The history of paradise: on Peter Minshall’s Paradise Lost

It’s the stuff of Carnival legend: the eruption of masman Peter Minshall’s Paradise Lost on the streets of Port of Spain, forty years ago. Now a new documentary, using long-forgotten archival footage, brings the band back to life. Ray Funk tells the story

Peter Minshall on the road with the band. Photo by George TangCostume drawing courtesy Peter MinshallGeorge Tang’s photographs of Paradise Lost were themselves “lost” for decades. Photo by George TangFrom Minshall’s drawing to the Savannah stage: a wave of yellow butterflies from the Garden of Eden section. Costume drawing courtesy Peter MinshallPhoto by George TangMinshall’s drawing of the High Spirits from the band’s final movement, Sin and Death. Costume drawing courtesy Peter MinshallCostume drawing courtesy Peter MinshallThe costume designs from Paradise Lost tell a story of the end of innocence. Costume drawing courtesy Peter Minshall

“What you wear is the work of art. You play it.”
— Peter Minshall

 

It was the masquerade band that changed things, reshaping the way Trinidad Carnival appeared on the streets of Port of Spain. It created a conscious, complex drama through costume and movement, using new materials and techniques, with an epic vision. Thousands of sketches became costumes which, on Carnival Monday and Tuesday in 1976, let ordinary people dance one of the great works of literature, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Trinidad had seen nothing quite like it. Photographer Roy Boyke was overwhelmed: “It is doubtful,” he wrote then, “that the work of any single individual has had so instantaneous and so searing an impact on the consciousness of an entire country.” Now, four decades later, a new documentary directed by Christopher Laird allows a fresh look at this game-changing masquerade band, thanks to stunning footage shot by George Tang as Paradise Lost crossed the stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah.

In the middle of 1975, Stephen Lee Heung, who had become over the previous decade one of Trinidad’s leading masquerade bandleaders, needed a new designer. He had lost the services of the great artist Carlyle Chang, who had designed many prizewinning bands of the year. Rather than go with another established local Carnival designer, Lee Heung called on Peter Minshall, a young Trinidadian artist then living in London.

Minshall had attended the Central School of Art and Design, studying both theatre and stage design. His theatre designs had included ones with Carnival themes, including the set and costumes for dancer Beryl McBurnie’s Cannes Brulées show at the Commonwealth Institute in 1971, Mustapha Matura’s Carnival play Play Mas in 1974 in London, and Errol Hill’s Man Better Man at Dartmouth College in the United States. He had designed masquerade bands for Notting Hill Carnival starting in 1973. But for Lee Heung, it was the amazing hummingbird costume he made for his sister for Trinidad’s children’s Carnival in 1974 that made him seek Minshall out.

When he got the call from Lee Heung, Minshall was finishing a small Notting Hill mas band in London, called To Hell with You. From there, it was a small leap in Minshall’s imagination to go from a few devils in hell to the epic story of Paradise Lost: the Fall of Man, how Satan and his fallen angels came to seduce humanity out of the Garden of Eden.

 

At the time, historical pageants were common as themes for mas bands, but only a few literary works had been used as source material. Chang had designed two bands for Lee Heung with a literary focus, one on 1,001 Nights and the other on Russian Fairy Tales, but nothing with the complexity and narrative breadth that Minshall envisioned. Minshall designed Paradise Lost as a four-part symphony of Pandemonium, the Garden of Eden, Paradise, and Sin and Death. The mas started in the depths, rising to Earth and then Heaven before plummeting back down with the loss of innocence that Sin and Death brought.

Minshall started his mas in the very capital of Hell, Pandemonium. With a striking palette of red, black, and gold, Hell appeared in a blaze of fire. Rather than opening with the common handful of flag wavers, Paradise Lost took the stage with dozens and dozens of hellhounds. Embodying an image from Milton’s poem, of the “cry of hell-hounds never-ceasing,” these creatures were snarling dogs with fierce open-jawed masks waving flags of fire — like nothing any Carnival band had offered before. They were followed by fireflies in metallic black costumes with a hint of the military and something of classic horror films like The Fly. Next were a squadron of Fallen Angels, and then came the embodied fire of hell itself, with Lee Heung’s wife and partner Elsie portraying Fire Fire in Your Wire — the name of one of Calypso Rose’s most famous songs — leading the section.

For these flames of Pandemonium, Minshall used spring wires from the masqueraders’ shoulders attached to strips of fabric secured to the ankles, which made the flames leap up as the masqueraders danced across the stage. Milton, drawing from the biblical Book of Revelation, has Satan “chained on the burning lake,” and Minshall designed his own Burning Lake, a special section of dancers choreographed by Carol La Chapelle, creating “a great sea of fire [floating] above them”: a huge canopy of voluminous, diaphanous, undulating red fabric, held aloft on poles.

After the fiery colours of Hell, the band’s next section, Garden of Eden, was bathed in green and silver, with masqueraders carrying their standards of palm leaves to create first a tropical forest, then a fresh cool breeze, followed by fish in shimmering greens and golds. A black peacock of night gave way to a dawn chorus in pink, followed by an evening chorus in pale blue. Both choruses had headpieces combining nature and humanity, birdlike with a Roman military touch to the masks — Minshall’s “nod” to the tradition of historical mas, but transformed into an airy aviary. The last section of the Garden ended with a wave of bright yellow “sweet oil” butterflies.

For Paradise, Minshall filled the stage with “winged apparitions,” mostly in white and shimmering silvers. There were archangels, avenging angels, rainbow angels with a touch of violet, and morning stars. Finally, after the lightness of Paradise, the mas returned to earth with Sin and Death.

This last section began with the king of the band, Adam in the Garden of Eden, portrayed by Peter Samuel — a young man who had appeared as an individual in prior Lee Heung bands, but now at the last minute had been asked to be the king of Paradise Lost. Samuel took on a Minshall mas that only an athlete could handle, his entire body adorned in little more than baby oil and gold glitter dust, dancing barefoot with a gleaming red apple in one hand, the head of the serpent in the other. The body of the serpent snaked out and around him in an extension that shimmered seductively under the Savannah’s Dimanche Gras lights.

The costume consisted of a frame of cane and mild steel, which supported a light mesh lavishly spangled with reflective paillettes. This formed a semi-circle around Samuel, so that, in Minshall’s words, “Every movement he makes informs the action of a dancing leaf.” The relatively large structure was designed and fabricated to be carried and danced with ease and fluidity. During the competition, Samuel at one point bowed forward so that the tip-top of the costume touched and swept the ground before him. The audience gasped in apprehension — but as he flipped it back, “like it was the hair on his own head,” according to one observer, an enormous roar of delight thundered through the night. In that moment, Peter Samuel, barefoot as Adam, had won their approval, and the King of Carnival crown.

For Minshall, his portrayal of Satan and the Fallen Angels reflected Milton’s vision of these beings as noble before their fall. Sin and Death offered the Forbidden Fruit, wearing green pants, pink flowers at the waist, and gold helmets — but carrying on their standards open-mouthed serpents in red and black, as Satan and his crew ushered in other forms of chaos. Then followed apparitions in white with dancing voodoo dolls, and Jumbie Jamboree, zombies in shimmering silver with ghostlike extended hands, and then the High Spirits, a flock of skeletons with bright fluorescent skulls and glittering transparent wings. Paradise Lost ended with Blue Devils, a reworking of the traditional Carnival character with bright orange pitchforks and large headpieces bearing orange horns on decorated green helmets.

 

Before Paradise Lost, Carnival costumes were made primarily from cane and cardboard and papier-mâché. Minshall brought in vaccuum-formed headpieces, aluminium, fibreglass, and chicken wire. He focused on how the attaching of the costume affected its movement, studying what early masmakers did with bat costumes to imitate the movement of their wings. He was inspired by choreographer George Balanchine’s desire for those who saw his ballets to “see the music and hear the dance.” Each year, the technological innovations of Minshall’s bands and the materials he used were quickly adopted by other mas camps across the Carnival.

Minshall left Lee Heung after 1976 to become a bandleader as well as designer. He continued to produce epic mas that won the band of the year title many times, and his perennial king Peter Samuel would continue to stun audiences and win awards. Minshall would also go on to design spectacles for the international stage, including the opening ceremonies for the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996.

For decades, Minshall would proclaim that much of what he had done in Carnival had its origin in Paradise Lost, but only a limited number of photos and fading memories substantiated these claims. Then, in 2014, a book of Carnival photographs changed all that. George Tang, Stephen Lee Heung’s cousin, had been a professional photographer and cinematographer. Beyond his professional work, he had grown up helping out in his cousin’s mas camp, taking photos and, when he could, filming the band. His book We Kind ah People collected his photos of Lee Heung’s other bands with many of Paradise Lost. Tang had been on the stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah to shoot every section of the band as it crossed, in still images and moving film, giving a full picture of the band’s complex narrative. Originally shot to be shown to the band members at a party a few months later, it had never been shown publically in the decades since.

At the book launch in October 2014, Minshall narrated the ten minutes of eight-millimetre footage that Tang had shot. The audience was amazed to see the legendary band in this detail, and hear Minshall describe his making of it. In the audience was filmmaker and television producer Christopher Laird, who had been there on the streets photographing Carnival in 1976. Laird had been stunned by Minshall’s band, and followed his work ever since, filming his mas and recording several interviews with him. Now, inspired by the old footage and Minshall’s narration, Laird set to work with Minshall to create a thirty-five-minute documentary that traces Paradise Lost from its inspiration to its design drawings, culminating with Minshall narrating the surviving film footage. “From my point of view,” says Laird, “Minshall’s use of Milton’s poem was not simply a portrayal of a literary work, but had within it the storytelling and the social commentary that is so characteristic of much of his subsequent bands.”

The documentary, simply titled Paradise Lost, premiered at film festivals in September 2015 in both Port of Spain and Toronto, with sold-out screenings. It went on to win the Caribbean Tales Film Festival award for best short film. Milton’s epic had inspired visual artists from William Blake to Salvador Dalí, but with Minshall, the epic was painted in fabric, danced, and dramatised on the streets of Port of Spain. With this new documentary, viewers can relive this turning point in Trinidad Carnival, and see one of the masterpieces of Caribbean artistry.