BitDepth 613 - February 05

The annual masquerade has shifted steadily from portrayal of characters to wearing costumes.
The experience of mas

Ancil McLean stitches details into a sailor costume in Belmont. Photography by Mark Lyndersay.

It's the last week before Carnival and Samaroo's, a store that's legendary for its focus on materials specifically for the prettiest costumes, is humming with urgent conversation.
But Steve Samaroo, the company's Managing Director isn't happy with the direction that Carnival production has been taking.
"Some people will buy material from us and make it seem as if it's going to be made locally, and they build a prototype and send it abroad to be used for mass production," Samaroo said.

"There should be punishing taxes on the import of costumes made like this. If I imported Halloween costumes, I would have to pay dearly. Bands who parade with these foreign made costumes should be penalised when they cross the stage."
"You ask about the last ten years, but in the next ten years we could become an importer of costumes, not an exporter."
Tribe has an intricate network of mas producers, subcontractors who are part of what the band describes as its "spider's web" a mesh of assembly and quality checking through which costumes flow until they arrive at the band's Rosalino Street headquarters.

The band has had outsourced producton of some components of a single section, Black Magic. Bandleader Dean Ackin says that the band was unable to find a local supplier capable of handling the intricate stitching required.
In Union Hall, San Fernando, Astil Alleyne of Tribal Connection builds his band at the other extreme of Carnival production, a handful of people, most of them family, creating a band in an annex of their home with overflow throughout the house.
Both bands have at least this in common; their primary focus is on the comfort and convenience of their masqueraders.

Mas for the masquerader
For Alleyne that means buses to bring his masqueraders to Port of Spain to play their traditional native American mas, providing refreshments and a music truck and paying for "invisible" expenses, like the cost of parking the buses for the day and the special insurance that's required to cover the use of a music truck.
"I don't know how much longer we'll be able to keep doing this," says Alleyne, "maybe a year or two."

For Tribe, the expenses are a little different. The band features nine disc jockeys, rolling bars for food and drink, smaller "express" bars, cool zones that blast cold air over masqueraders, and a "goodies" bag with cosmetics and more from band sponsors and supporters.
Both bands offer an experience that's tailored to their masqueraders, with Tribe offering online registration, tightly scheduled distribution and several all-inclusive parties leading up to their presentations on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.
Tribal Connection tailors costumes to the masquerader and De BOSS, another traditional band from Belmont, will add decorations to order to enhance their sailor costumes.
On the streets today, though, you won't mistake these traditional bands with their modern counterparts.  Combined, Tribal Connection and De BOSS will put fewer masqueraders on the road than any single section in Tribe or Harts International.

The Carnival argument
Alleyne expects to be on the road with 120 masqueraders while De BOSS bandleader Churchill George is planning on a band of 130 players. In one of those curious inversions that's characteristic of Carnival, the typical masquerader in the traditional bands will be wearing a costume made of yards of cloth that costs less than TT$1,000 while the far skimpier costumes of Harts International and Tribe begin north of $2,000.

This sort of discrepancy gets observers of Carnival into heated and rather pointless debates. The gulf between traditional Carnival and today's "bikini" bands isn't about the costumes or respect for history, it's about creating a compelling experience and a reason for dressing up and stepping out into the centre of the street on the two days of Carnival.
The difference, really, is the difference between portraying a character and wearing a costume. Traditional bandleaders have done a poor job of evolving the art of portrayal while today's modern bandleaders have outdone themselves in making wearing a costume a desirable experience. 
The difference in the product is remarkable. One is the result of individual will and skill, the other is a submission to an immersive group experience.
That schism has become the difference between selling out a band in a matter of days and hoping that everybody finishes paying for their costume.
It's possible that the only bandleader to successfully bridge the old ethos of Carnival for the costume's sake and today's costumed private member's clubs was Peter Minshall, who gave masqueraders an opportunity to participate in a concept and sometimes a story that subsumed the individual in the creation of an event. 
For their trouble, Minshall's masqueraders were often heckled as "burros" for their willingness to carry the designer's concepts to the Grandstand stage.

In one year that stands as a defining moment in the evolution of Carnival, Minshall's masqueraders faithfully carried their packs across the Savannah stage and dumped them in a huge pile at the western end of the drag.
Today, there are far fewer who would pick them up in the first place.

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