Irvin McWilliams: the man of the people

Irvin McWilliams, born 1920: "Mac" celebrated the everyday life of Trinidad and Tobago, pioneering "indigenous mas"

  • Individual from Wonders of Buccoo Reef (1971). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Know Your Country (1978). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Bo Nancy Hiding in the Poui Tree, from Anancy Story (1972). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Irvin McWilliams in 1972, in costume at the Savannah. Photograph by Noel Norton

Irvin McWilliams, born 1920

“To see a McWilliams band is to see an immense ‘action’ painting with the life of humanity breathed into it by its creator and informed with the content of the epic poem.”
Trinidad Carnival magazine

Irvin “Mac” McWilliams arrived on the Carnival scene in 1957 with Cleopatra and the Kings of Europe, a historical presentation typical of the time. His next three bands belonged squarely to the genre of historical mas, but in 1961 he made an unprecedented move, producing Hail La Trinity, the first Carnival band with an entirely local theme.

Maybe he knew that this new genre was ahead of its time. For the next nine years, McWilliams returned to historical and fantasy themes, while the coveted band of the year title eluded him. But McWilliams believed that “within our own shores there is untapped material for magnificent mas”, and in 1971 he set out again to prove it, with his groundbreaking — and prizewinning — Wonders of Buccoo Reef. Newly confident in his vision, he was victorious again the following year with Anancy Story. “Indigenous mas” had finally found its time.

Mac’s presentations were a form of cultural education. Modest and self-deprecating, he was loved by masqueraders and spectators for creating a mas reflecting Caribbean life. He regularly won the people’s choice vote, and his bands were particularly popular with female masqueraders. “I won’t mind if other mas men do better than me,” he said, “but it is essential that citizens know the things that make up their islands.” His 1974 presentation, Somewhere in the Caribbean, was one of his creative highlights, taking the indigenous theme regional, with costumes and sections including “Jamaican Ackee”, “Grenadian Nutmegs” and “Flying Fish from Barbados”.

In 1978, just when people began to think he had exhausted his ideas, McWilliams won the title again with Know Yuh Country, a 3,500-member kaleidoscope of Trinbagonian culture described in the press as “a folk festival . . . in the medium of mas”. “To win with that theme,” said Trinidad Carnival magazine, “is to have the nation stop and take note.” Sections like “Pointe-à-Pierre Oil”, “Arima Dial”, “Caroni Bird Sanctuary”, and “Chaconia Gold Awards” had their impact multiplied by the sheer number of costumed revellers.

Over the years, McWilliams’s local themes attracted thousands to his bands. Their very popularity, with as many as three or four thousand masqueraders each year, made it difficult to maintain artistic order. In 1979, with Our Famous Recipes, spectators got a glimpse of the problems of mas on such a large scale. As journalist and photographer Roy Boyke said at the time, “It could be that no one is capable of retaining creative control over the production of so many costumes, spread over various mas camps in far-flung locations . . . perhaps the solution is in limiting the size of bands.”

As Carnival becomes an increasingly globalised business, it is worth noting McWilliams’s pioneering business methods. He was the first bandleader to use multiple mas camps — necessary to assemble his costumes in their extraordinary numbers — and the first to start selling off costumes if their intended owners did not collect them at the agreed time, things that are commonplace today.

But, though his bands of the 1970s and early 80s were among the most popular of the time, McWilliams was a simple man with simple drives, and a single, invaluable vision of Carnival. “I enjoy mas,” he said. “I enjoy producing things people like and can play in . . . I get a kick out of it and as long as I can break even, I’m easy.”

Irvin McWilliams: Band of the Year Titles

1971    Wonders of Buccoo Reef
1972    Anancy Story
1978    Know Your Country

More in our Trinidad Carnival Artists of the Streets series

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