George Bailey: the monarch

George Bailey, 1935 - 1970: "Sir George" won the lasting affection of ordinary spectators as no designer has before or since

  • Bright Africa (1969). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Bright Africa (1969). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Bright Africa (1969). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • George Bailey in the 1960s

George Bailey, 1935–1970

“All attempts to get at the root of the Bailey magic have failed. Whatever charisma or vision or greatness was associated with the Bailey name came first from the man that Bailey was.”
Trinidad Carnival magazine

But the true African king was George Bailey, the man many masqueraders, designers, commentators, and ordinary spectators consider the greatest bandleader Trinidad Carnival has yet known.

Early on, his friends dubbed him “Sir George”, and in most accounts of his life and career there is an air of nobility about both his personality and his art. He was certainly a prodigy — he produced his first independent band in 1956, a few months shy of his 21st birthday. In only his second year as a bandleader and designer, he presented Back to Africa, perhaps the most celebrated band in the history of modern Carnival, winning the 1957 band of the year award. With this single presentation, Bailey changed popular perceptions of Africa, history, and Carnival itself.

Traditional African masquerade, dating back to the era before emancipation, used rags, paint, and spears to portray an image of a miserable, uncivilised past. Bailey flaunted this stereotype by drawing on the elaborate pomp usually associated with bands depicting the history of Europe. His magnificent, meticulously researched African costumes asked masqueraders to think instead of a regal heritage. Before Bailey, the crowds did not believe any African mas could match the grandeur of Roman or Greek themes. He proved them wrong. It was a watershed moment, both for Carnival and for Trinidad society.

But Bailey had not come out of nowhere. The eldest of seven siblings, he was born in 1935 in Woodbrook, the west Port of Spain suburb that has produced so many of Trinidad’s cultural and political icons. His father, Aldwyn “Sonny” Bailey, was himself a bandleader, producing his own presentations from 1932 to 1940. Albert Bailey — George’s younger brother — recalls that their father “instilled in all of us the three key elements of production, that is, designing, building, and decorating.” Young George was exposed to the craft of early Woodbrook masmen like Leonard Carty, Ormand Hackshaw, and his father’s friend Ken Morris, learning from these elders the realist tradition of historical mas. Meanwhile, at Tranquillity Government School, he fell under the influence of the artist M.P. Alladin, developing a love of drawing, painting, and sculpture. He was a remarkable sportsman, challenging future Olympic athlete Mike Agostini, and playing on the national basketball team.

Naturally, he also started playing mas at an early age — “pirate mas”, ju ju warrior, flying officer (a variety of sailor mas). In 1954, just 19 years old, Bailey designed a band for the Invaders steelband, but soon struck out on his own. From his Drag Boys mas camp on Woodbrook’s Buller Street, assisted by his brothers Alvin and Albert, he embarked on a 15-year career of ornate spectacle and unprecedented popularity.

1959’s Relics of Egypt was so realistic a recreation of ancient Egyptian culture that some masmen wondered if Bailey had tapped into the supernatural. Like a Trinidadian version of the curse of King Tut, various members of the band fell ill that year, or suffered mysterious calamities; later it was whispered that this curse shadowed Bailey to his early death.

With his 1960 band Ye Saga of Merrie England, a pageant of English history, the “theatre of the streets” came of age. As Peter Minshall once remarked, “Who before had ever brought a royal carriage, complete with four white horses, knights, and a black Queen Elizabeth, on stage?” The Grand Stand audience responded with a prolonged standing ovation. His historical presentations won him the band of the year title four years in a row, from 1959 to 1962 (a record that would not be equalled for 30 years), but in 1963 Bailey became restless. With The Realm of Fancy Bats and Clown she launched a new genre, “fantasy mas”, taking the traditional bat and clown characters in a splendidly fresh direction, dabbling with what many designers today call the “kinetic principle”. In 1969, as cries of “black power” began echoing from North America to the tiny states of the Caribbean, Bailey produced Bright Africa, another triumphant assertion of both his heritage and his imagination.

From 1959, when the people’s choice award was introduced (voted not by judges, like the band of the year, but by ordinary spectators), until his final band, Tears of the Indies, in 1970, Bailey repeatedly won the popular vote, usually by embarrassingly wide margins. He was loved by the crowds as maybe no other Carnival designer has been, before or since. But Sir George’s reign was all too short. In 1970, returning to Trinidad with Cito Velasquez from a trip to Bermuda, he fell ill. When the aircraft landed at Seawell airport in Barbados, he asked for fresh air. Velasquez led him to the ramp, where Bailey collapsed and died of heart failure. The kingdom of Carnival still feels the loss of its king.

George Bailey: Band of the Year Titles

1957    Back to Africa
1959    Relics of Egypt
1960    Ye Saga of Merrie England
1961     Byzantine Glory
1962    Somewhere in New Guinea
1969    Bright Africa

More in our Trinidad Carnival Artists of the Streets series

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