On Minshall and reading the mas

By Kenneth Ramchand

Detail of Mancrab, by Peter Minshall. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Detail of Mancrab, from the band River (1983), by Peter Minshall. Photograph courtesy Mark Lyndersay


i: J’Ouvert: Bonasse Village 1956 and before

It wasn’t light and it wasn’t dark and the boy lay there waiting. This time so the jostlers would have been pushing their carts heavy with petrol, outboard engines, and drinking water towards the pirogues tethered in the shallow surf. This time so the dogs in the back streets would have been rushing and barking at the workers, men in tall boots and women with buckets on their heads and bolis at their waist moving towards their “tasks.” But the workers were not heading to the coconut estate today and the fishermen were not going to sea. This was J’Ouvert morning and some worshippers were already standing impatiently in Junker’s yard though the majority were counting their beads in their houses, getting ready to join the throng following the steel band as they passed, or to stand in palm-decorated verandahs to watch the holy procession.

The boy was moved, but he never joined in this early morning ritual. If he danced it would have been only in his head. When he felt the tug of the pan he took pride in proving that he could restrain himself.

That woman with red red lips, huge angular frontish breasts pointing like arrows, and a bottom like a shelf you could sit on and hang down your legs from was the headmaster, and that lady in a petticoat with a doll in her arms and a cardboard mask hiding her face was the postmistress who would report you to your mother if you didn’t say “Thank you” when she handed you the mail. The jab molassie (“Pay the devil”) with a threatening garden fork in his hands and a restraining rope round his waist moving to the harsh urgings of a pitch-oil tin drum beaten by his restrainer was Kotowa who drank bay rum, made bombastic speeches, and wore tight tight short pants every day. And that other devil, the jab jab in satin with tassel and bell and a cracking whip like a slave master (“You know me well / And I come from Hell”) was the mulatto overseer playing himself.

The boy loved the hush as everybody waited for the coming of the light. Then the release as the silence broke and the band started the first of its sweeps up the main road to the junction at the top of the hill just beyond the village then back again to the cinema and the cemetery, with everybody and everything shifting shape, metamorphosing, going out of character, and dancing their joy at being liberated from what their social circumstances and their education, such as it was, had determined they should be.

Remembering it many years later he would be struck by this joyous deconstruction, the decomposing and the re-composing, the inventiveness and the improvisation, the dreaming audacity of it all. After the last lap they would return to their lot, but the J’Ouvert feeling was special, and in retrospect the boy cherished it all the more.

He recognised the religious quality of the J’Ouvert, the return to the earth and soil, the ritual of dying in order to be born again, but he never saw it as separate from the inside-out characters, and the pierrot grenade’s rebellion against the canons of spelling and construing, using words to undermine The Word. The Monday Carnival in the village was made up of individual characters going from house to house, person to person, or rum shop to rum shop, serenading, creating fear, and extracting coins as reward or insurance against terrorism or contamination. “So Mary Back Mary,” Wild Indian looking like Warahoon and talking like the Indians cowboys loved to shoot, a bad cow called “lang boeuf” or something like that, robber, minstrel, drunken sailors, lagahoo, and soucouyant.

He could not remember anything fancy in this mas. Inevitably, things from foreign were used, but, like everything else, they were adapted to purposes other than what they were made for. He remembered how the players took what was around them in nature or belonged to the stock of what was routinely shipped to the colony. Everything was worked in. Fig leaf, “lapeet” for the whip, coconut branch, calabash, coconut fibre, bamboo, roseau, cocoyea, old tires, pitch-oil tins, sugar bags, flour bags, pieces of seine, old cloth, old hat, wire mesh, tree branch, whistle, bell, broom. Objects washed up on the seashore. Items from passing ships.

The boy liked the words of Sparrow’s winning calypso and did a sedate little jump in High Street on Monday morning to the music of “Jean and Dinah”. Next day he was taken to Port of Spain in the tray of a truck full of pelau, orange, and rum. Among the colourful Red Indian bands he remembered (thank you, Michael Anthony, for Parade of the Carnivals, 1989) was The Sioux Nation, which had a steelband attached to it. Several fancy sailor bands went by, including the USS Saratoga, and a steelband dressed as Pongo Worshippers of Flowers. The big bands were a novelty to him. The players wore their costumes with pride and a certain amount of protectiveness. Some danced and some chipped but the costumes did not connect with who they were or who they wanted to be. Except for the sailors and the one or two robbers, bats, and ole mas figures, the player and the costume did nothing for each other. The big bands — Norse Gods and Vikings, King David and the Ammonites, Great Pharaohs of Egypt, and The Coronation of Haile Selassie — were too far-fetched even for fantasy. They were neither life-like nor larger than life. They did not suggest threat, danger, or desire. It was as if they were only grand-charging, and had no wish to change the world. This was far from the spirit of J’Ouvert. The Carnival touched reality only in J’Ouvert and in the calypso.

Later, he would see his instincts confirmed in Minshall: the homespun and inside-out world of the J’Ouvert and the ole mas were the real mas. Walcott and Selvon and Lovelace distilled the language of the tribe. Minshall would set free the spirit of the Carnival. Tan Tan and Saga Boy. An epic representation of ease and style, freedom to be, sexual energy, elemental force. The repressed and denigrated realities of history and culture breaking the shackles.

Years of schooling passed. Now, it was the time of George Bailey’s Relics of Egypt and McWilliams’s Feast of Belshazzar and the terrible steelband clash involving Desperadoes (Noah’s Ark), San Juan All Stars (War Cry), and Rhapsody (Fruits and Flowers). But the boy with a sound colonial education wasn’t thinking about mas again. He didn’t have the time for that or anything else. He was interested in art and in education. He had been prepared. His destiny was elsewhere. Nobody had told him about self-knowledge. He went to Scotland to see what he could learn and become. Journey to an expectation.

ii: Coming home a long way from home

At the age of thirteen Minshall had played a prize-winning mas in the Aunty Kay Red Cross Kiddies Carnival. The story is well known: with leftover Christmas decorations, a cardboard box, dried bones for skulls, wire for bracelets, coconut branches, and dry grass from the ravine for a skirt, he gave body to the African witch doctor projected by the movies of his time. Three years later the white boy crossed over as a Dame Lorraine among the people of mud, the devils, and the dancers sprouting green branches, and he felt the mystery, fear, and joy, the shape-shifting and the metamorphosis, the love, liberation, and empowerment of J’Ouvert, “the most wonderful part of Carnival.”

Time passed describing the parade of bands for Radio Trinidad (Byzantine Glory, Back to Africa, Merrie England); soaking in the surrealism of the fancy sailor; registering the motifs of night and day, death and life in the complimentarity of the bats and the clowns; designing for the Jaycee Queens and the Light Opera Society; going to a Shango meeting and seeing Andrew Beddoe catch the power; sharing and possessing the cultural heritage of his Indian friends in Fyzabad; living, in short, “the home-grown knowledge of universality.”

All of this stayed in his blood and simmered in his head. But it was not enough, did not yet mean enough for a young man who wanted “to go away and be an artist in the real world where real art was made: in London, in New York, in Paris.”

He went to do theatre design at the Central School of Art and Design in London.

This was it. This was it. This was it. Like the great C.L.R. James before him in 1932 (Letters from London, 2003), he took delight in the art and thought of the heady metropolis. The works and artists he had read about came alive in his awed visits to the National Gallery. He luxuriated in the opera. The white boy from the black island saw Sir Laurence Olivier playing Othello at the Old Vic. He experienced Fontaine and Nureyev dancing at the height of their grace and prowess. He saw kabuki and katakali.

It was necessary, it was inspiring, but, no, it was not “it.” He listened to his silence. He listened to their talk. There were avant garde discussions about experiential theatre and audience participation. They wanted art to be immediately accessible, to catch you even if you didn’t understand it fully. They were willing to try out a thing called performance art. O brave new world, he wanted to mock.

He was a long way from home and it meant a lot to a young man from the periphery to hear them naming as wonders the things he took for granted at home: “But we have been doing that for a hundred and fifty years. Mas is not a painting, mas is about performance.” He talked it over in his head, because you can’t just go on being intuitive all the time. You have to construct knowledge. You have to read and learn. You have to think and you have to question. What kind of artist was he? How did it and he get to be like that?

He sat in class and he saw that he was something else. A strange open-ended hybrid formed in the rich soil of Trinidad: “I had in me, coming from my island, Africa, India, and Europe, and I couldn’t stop it, it was there, it came out in the work.” It came out in the work when you weren’t even looking.

His thesis was on the Trinidad Carnival, and he had a sense of where he was being pointed: “I had by now exorcised, expurgated myself of all that Carnival Queen glamour. I had by now, on my own in cold London, come face to face with the wonder of the fancy sailor and the midnight robber and the bat. I had not been taught it, I had found it out, and therefore it was far more powerful to me.” So. Once Upon a Time. To Hell With You. From the Land of the Hummingbird.

This was his second birth. He was ready to enter the life of his art.

iii: Same music, different drum

What Minshall found in the mas (calypso, Carnival, and pan), the silent watcher found in another trinity. Calypso, cricket, and West Indian literature. Science-men and artists. Doing it in new ways. Inventing forms. They made art of his reality. They conjured up the magic in his reality. From the Land of the Hummingbird.

The only Carnival he knew in those cold years was the calypso. He seined his memory for the old calypsos, and each new year he scanned the airwaves for the latest: “Ban the Hula Hoop”; “Ten to One is Murder”; “Split Me in Two”; “Federation”; the first Panorama coinciding with the showdown between Sparrow (“Dan is the Man”) and Kitchener (“The Road”); “Portrait of Trinidad”; and “Black is Beautiful” in 1969, when the Carnival went Afro and the Black Power Revolt was only a year away. In the year of “Drunk and Disorderly” and “Rope” he stood for a long time outside the British Airways office near Victoria Station like a soldier burning to go away without leave. The tunes in his brain, winter after winter. The life that kept him alive.

He batted, bowled, and fielded in every cricket match played by the West Indies. What could take you so spectacularly beyond the boundaries that had been laid down by your history and your education? What could announce the infinite capacity and endless possibility of the ordinary people of the region more than the art and craft, the purpose and the direction of the great West Indian teams of the 1960s led by the mind and the cool of Frank Worrell and the exemplary genius in the field of Sir Garfield Sobers?

When he was thirteen, a Canadian missionary had given him Sam Selvon and launched his career. He heard the footfall and smelled the smell of people whose work was humanising a landscape. He thrilled to the chorus of voices from many lands and the fusion and fission of cultural energies in his island. When the first snow fell he could afford to enjoy it, he had his brighter sun.

He found in Lamming the tools to analyse the colonial indoctrination and the imperial encirclement, the passion to claim all the natives of his person. He lived through Naipaul the obstinate struggle against facelessness and placelessness. He felt in Selvon the making of the Trinidadian person, a creature “born of all the races in the world.” And he took as creed and license, pleasure and duty, the remonstrance of Wilson Harris’s Cristo:

There’s a whole world of branches and sensations we’ve missed and we’ve got to start from the roots up even if they look like nothing. Blood, sap, flesh, veins, arteries, lungs, heart, the heartland. We’re the first potential parents who can contain the ancestral house . . . We’ve got to face it. Or else it will be too late to stop everything and everyone from running away and tumbling down.

From The Whole Armour, 1962

iv: The return

He returned to his native land just before the Carnival of 1976. He returned to Minshall’s Paradise Lost: a QRC boy, carrying Shakespeare from “Mr Brathwaite, an Afro-Creole,” and Milton from “Ralph Laltoo, an Indo-Creole.” A white QRC boy with a sound colonial education turning that education upon itself and setting to the music of the mas the great English poem by John Milton. A mas man using the art form of the mas to communicate deeply and instantly in the way words hoped to do and used to do.

Giving local habitation to the epic machinery, space wars, winged spirits, and elemental fireworks imagined by blind John Milton. Bringing them all to life in the theatre of the streets. The king of the band was not the fallen star but the gilded serpent entering the garden to tempt the world and the island to take up the never-ending engagement with contradictoriness and desire.

The response of the Savannah to the highly engineered and poetic text of Minshall’s Paradise Lost was immediate and emotional. Perhaps they couldn’t say it, but they felt something huge at the end of their line. They felt the allegory and the symbolism: the fate of the mythical Garden of Eden was the fate of the island that was as close and real to them as their ribs. They felt the politics: the difference between the colonial sleep and the troubled, exciting arousal into an independence that they were still evading after more than a decade. They felt the universality of the co-existence of old and new, youth and age, innocence and experience, flesh and spirit, darkness and light, good and evil, the ethereal and the gross. They felt the terror and the joy. They felt they were the oldest natives. Above all, they felt the seasoning of “all of we is one,” a benediction similar to the one in the Walcott poem, lasting just one moment “like the pause / between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace, / but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long” (“Season of Phantasmal Peace”). They felt all of this all at once and they felt themselves to be part of it.

The literary critic burned like Lucifer left out. For they felt all this not through words but through the pulsing of music, dance, and motionless flight; the surge and flash of colour; and the charged blend of heavenly and earthly bodies with wings filling the space into which their eyes, ears, and responsive blood were drawn.

He remembered the scenes in the books and poems where the writers sought to convey the meaning and spirit of the mas. Jouvert Morning by Marion Patrick Jones, which had just come out. The ecstasy of the young boy Dolphus in Michael Anthony’s The Games Were Coming (1963). The glorious march of the pans to Freedom Square in George Lamming’s Season of Adventure (1960). And then Selvon in Moses Migrating (1975) bringing Wilfred Strasser’s One Penny of 1948 to life and showing through the mas the bad faith of a compulsive role-player gaining the prize for playing Britannia but losing his chance of the real life he could have had if he had had the courage to own the opportunity and the feelings that came to him on J’Ouvert morning. Selvon talking through the mas about the mas.

The books remain but nobody reads them. The lost literature of the West Indies. And now here were people reading the mas with their sense and their souls, responding to a million types of ambiguity and invading the text — so much did they want to be enclosed by it. Everybody reading the mas, but next year so where it gone? He worried about that as he tried to understand the appeal of the art.

It was an art growing out of the meeting of all the peoples and all the cultures. It was art taking possession and making new. It was something original but it would not have been original art if it weren’t also science, indigenous science, and divination, learning to see and taking the pulse and measure of what is here in the earth, the air, the sea, and the daily lives of people in a landscape.

It began humbly with observation, study, analysis, and understanding, and it directed its research to a familiar and notorious creature (almost a folk character), the bat, and the bat costumes that appeared so naturally in Carnival from ever since. The endless associations and connotations of the bat: creature of the night, kiss of death/curse of eternal life, shape-shifter, upside-down hanger, mover by sinister radar, the one who sees in the dark. All that and more. Out of the bat costume that replicated the structure of the bat, the inspired mas artist evolved fan, headpiece, tree of life, robber, angel, imp. He used its colour chillingly in Danse Macabre, Rat Race, and This Is Hell. The Minshall mas appeals to the folklore we imbibed in our childhood, the stories and the superstitions lodged in our “modern” consciousness.

Studying the structure of the bat and the bat costumes that imitated that structure, Minshall focused on the way the bat costume was attached to the body of the performer with “the arms connected to and manipulating the wings; the entire length of the body attached to the inside edge of the wings; and the feet attached to the bottom edges of the wings. This construction allowed the movement of the mas player’s arms, body, and feet to be transmitted through the fabric, so that the performance was kinetic and expressive” (typescript, Todd Gulick, “Innovations in the Art of Mas”, 2000). As Minshall put it, if you study the bat costume, “you’ll realise that the entire body informs the movement and then you begin to learn and understand what the verb ‘to play mas’ means.” The traditional content in the Minshall mas is subject to a strict scientific understanding that distills its essence. He distills it and still seems to preserve it whole, no matter what liberties he takes, or what new forms he invents.

For all Minshall’s technical innovations, for all the maths, chemistry, physics, and engineering in his work, for all his experiments and improvisations in the science of materials that give his mas a modern face, everything is there to serve the elemental and the natural. The synthetic or manufactured materials all strive to imitate and extend what is human or what is found in nature. Fine fibreglass rods, fishing rod blanks, windsurf masts, and plastic netting are not fine fiberglass rods, fishing rod blanks, windsurf masts, and plastic netting. They are cocoyea, roseau, bamboo, and seine, part of the life force: “I do not design costumes. From floor members to Kings and Queens, my job is to provide ways and means by which human beings can express their energy.”

There is no dryness or theoretical abstraction in the Minshall mas. Tan Tan and Saga Boy are technical accomplishments and products of pure thinking and artistic invention, but they are in the first place social realism of the highest order. The simple device (once you think about it) of freeing the dancer to dance (instead of dragging a float) and making the costume dance by taking it off the wheels and attaching it to the feet of the dancer is a revolutionary one. The energy of the dancer and the moves of his body are transferred mechanically to the giants that dwarf him. The larger-than-life figures, however, are so true to life; and the giant puppets are so true to the style, ease, colour, insouciance, freedom, and earthiness of Caribbean people, that they have entered our mythology as representative figures and spirits. At the same time they are Promethean, stealing the fire of the gods. The audacious puppets overshadow the puppeteer. They are at once an admission of our condition as specks in an overwhelming universe and an expression of our unrelenting will and ambition to overcome human limitations. The Minshall art strikes its social and metaphysical notes together in bold concert. Who hasn’t responded from the gut?

As the chapters in the Minshall serial appeared year after year, the literary critic felt himself responding as to poems, novels, and plays. Like Wilson Harris’s Palace of the Peacock (1960), Minshall’s Paradise Lost was a mythological orchestration of all his themes, social, cultural, and metaphysical. It was also a statement of technical problems and principles about costume, presentation, raw materials, and content that would have to be solved and established if the truth and immediacy of appeal were to be achieved.

He felt not just the shifting of moods from mas to mas and the variety of moods within each mas, but the intensity of them, as if the use of the muscle for intensity was a good in itself. He responded to the purposiveness of each band and their willingness to be part of a coherent statement larger than any one of them, even their conductor, might make. He saw that Minshall worked hard and intelligently to reach the take-off point where he would be carried by the spirit far beyond his ordinary self.

The artist celebrated the elemental — sky, sea, earth, forest, river, and the human expression of the elemental in the explosion of “Carnival.” Tantana bugled the gathering stream of communities from Adelphi and Bacolet to Valencia and Vessigny, paraded the mas of living tradition, and made us celebrate our overflowing spirit and unbounded freedom to be anything we want to be. He was calling the mas back to what it can be at its best — a spiritual medium for self-discovery, peace and love, and praise. Hallelujah.

The critic felt the passion in the mas and the passion in the man. He felt the pain of the man ennobling itself by recognising itself as the grief of a community. From the desolation of Danse Macabre (1980), the starkest, grimmest representation and symbolisation of where we as a society and the world itself had reached, from that brink he showed himself the way back with Tantana, Hallelujah, Song of the Earth, and Tapestry. Bleakest, bleakest Naipaul, and Harris at his most visionary. Fiercer than any of the political satirists in poetry, prose, and calypso, yet forcing himself to record through three successive years in the River trilogy the soul’s victory over cruelty and greed and the lust for domination. With unflinching artistic integrity and courage he created in the trilogy those monstrous twins of technology, science, and civilisation: Mancrab and Madame Hiroshima.

The great designer was a believer; he turned the band into believers. Those he stunned, enthralled, saddened, frightened, excited, and woke up, remembered to be believers too.

Minshall, you are not a white man, you are not a black man. You are the real Trinidadian all of us want to be. You are our artist, ours. (An echo from some Walcott poem.)

Mas artist, you found yourself in the mas. I found myself in the work of our literary artists. The instruction and delight you brought so immediately to your people I have divined with motivated effort in the books. Now that I have begun to read the mas, I have to tell you again: the reading will never be complete until I play a mas with you.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2007

Kenneth Ramchand is professor emeritus of West Indian literature at the University of the West Indies; professor emeritus of English at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York; director of the Academy for Arts, Letters, Culture, and Public Affairs of the University of Trinidad and Tobago; and an independent senator in the Senate of Trinidad and Tobago. A fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation, Ramchand is the author of the influential study The West Indian Novel and Its Background.