for their scrupulous detail

  • Two individuals from Mexico 1591 to 1521 (1964). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • El Dorado, City od Gold (1968). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Harold Saldenah in the 1960s

Harold Saldenah, 1925–1985

In all art-forms, creativity balances tradition — the lessons of the achievements
of the past — against originality. Complete breaks with what has gone before
are rare. Most Carnival designers begin their careers as apprentices to
older masters, absorbing the skills and knowledge they need before they
can make their own unique contributions to the ongoing tradition.

Born in the east Port of Spain district of Belmont in 1925, Harold Saldenah
— universally known as “Sally” — began his Carnival career in the years
immediately after the Second World War, as an assistant to now almost forgotten
bandleaders like Harry Basilon and Harold Tang Yuk, and, most importantly,
Mansie Lai. (In turn, among Saldenah’s early masqueraders were future bandleaders
Stephen Lee Heung, Bobby Ammon, and Edmond Hart.) These were the days when
Trinidad’s different social groups still had separate Carnival experiences
— the “white” bands drove through Port of Spain in their elevated lorries,
while “parading the streets on foot in costume . . . was perceived as a
‘black’ thing”, as one historian has put it.

But in the early 50s change accelerated. Lighter-skinned masqueraders,
drawn by the increasingly attractive costumes of bandleaders like Saldenah
and his contemporaries, came down from their lorries, reconnecting their
mas with the streets. Sally’s historical presentations, intensely researched
and scrupulously fabricated, worked as a catalyst for this change. As designers
looked beyond traditional characters and biblical stories for their subject
matter, new masqueraders from across the social spectrum swelled the sizes
of the leading bands from the dozens to the hundreds.

Mansie Lai, Saldenah’s early mentor, had been greatly influenced in his
themes by the Hollywood films that were so popular in Trinidad’s cinemas in
the 1930s and 40s. In 1952, when Saldenah designed his own first band, he
took inspiration from the 1951 film extravaganza Quo Vadis, set in
New Testament times. Saldenah used still pictures distributed by the movie
studios to guide his costume designs; he even wrote to Hollywood for more
photos. Unable to afford metal, and with plastic not yet in common use, he
made his first legionnaires’ helmets from papier mâché over clay moulds.

Harold Saldenah: Band of the Year Titles

1955    Imperial Rome 44 BC to 96 AD
1956    Norse Gods and Vikings
1958    Lost City of Atlantis
1959    Crees of Canada
1964    Mexico 1519 to 1521
1968    El Dorado, City of Gold

Over the next decade Saldenah produced a series of historical epics, remarkable
for the magnificence and splendour of their costumes. Most celebrated of
all, his 1955 presentation Imperial Rome 44 BC to 96 AD astounded
masqueraders and spectators with its elaborate cast of characters — centurions,
gladiators, vestal virgins, and the 12 Caesars, including Nero in a 20-yard
cape of purple velvet. Saldenah’s insistence on accuracy forced his Roman
soldiers into short skirts. Previously, bare flesh had been considered inappropriate.
But Sally dispensed with tights and political correctness. His legionnaires
learned to reflect the realism of the era they portrayed. He used tooled
leather and real copper breastplates created by Ken Morris, contributing
to a new tradition of metalwork in Carnival design. No one was surprised
when Imperial Rome won Saldenah the first of his six band of the year

During the 60s, as more women joined the masquerade and bands grew even
larger (his Mexico 1519 to 1521 crossed a thousand in 1964), Saldenah
split up the mass of costumed revellers into different sections, each depicting
one aspect of the overall portrayal. He was thus a pioneer of “section mas”,
which soon became the convention. With their different colours and themes,
each complete with flag bearer and title, the sections came together in
rapid succession to tell a larger story.

In the mid-60s, “fantasy” portrayals began a trend away from authentic
historical themes, bringing new possibilities to designers and bandleaders.
Saldenah’s imagination rose to the challenge, and with his 1968 presentation,
El Dorado, City of Gold, he combined history and fantasy brilliantly.
The shiny foil he used on the costumes created a glistening spectacle in
the setting sun. Other bandleaders quickly followed his lead.

In 1976, to celebrate his 25th year as a bandleader, Saldenah
presented a personal retrospective called A Sailor Is a Sailor, recreating
each of his previous bands in the form of a traditional fancy sailor. The
following year he moved to Canada, where he brought his expertise to the
Trinidad-style Caribana Carnival. But in 1983, for the 200th anniversary
of Trinidad Carnival (the first French settlers had arrived in 1783), he
came back home to present Masquerade to Carnival, a 40-section tribute
to the history of the festival, with costumes celebrating dozens of traditional
characters. The historian of ancient civilisations had become the historian
of his own art-form.

Sally died from cancer in June 1985. He said he never felt afflicted by
the disease, preferring fresh coconut water from Savannah vendors to the drugs
recommended by his doctors. Two days before his death, as he was carried
on a stretcher from his home to the hospital, he turned to those around
him and said, with a masquerader’s smile, “Look how I’m going out as an
African king!”