Cito Velasquez: the king-maker

Cito Velazquez, born 1929: His wire-bending expertise made the most intricate, elaborate designs possible

Celo Velasquez in 2003. Photograph by Media and Editorial Projects Ltd.Fun and Laughter (1969). Photograph by Noel NortonVelasquez at the Savannah. Photograph by SeanDrakes.comVelasquez’s wire-bending mastery on display at Independence Square in the mid-1960s. Photograph by Noel Norton

Cito Velasquez, born 1929

The only thing that remains the same is change,” says Cito Velasquez. “Carnival
is always changing, and even I changed it in my day, adding my own thing
to the pretty mas.”

At his creative peak, 40 years ago,Velasquez was a powerful influence on
Carnival design, especially the costumes of the fancy sailors, with their
elaborate headpieces, and the large kings and queens of the bands. Before
the introduction of fibreglass and plastics, most large costumes were constructed
over intricate wire frames, which acted as skeletons to support what sometimes
amounted to hundreds of pounds of cloth, sequins, and feathers. Without
these wire frames, many of the era’s most dramatic costumes literally could
not have got off the ground. Wire-bending was a specialised art, combining
elements of structural engineering, architecture, and sculpture; and Cito
Velasquez was indisputably the wire-bender of all wire-benders.

As a boy, growing up on Port of Spain’s St Vincent Street,
Lewiscito Velasquez learned to sculpt at his family’s doll factory. “It
wasn’t a big thing,” he says, but the basic techniques he picked up at home
served him well over the decades of his career. In the late 40s, he started
bending wire for the mas presentations of two east Port of Spain steelbands,
Fascinators and Bar Twenty. His first designs were basic Indian headpieces.
A masman named Tennessee Brown was the chief wire-bender for the Fascinators;
Velasquez learned what he could from the older craftsman, but quickly realised
he himself was the better draughtsman. “He couldn’t a’ draw: I coulda draw”.
And drawing skills were essential to the art. Once the subject of the wire
frame had been chosen, the system was to draw it in outline on the ground,
then bend the wire over the image, using the sketch as a template.

As Velasquez’s mastery grew, his imagination gave old ideas a new soul.
“That is how it is with mas,” he reminds us, “you have to take nothing and
make something.” In 1959, from his mas camp in Barataria, three miles east
of Port of Spain, he produced his first band, Fruits and Flowers, depicting
giant tropical fruits and flowers made from 12- or 16-gauge wire and papier
mâché
, decorated with such artistry that they looked uncannily
real. Each then became a fancy sailor headpiece. The band so impressed the
public that its headpieces were chosen to decorate downtown Port of Spain
for the independence celebrations of 1962.

Velasquez’s bands were not usually large enough to qualify

for the main band of the year award, but through the 1960s and early 70s
he won a steady stream of prizes for his individual costumes; from 1973 to
1976 he won the small band of the year title four years in a row, with Twenty
Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Fantasy of the Butterflies, Cock-a-Doodle-Doo
,
and Nature’s Paradise. And he lent his expertise, directly and indirectly,
to some of the major large bands of the era. In 1976, for example, he sent
his crew of workers to the aid of bandleader Stephen Lee Heung, whose Peter
Minshall-designed presentation Paradise Lost won that year’s big
prize.

Masmen and Carnival aficionados still talk with awe about

his creations, but since the late 1970s Velasquez’s chosen craft has been
in decline. Wire-bending skills no longer hold pride of place among Carnival
techniques. Moulded plastic and other modern materials are cheaper and less
laborious to work with, and the awesome kings and queens which lead their
bands across the Grand Stand stage are no longer built upon the wire-bender’s
meticulous art. For the master craftsman from Barataria, this design shift
symbolises Carnival’s changing character. “You see, now and longtime days
is two different thing,” he says. “Carnival longtime was a togetherness
. . . nowadays, the more naked you make it, the more it sell.” Simply selling
costumes was never the goal of Cito Velasquez. His aim was always something
less quantifiable. “You have to bring mas that, years upon years later,
some little child will remember it.”