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Car­ni­val has al­ways been colour: flashy se­quins, lav­ish fab­rics and wit used as a weapon. There's a rea­son why Trinidad Car­ni­val has spawned sev­er­al chil­dren all over the globe and is well-known as the great­est spec­ta­cle on earth. But a de­bate has been rag­ing for years over this spec­ta­cle and whether or not it has been los­ing its val­ue be­cause of new trends in cos­tum­ing.

The im­por­ta­tion of mas caus­es some tem­pers to flare and presents a lu­cra­tive busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ty for oth­ers. In fact, Min­is­ter of Arts and Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism Win­ston Pe­ters an­nounced last month that the Gov­ern­ment was in dis­cus­sions with Chi­nese busi­ness­men who are in­ter­est­ed in set­ting up Car­ni­val cos­tume fac­to­ries in this coun­try. Fac­to­ries and for­eign in­vest­ment mean big­ger busi­ness as this de­vel­op­ment could mean that Car­ni­val mas-mak­ing may fi­nal­ly be­come an or­gan­ised part of our man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor in­stead of an iso­lat­ed group of cot­tage in­dus­try cen­tres. But if the Gov­ern­ment takes a de­ci­sion to stim­u­late a Car­ni­val cos­tume in­dus­try with for­eign rather than lo­cal in­vest­ment, the im­pact, whether good or bad, will re­ver­ber­ate through­out the ex­ist­ing lo­cal in­dus­try.

Why im­port?

The min­is­ter's an­nounce­ment last year to in­crease the cus­toms du­ties on com­plet­ed cos­tumes im­port­ed in­to this coun­try means that the idea of Chi­nese mas fac­to­ries may be wel­comed for many band­lead­ers who would love to bring their sup­ply clos­er to the de­mand. Is­land Peo­ple Mas is one band that im­ports cer­tain el­e­ments of their cos­tumes from sup­pli­ers in Chi­na and Pak­istan. Band­leader Dane Lewis told Guardian Me­dia re­porters the Is­land Peo­ple com­mit­tee would love to pro­duce all their cos­tumes here, but it would com­pro­mise the val­ue of the work they pro­duce. "The cost dif­fer­ence is not re­al­ly the is­sue. The is­sue is work­man­ship," Lewis said.

Is­land Peo­ple's pro­duc­tion man­ag­er Tisha Niel­son who has vis­it­ed fac­to­ries in Chi­na and Pak­istan is con­vinced that it would be im­pos­si­ble for Is­land Peo­ple to pro­duce mas with­out these in­ter­na­tion­al part­ners, be­cause she can­not find the quan­ti­ty of ar­ti­sans she needs to make the thou­sands of cos­tumes for the band. "There's very in­tri­cate stitch­ing for all the bead­work. When I went to Chi­na es­pe­cial­ly, they are very dili­gent and very, very fast. And I don't know any­body in Trinidad – maybe one per­son, ac­tu­al­ly – who would sit and do hun­dreds and hun­dred of cos­tumes with­in the time frame."

Even those band­lead­ers who have said they won't use Chi­nese mas fac­to­ries if they are es­tab­lished think of this de­vel­op­ment pos­i­tive­ly, once lo­cals are in­volved. "It stops us from go­ing out­side and bring­ing it in­to our coun­try, so now we can at least say that it's be­ing made here," said Bri­an Mac Far­lane, leader of the Mac Far­lane Mas band. His band has won the Na­tion­al Car­ni­val Com­mis­sion's (NCC) Band of the Year com­pe­ti­tion five times. "What I would like to see is that when the ex­per­tise comes, that we're go­ing to teach and train lo­cals, that lo­cals will ac­tu­al­ly be run­ning the fac­to­ries and cre­at­ing Trinidad mas."

But if the Chi­nese cos­tume plants do be­come a re­al­i­ty, the tra­di­tion­al space where mas is now cre­at­ed – the mas camp – will def­i­nite­ly fall un­der fire. Ham­mer­ing cop­per breast­plates, wire bend­ing, sewing and glu­ing – these skills are all very im­por­tant for even the or­di­nary mas­quer­ad­er to learn. UWI vi­su­al arts lec­tur­er Lari Richard­son fears that the demise of the camp could mean the end of that blend of cre­ativ­i­ty, "where you would get some­body who worked on the pro­duc­tion line in a fac­to­ry mixed with a seam­stress who is ac­cus­tomed to mak­ing clothes for wed­dings, mixed with some­body who came out of an art school de­sign pro­gramme, mixed with a banker. And it's that com­bi­na­tion that has al­ways fas­ci­nat­ed me." How­ev­er, the mas camp in­sti­tu­tion may al­ready be on its last legs.\

It is true that skilled Car­ni­val ar­ti­sans are now in the mi­nor­i­ty, said band­leader and mas­ter wire ben­der Steven Derek. He es­ti­mates, for ex­am­ple that there are on­ly four skilled wire ben­ders still prac­tis­ing in this coun­try. At his work­shop on Kitch­en­er Street, the tra­di­tion­al de­f­i­n­i­tion of the mas camp is alive and well; peo­ple cut­ting and stick­ing, even the King of the Band was there build­ing his cos­tume. But Derek main­tains that the lo­cal in­dus­try can be built with­out for­eign in­vestors. "It's high time we sit down and study what we do­ing and start train­ing our young," he said. "I want to see us im­port the tech­nol­o­gy, set up busi­ness and em­ploy­ment, the works. But I am not in favour of Chi­nese busi­ness­men com­ing in­to Trinidad to set up shop and man­u­fac­ture Car­ni­val cos­tumes, be­cause that would be a lot of for­eign in­vest­ment go­ing back out."

Biki­nis and beads busi­ness

It's no se­cret that mas bands usu­al­ly im­port ma­te­ri­als from Chi­na, In­dia and Pak­istan to pro­duce what is com­mon­ly known as 'biki­ni and beads' mas. Un­like tra­di­tion­al cos­tumes which re­quired the mas­quer­aders to act or play their char­ac­ter in the the­atre of the streets, the new type of mas mim­ics the cos­tume of the Las Ve­gas show­girls. It's all about stim­u­lat­ing the wear­er to lose his or her in­hi­bi­tions and par­tic­i­pate in the huge street par­ty that Car­ni­val has be­come. Tribe is one of the largest and most pop­u­lar bands in the coun­try. Band­leader Dean Akin is very clear about what his ob­jec­tives are as band­leader; and they do not nec­es­sar­i­ly in­volve main­tain­ing the art and the­atre tra­di­tions of yes­ter­day's Car­ni­val.

"Our pri­or­i­ty is not the art as­pect of it; that's im­por­tant, yes. But our pri­or­i­ty is en­sur­ing that our mas­quer­aders have a fan­tas­tic time in this street par­ty." To those who be­lieve that bands like Tribe have foist­ed this new, par­ty-ori­ent­ed cos­tume on the pop­u­la­tion, Akin coun­tered with an ex­per­i­ment the com­mit­tee con­duct­ed a few years ago. The band cre­at­ed artis­tic, elab­o­rate cos­tumes as well as a se­lec­tion of small­er, show­girl type cos­tumes and brought in loy­al mas­quer­aders to cri­tique them. The mas­quer­aders chose the Las Ve­gas cos­tumes every time.

Akin doesn't see this as a loss; he says that the unique­ness of Trinidad Car­ni­val comes from the fact that mas­quer­aders have a choice be­tween "play­ing ah mas" in tra­di­tion­al cos­tume or in the pro­tect­ed street fete ex­pe­ri­ence that he of­fers. "It makes no sense to force a dif­fer­ent type of mas on­to our mar­ket. We know our niche; that's what they want, that's what we de­liv­er," Akin said. But those who val­ue the artis­tic el­e­ments of Car­ni­val high­er than its en­tre­pre­neur­ial op­por­tu­ni­ties be­lieve the per­for­mance as­pect of play­ing mas is what tru­ly makes our Car­ni­val inim­itable. If it dis­ap­pears, with it goes true artis­tic de­sign and in­no­va­tion – some­thing that Trinidad is well-known for glob­al­ly.

"I'm an artist. I'm not a busi­ness­man," Derek said, "and I was al­ways un­der the im­pres­sion that Car­ni­val is sup­posed to ex­press the way of a peo­ple. You've lost it from the time you take the peo­ple out of it. "Biki­ni and beads is not unique to Trinidad, so it is not re­al­ly Trinidad Car­ni­val," said Fe­lix Ed­in­bor­ough, one of Trinidad's last Pier­rot Grenade play­ers. The Pier­rot Grenade is a colour­ful Car­ni­val char­ac­ter who needs to in­ter­act with crowds to ful­fil his role; he spells words pho­net­i­cal­ly usu­al­ly weav­ing an amus­ing sto­ry in the process. Ed­in­bor­ough is part of a dy­ing age of mas per­form­ers, a time when the cos­tume and per­for­mance was the most im­por­tant as­pect of Car­ni­val. "Brazil Car­ni­val is not biki­ni and beads; there are some biki­ni and beads mas­quer­aders, but they are in the very slim mi­nor­i­ty. In Trinidad, they are in the ma­jor­i­ty."

Death of an art form?

Char­ac­ters like the Pier­rot Grenade and the icon­ic Tan Tan and Saga Boy are what once at­tract­ed peo­ple to Trinidad and To­ba­go Car­ni­val. But Trin­i­ty Cross awardee and Band of the Year win­ner Pe­ter Min­shall no longer de­signs Car­ni­val cos­tumes like the gi­ant pup­pets he once mas­ter­mind­ed. He is con­vinced that the new trends in Car­ni­val have killed art. "Over the last 50 years, the coun­try has changed. The cul­ture of the coun­try is greed and pow­er from the top down. The Car­ni­val is there for cer­tain peo­ple to make mon­ey from it," Min­shall said. "The bands have got mon­u­men­tal­ly large, not to make bet­ter mas but to make bet­ter mon­ey. And all the small and beau­ti­ful and pre­cious things died on that desert of a stage."

Not every­one feels that the change in Car­ni­val is bad, though. Ken­wyn Critchlow, a vi­su­al arts lec­tur­er at the Uni­ver­si­ty of the West In­dies, St Au­gus­tine Cam­pus, be­lieves a new kind of per­former de­vel­oped be­cause of a shift in the de­mo­graph­ics of the mas­quer­ade. "When I was grow­ing up, Car­ni­val was a 'man mas', be­cause there were hun­dreds of thou­sands of men on the streets. But then women be­gan par­tic­i­pat­ing in all as­pects of Car­ni­val, so that there is a new form to de­sign for. And there are young women, and we all read a lot of their pres­ence as sex­u­alised. So it's not on­ly that the women want to present them­selves that way; they know that peo­ple want to see them. The Car­ni­val must have a space for that kind of per­for­mance."

What­ev­er the rea­son for the change in cos­tum­ing, when it comes to mon­ey in mas, it seems that to­day's cli­mate af­fords the artis­tic Car­ni­val band­leader on­ly pres­tige and re­spect to live on. Mac Far­lane ad­mit­ted at a re­cent press con­fer­ence that his mas band bare­ly cross­es 1,000 mas­quer­aders in any giv­en year, and some of his raw ma­te­ri­als in years past were spe­cial­ly or­dered abroad. The band has al­ways made loss­es fi­nan­cial­ly, "and last year was our biggest loss," he said.

Mas re­vival

The clash be­tween the tra­di­tion­al and mod­ern tastes has been go­ing on for years in Car­ni­val, with­out res­o­lu­tion. But there are those from both camps who feel Car­ni­val can go for­ward in­to the fu­ture with both the cre­ative in­no­va­tion of its his­to­ry and the busi­ness sense of the fu­ture. De­sign­ers like Dar­ren Chee­wah show that a re­vival in artis­tic mas may be on the hori­zon. His new band X has ten sec­tions, each a colour­ful, mod­ern and sen­su­al play on the tra­di­tion­al sailor cos­tumes. "X was formed to bridge the gap be­tween the tra­di­tion­al mas and the sexy mas," Chee­wah said. "If your base is a biki­ni and beads, there aren't too many vari­a­tions you can get on that. You can't tell me that what dif­fer­en­ti­ates your plume from some­body else's in that your plume is six inch­es taller. That is re­al stu­pid­ness. De­mand is what you feed peo­ple. If that's what you're giv­ing them, that's what they will want."

And Tribe's leader seems to agree. "We do have a fu­ture plan to de­vel­op a band or sec­tion with­in our band of that the­atre-style mas," Ackin said. "With our abil­i­ty to mar­ket what we have, if we want­ed to sell that type of mas, we can." There are those who be­lieve the pu­ri­ty of mas' ori­gin will be res­ur­rect­ed once mas­quer­aders start to think crit­i­cal­ly about what they are do­ing when they play mas. Robert Young is the band­leader of Vul­gar Frac­tion, a small band that al­lows pa­trons to help cre­ate their own cos­tumes. Young, along with fel­low de­sign­er Lupe Leonard, pro­duce com­po­nents that mas­quer­aders dress any­way that they like, and he calls his con­cept "an­ti-com­mer­cial mas".

"We have to un­oc­cu­py our heads from be­liev­ing that things are right just be­cause they are so. There is noth­ing that is sup­posed to be so. Young asks, "Why does it have to be like that? It could be like this? I have been do­ing this band for 20 years now and there is no rea­son for it to be more than 50 peo­ple.

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