Harts Carnival: band of the years

For 50 years, Harts has been bringing out a fun Carnival band. They shared three generations of a family tradition with Lisa Allen-Agostini

A section of the band Mesopotamia BC played in 1965. Photograph courtesy HartsEdmund and Lil Hart in their workshop at their Alfredo Street, Port of Spain mas camp in 1987. Photograph by Mark LyndersayFormer Miss Universe Wendy Fitzwilliam in Harts The Realm at the Queens Park Savannah, 1998. Photograph by Mark LyndersayLuis and Thais Hart discuss progress in the engine room of the Harts mas camp in St Clair in 2008. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

This year Harts Ltd will mark a momentous anniversary, having put out 50 bands for Trinidad Carnival. In a celebration of the ephemeral it is quite a milestone, representing three generations of the Hart family’s involvement in this massive festival.

Ask a question about the band’s history and everyone points you to Thais Hart-Robertson, one of the six Hart children who inherited the band from their parents, its founders Edmund and Lil. Only three of the six took on the mantle of directing the band from their parents. Gerald is the designer, Luis manages all the aspects of the band’s presence on the road, and Thais does, it seems, everything else, from PR to procurement and production.

The band annually draws about 3,500 masqueraders, and is proud of its reputation as a fun band. Unlike most Carnival masquerade bands, Harts avoids congested areas and it doesn’t go in for the titles for which other bands compete. It also prides itself on its ingenuity, listing several firsts on its website, www.hartscarnival.com – including the website itself, which, the band says, was the first put up by a Carnival band. Lil Hart was the first woman mas designer, and she was the first to break with tradition and design a band that didn’t have a historical or biblical theme. Now fantasy themes in mas are par for the course.

Trinidad Carnival takes place annually in the two days before Ash Wednesday. It has its roots in the ancient Roman bacchanalia, and was probably brought to Trinidad by French immigrants in the 17th century. In the earliest celebrations, historians say, the white slave-owners had fancy-dress balls which were spoofed by the enslaved Africans on their estates. The celebration evolved along two tracks: there was the white, upper-class Carnival and the poor black people’s version, a street procession in celebration of the burning of the cane known as Canboulay in this former sugar colony.

Early 20th-century Carnival parades, sponsored by businessmen, featured society maidens on floats pulled through the streets of the capital, Port of Spain. This was nothing like the earthy, atavistic mas of, say, the jab molassi, a devil covered in molasses in memoriam of the slaves who sometimes died in vats of molasses on sugar estates.

Today the floats are gone, and the jab molassies are fast disappearing, too. Bands have become a homogenously beaded, feathered and bikini’d throng dancing in the streets to recorded music blasted from eight-foot-high speakers loaded on trailers pulled by 40-ton trucks.

“It’s all our fault,” admitted Thais with a laugh, in an interview at the Harts mas camp on Alcazar Street, St Clair. Lil Hart was the first to design what they called “bathsuit mas”.

“We tried it one year,” Thais said. “We did one section. We weren’t even sure it would sell. We tried it and it was popular. People started demanding it. They wanted the beads.”

Before that, Harts, like other bands, designed costumes with lots of cloth and recognisable iconography. The very first band Edmund Hart brought out with his cronies in 1961 was called Was This Greece? “The costumes were very simple,” Thais said. “A little cold-shoulder something and a headband. They tried to make stuff very authentic in those days. ”

In 1962 Harts brought out Flag Wavers of Sienna, whose masqueraders wore satin tunics and capes over long tights. Harts 2010 is a retrospective tribute to the 49 bands that came before it; the section inspired by Flag Wavers of Sienna will put women in a decorated bikini, braided headband and brocade girdle.

“In our eyes, Carnival is about change,” said Thais. “It has gone through so many changes through the years. But ‘traditional’ mas wasn’t traditional when it came out. Sailor mas (came out) when we had [American] sailors here in World War II. It had to do with what was happening in the world. Our costumes nowadays have to do with what is going on in our world in our time. Calypsoes reflect that and the costumes reflect that.”

As part of the tribute band, Harts considered replicating the costumes. “But nobody would wear those costumes nowadays. The girls in those bands wore skirts, they wore leotards. No way are you going to get them wearing that stuff again.”

It’s not only the costume changes that Harts has affected. Over the years they were the first, they say, to have DJs on the road, rather than live bands; the drinks cart made its first appearance in Harts, too, as a grocery trolley loaded with drinks, and today many large bands include a truck for that purpose.

 

Edmund Hart, born in St Joseph and raised in South Trinidad and Barataria, was a customs broker. Lil was a bilingual secretary, born in Trinidad to a Venezuelan mother. Both she and her husband continued to work for many years even after they started the band. Harts started when a group of friends who had played mas with Dr Bobby Ammon in the 1950s wanted to continue after the well-known dentist decided to stop bringing out a band. When the friends needed a name to rally under, Edmund came forward and Harts was born.

Glenn Davis, a well-known actor and marketing executive, has played with Harts faithfully since 1967 when he was a 20-year-old with his first job. He spent his whole salary of $120 on the costume, which included specially made boots. An average costume cost about $25 in those days; now Harts’ costumes cost $2,000 – $3,000 apiece. He, his wife and his children all play with the band, and he says he’s not the only one like him.

“It’s a family. You see the same people every year,” he said. “It has always been nice, decent. When they say Harts is a white-people band I am shocked. When I started to play in the band I went with my black friends. The band was always a middle-class band.”

He is looking forward to playing sailor mas for the first time this year, in a Harts section called “Push Pan”. “Our kind of people didn’t play sailor, that was for [steelband] All Stars,” he reminisced.

In his opinion, Harts gets repeat business because of its high standards. He recalled how one year, designer Gerald Hart threw a tantrum the Wednesday before Carnival over shoddy costumes. Gerald was holding up a costume and shouting, “Would you buy this? Would you take your hard-earned money and buy this?”

“He took the entire section, poured kerosene on it and burned it.”

Full of Harts lore, Davis also revealed that Edmund and Lil devoted the band to St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. In any desperate situation – say, it was the month before Carnival, and important materials were yet to arrive – Edmund and Lil would “go into a room and pray to St Jude, and in half an hour the problem would be solved.”

He pities the people who play in today’s tiny costumes. “I don’t know how they do it. We played Playing Cards, Oriental Fantasy…We played mas with costumes from head to toe. I still play that kind of mas.” He tells those who ask him if he isn’t hot in all those clothes, “Have you ever seen a Bedouin in a bikini?” But the costumes have changed, he said, “because of market forces. This is now a livelihood.”

Indeed, Hart-Robertson quit her job as a schoolteacher to be a director of Harts.

“I wouldn’t say [it’s] hugely profitable,” she said. “You could make a living off it. Nobody gives you credit. It is a helluva investment you have to make. People pay down about a third of what their costume costs, and they pay the rest Carnival week. You have to put money down for your music, to make the costume, the running of the camp for the six months.

“We have [staff] who come year after year, but they come for six months or so. We have tried to keep people employed, but it’s really seasonal.”

Though Carnival lasts two days, the preparation for it takes months. The band is launched in August, and they spend months beforehand searching for materials and building prototype costumes. Harts designs and sometimes makes costumes for other Trinidad-style carnivals, such as those in Jamaica, Antigua and Grenada, and as far away as Australia, she said, but you won’t find Harts in Miami, for example.

“A lot of these other carnivals, the costuming is so poor. My brother is reluctant to put his name on a design that is so cheap; they look bad sometimes because they are so cheap.”

People in some places just won’t pay the kind of money a Trini will pay for mas, it seems.

The current Harts band started in 1991 as an offshoot of Edmund and Lil’s band. It was called Harts: the New Generation. They aren’t any more. Now there’s another new generation involved: Thais’ son was selling costumes to hordes of women in the Alcazar Street showroom one day in September last year. Harts, Thais said, has spawned several bands, going back to the band Savage, which begat Poison, which begat Legends. The Hart family has become a Carnival genealogy that will possibly continue another 50 years, or more.

For more information: www.hartscarnival.com