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New, tradition-based mas claims its space

Sunday, March 2, 2014

“Bringing out a band two weeks before Carnival? Boy, that is a Minshall mas.” The incredulous assertion of a visitor to 33 Murray Street echoes across a quiet evening in Woodbrook. This is the mas camp of Miss Miles, the band from Tony Hall and Cecilia Salazar which will bring Gene Miles back to the streets on Carnival Monday. Registration started exactly 14 days before showtime. Challenging, even for this crew: 3Canal on music, Frank Agarrat and Robin Foster on sound, a Peter Minshall design, Meiling for costume production.The proficiency of the band’s creators certainly helps but it brings its own pressures. Not every band has to postpone a prototype review because the Prime Minister wants to give the designer a house. Salazar and 3Canal are performing their own stage musical, Grimee, every night at Queen’s Hall for the week before Carnival.


Hall is chaperoning students on panyard tours in his capacity as a university professor. “My day job in the night,” he says.Ten days before Carnival, Hall lists the band’s hot issues: “Boobs and music.” The costume silhouette was vexatious from the start. Minshall’s design is inspired by a specific photograph of Gene Miles: poised, cinched, pneumatic: the 60s woman. Hair, lips, bust and hips are critical to this mas, but there is a distinction between satire and parody; Miss Miles is not a Dame Lorraine.  Then there’s sound quality. Keeping a truck on the road is part of what Hall terms “the secret efficiency of Carnival.” Sound engineers are stumped by Hall’s challenge to reduce a sound system designed for a band of thousands to one suitable for a group of 50.


A regular music truck is a behemoth, hauling walls of speakers on 20- or 30-foot customised flatbeds. Compromise arrives in the form of a three-ton truck. Seven days before Carnival, some issues are resolved and replaced by others. There are now two masks. Split the band in two—one section for each mask? Perhaps. Attention to detail will elevate costume to masquerade. “Peter has specified the lips are two different colours,” Hall explains. “The top lip is different from the bottom lip—this is what will make the mouth stand out.” The purpose of this mas is to make a statement about corruption and about mas itself. 


Hall is very clear: “I am not inventing anything.” The band is not the creation of a mas character, it is the revival of a masquerade first performed by Gene Miles, subsequently imitated, and now fallen out of fashion.
Salazar’s performance as queen of the band is central to reimagining Miss Miles now. “Traditions are important and useful, but they are only really useful if you understand what in them is contemporary to help us survive,” says Hall. A new generation of artists reinterprets tradition. “This is what Peter has done in the mas,” Hall continues. “Peter has taken characters that are normally speech characters and turned that speech into something visual and bigger.” In Minshall’s Danse Macabre (1980), the king of the band is the midnight robber presented as a giant puppet. In Carnival Is Colour (1987), the pierrot Grenade becomes a dancing death clown, as Hall describes it. Several bands will present new forms of traditional masquerade this Carnival. They are not necessarily endangered; indeed some are thriving. Cat in Bag Productions, from artist Ashraph, will play bats. The presentation is called Suck It and it shares a theme with Miss Miles. 

The bat is a statement about “the bloodsucking nature of corruption and graft in contemporary T&T,” says Nicholas Laughlin, who has played with the band since its inception. This is Cat In Bag’s fifth year on the road. Back in 2009, Ashraph and fellow artist Shalini Seereeram drew inspiration from the 3Canal song Tin Cow, Fat Cow, and put out a band of a few dozen members. This year the band has around 70 members. The secret efficiency is in effect: veteran wire benders Clyde Bascombe and Kendall de Peaza have helped shape the frames for the head pieces, over which papier mâché is laid to create the bat masks. The band will pass through all four judging points—Adam Smith Square, South Quay, Piccadilly Greens and the Savannah—on Monday and Tuesday. And it will not be alone. Laughlin does not entirely accept the notion that Carnival is creatively bankrupt. He sees dozens of small bands every year: “It’s just harder to see and hear them among the hordes of Carnival-industrial pretty mas.”

Bands like Cat In Bag and Robert Young’s Vulgar Fraction weave in and out of the spaces left by the mega-bands. Young also expects his group to be bigger this year than usual. “People have been calling me from abroad, friends I haven’t seen in years, saying they are coming in and want to join the band,” he says. “That hasn’t happened before.”  Vulgar Fraction’s Black I is an interpretation of black Indian mas. Young’s Carnival season is a fluid exchange of skills and experience. Vulgar Fraction has been learning about the black Indian tradition from the Warriors of Huaracan, a band with a history stretching back to the early part of the last century. In return, the Warriors have drawn on Vulgar Fraction’s resources to assist with their own costume production. The Warriors directly influenced Hall. Narrie Approo has played black Indian mas since he was 11 years old; he is now 86. He has played many other characters as well, attracting the attention of younger artists and mas makers in the process. “For two years, I followed Narrie around,” Hall recalls. What Approo showed him was the space available at Carnival on Monday afternoon, when the big bands are not clogging the streets, and the masquerade comes to the fore. For Hall, Carnival and mas are not the same: “There is no connection between mas and sitting in a traffic jam.”  Traditional mas has not gone away, but its creators must annually restate it to assert its relevance. To figure out, says Hall, “how to get it to live in that noise.”


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