Masman: Peter Minshall

Peter Minshall has been one of the most controversial and influential Trinidadian artists of the last thirty years

It is the last Sunday in January, less than a month before Carnival 2006. At the headquarters of the Callaloo Company — in a World War Two-era hangar in Chaguaramas, some miles west of Port of Spain — people are milling about, an expectant buzz filling the airy space.

The centre of attention is a man with a white stubbly beard, dressed all in black and wearing a black fedora. Peter Minshall has summoned his lieutenants, the Callaloo faithful, to make a major announcement.

Minshall’s last Carnival band, Ship of Fools, appeared in 2003. For two years, adrift in sequins and beads and bikinis, Carnival has been bereft of Minshall, of the drama and the artistic seriousness that characterise every Minshall mas. But for weeks now, rumours of Minshall’s return have been flying. Yesterday the Trinidad Guardian ran a report saying it was true. Today the front page of the Sunday Express declares: “Minshall coming with ‘The Sacred Heart’ for Carnival”.

Here at the Callaloo Company, the mastermind is unfolding the plot to the men and women who will have to bring it to life, who will spend the next four weeks working backbreaking hours to have the band ready for Carnival. He sketches the outline: a band of nine hundred “sexy urban samurai warriors, cowboys and -girls”, in blue denim and black chaps and ornate metal helmets, each wearing over his or her chest a red fist-size heart. “Bad” hearts versus “good” hearts, in a battle to heal the broken “sacred” heart of Trinidad and Tobago — broken by greed, corruption, crime, disease. And at the head of the band, the first Minshall king and queen in a decade: Son of Saga Boy and Miss Universe, commissioned by the National AIDS Coordinating Committee, representing, respectively, the perils of HIV and AIDS and the compassion that overcomes stigma and hypocrisy. The involvement of the NACC, in fact, has been the catalyst for Minshall’s return to Carnival. The Sacred Heart will communicate AIDS awareness through its performance in the streets of Port of Spain and on the Savannah stage.

The man in black shows sketches to his audience; he describes the performance that will unfold at the Savannah, sings snatches of songs, demonstrates a few dance steps. The Callaloo crew are spellbound. But the task he is laying before them is close to impossible: a full-size band plus king and queen in just four weeks? They wouldn’t — couldn’t — do it for anyone but Minshall.

Then he mentions he hasn’t actually finished his final drawings yet.

It is the first Friday in February, and an exhibition of Carnival photographs is opening in Port of Spain. Perhaps a hundred people are gathered to hear the feature address.

Slowly, Minshall climbs the steps to the stage. He stands at the podium, shuffles his notes, lifts his head, and a look of mock surprise comes over his face: an audience. Pause for effect, and then with a rakish tilt of his saga-boy hat: “It’s me.”

He is here to talk about “The Artist and the Mas”, and, as ever with Minshall, this is theatre: script, music, dance, and the drama of his eyes and voice. He begins with his birth in Georgetown, British Guiana, in 1941 (but “I was conceived in Trinidad!”), and then tells the story of his childhood discovery of “the mas”, his delivery refined by many retellings over the years. He was twelve when he came to Trinidad with his family, thirteen when he made himself an African witch-doctor costume, from “a cardboard box, Christmas decorations, dried grass, old bones, and a lot of imagination”. With “43 cents’ worth of animal charcoal” he blackened his skin and entered the children’s Carnival competition. He won first prize for originality, and at that moment, you might say, the direction of his career was set.

Minshall’s grandmother, he says, told him he’d be either an artist or a priest. “She then gave me lots of pencils and paper to draw.” As a young man, he designed Carnival costumes for family friends and sets for productions of the Trinidad Light Opera, while working as an announcer at Radio Trinidad, where he was called on to give live commentary on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. But his artistic ambitions were growing, and when he was 21, Minshall left Trinidad for the Central School of Art and Design in London.

It was the Swinging Sixties, and Minshall immersed himself in all the theatre and music and art the old imperial capital could offer. But his final-year thesis was on the traditional bat character of Trinidad Carnival, and his first major commission — the set and costumes for a ballet production at Sadler’s Wells — came after a director happened to see Minshall’s design for a Carnival queen costume. Then, four years later, “the mas” issued a new summons in the form of a request from his mother: that he design a hummingbird costume for his adopted sister Sherry-Ann Guy to wear for the 1974 children’s Carnival.

“I must’ve spent off and on about five months . . . putting into this diminutive little work all my theories about playing the mas and its energy: it’s about performance, it’s about mobility.” It took twelve people five weeks to make the costume, Minshall recalls, and the finishing touches were applied only on the competition day, as Sherry-Ann waited to cross the stage.

“This little thing exploded like a joyful sapphire on that stage, and ten thousand people exploded with her. On that afternoon, a moment of revelation.

”A revelation for Minshall — “so this too is art!” — but also for his Trinidadian audience. From the Land of the Hummingbird was a pivotal moment in Carnival history, the arrival of a talent who would change the way people thought about the masquerade and its possibilities.

The following year, Minshall designed a band for London’s Notting Hill Carnival, but his first chance to work at full scale in his true medium came in 1976, when veteran bandleaders Stephen and Elsie Lee Heung, who had previously worked with artist Carlisle Chang, asked Minshall to design their band. He chose Milton’s Paradise Lost as his theme.

Paradise Lost was a watershed in the context of Carnival,” he says. “It was epic. It was a visual thesis of many of the things I would do in years to come.” The Hummingbird’s mobile form evolved into the fixed wings of Minshall’s Fallen Angels; his imps were based on the traditional jab-jab character. He divided the band into four parts, imagining it as a symphony: “Pandemonium”, “The Garden of Eden”, “Paradise”, and “Sin and Death”. There were five hundred masqueraders in each, plus more than a dozen major individual characters, with Peter Samuel as the king of the band, The Serpent. As the band flowed through the streets and across the Savannah, a grand narrative unfolded. Thousands of onlookers were astounded. Carnival would never be the same. “It is doubtful that the work of any single individual has had so instantaneous and so searing an impact on the consciousness of an entire country,” wrote photographer Roy Boyke, one of the first observers to understand the scope of the masman’s vision. The Minshall era had begun.

Since 1976, Minshall has designed 26 Carnival bands, each requiring feats of technical innovation and pushing back the limits of what Carnival can be. Minshall has also designed extravaganzas for carnivals and other festivals in London, New York, Paris, Washington. His biggest audiences have been for the massive spectacles he designed for the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

But the heart and soul of his work has always been the mas of the streets of Port of Spain, which serve as his design laboratory and his open-air theatre. Paradise Lost was followed by Zodiac (1978) and Carnival of the Sea (1979), both recognisably of the “fantasy” mas tradition. But 1980’s Danse Macabre — a chilling death masque — signalled an ambition to go beyond the conventions of “pretty mas’. And Papillon (1982) unleashed 2,500 human butterflies into the city in a vast meditation on the ephemerality of life, which achieved its logical conclusion when the masqueraders, having crossed the stage, dropped their ten-foot wings and carpeted the Savannah with colour.

In 1983, Minshall began the trilogy many consider his magnum opus with River. The “prologue” was his presentation, during the Carnival king and queen competition, of Washerwoman, symbol of life, joy, and trust, and Mancrab, representing forces of greed and selfishness. The stage was set for a grand confrontation. On Carnival Monday, dressed in spotless white cotton, his masqueraders, the River People, flowed through the city like a stream of purity, a white canopy billowing overhead, half a mile long. In a 1997 interview, Minshall recalled the performance at the Savannah. “As the band hits the stage, there is Mancrab . . . challenging Washerwoman. And with a symbolic square of white cloth, she dismisses him.

“But the story goes that that Carnival Monday night, Mancrab, using all his technological magic, fashioned an illusory rainbow.” On Tuesday, still in white, the River People paraded under a half-mile rainbow canopy, Mancrab’s tainted gift. At the Savannah, an astonishing ritual was played out. Thirty priestesses holding calabashes danced onto the stage. Suddenly they emptied their calabashes over their white dresses: a flood of red. Mancrab crawled onstage, victorious, followed by the broken, raped body of Washerwoman. Then the two thousand River People began a frenzy of pollution, squirting coloured paint over each other. Power-hoses stationed beside the stage were connected to three thousand gallons of more paint: colour rained down upon the once-white River. “This was a chaos of colour, a madness, all the colours running together till they got to a deep purplish muddiness.

”But River was only the first battle in what Minshall saw as a symbolic war. In 1984, Callaloo depicted the next stage of the struggle, as the son of Washerwoman emerged to lead the fallen River People. The epic climaxed in 1985’s The Golden Calabash, really two bands, Princes of Darkness and Lords of Light, which clashed inconclusively at the Savannah before an awestruck audience.

The River trilogy was the masquerade at its most sublime; it remains the ultimate example of the moral seriousness that can be achieved in an artform usually associated with mindless abandon. But the Carnival judges were bewildered, or else they agreed with some other bandleaders who felt Carnival was no place for Minshall’s uncompromising artistic ambitions. The trilogy failed to win an official title, but River and The Golden Calabash both won the people’s choice award, decided by ordinary spectators, and for Minshall this was the true validation of his art.

From the beginning, Minshall has claimed he is not merely making costumes. “I provide the means for the human body to express its energy,” he says. “Mas is a vehicle for the expression of human energy.” And “mas”, he insists, is the only name for the art he practices — a unique artform that could not have evolved anywhere but Trinidad, a hybrid artform that combines the visual with the performative. This “living art that we make fresh every year”, Minshall argues, is the highest and deepest artistic expression of Trinidad. “Flesh and blood powers the mas . . . The energy passes from performer to spectator like an electrical charge . . . a moment that cannot, will not last — it passes quickly, leaving the mind singed . . . Our aesthetic is performance, the living now.”

But this aesthetic is also, Minshall says, an epistemological imperative: Carnival is the chance, once a year, “to be who we are in our own heads”, to truly understand ourselves. The literal mask liberates the masquerader from bonds of class, ethnicity, family, even gender (as Minshall himself discovered at the age of sixteen, when he dressed himself in his sister’s debutante dress for J’Ouvert, the traditional pre-dawn start of Carnival). Mas is an artform rooted in humankind’s timeless urge to use the decorated human body as a channel of communication, but also an artform bred in the hothouse of a 19th-century colonial society, where rigid social distinctions were enforced by the authorities. Mas therefore became a mode of resistance, as men and women used Carnival to defy conventions and prejudices by transforming themselves into any person or creature or object they desired.

Minshall understands and draws heavily on the traditions and history of the mas, and many of his iconic forms are derived from his close study of traditional characters like the bat, the fancy sailor, the devil. He acknowledges the influence of masmen of the past, from his homage to George Bailey’s African mas in Jungle Fever (1981) to, most recently, the “Body Politic” effigy in The Sacred Heart, inspired by the steelband Silver Stars’ portrayal of Gulliver’s Travels in 1963. Critics who complained about the “colourlessness” of River forgot John Humphrey’s all-white Snow Kingdom, two decades earlier, and the traditional white costumes of sailor mas. But Minshall, with his encyclopedic knowledge of Carnival, does not forget.

And though Minshall may be more of an auteur than any other Carnival designer, with a distinctive aesthetic and a strong vision for every element of each band, mas is an essentially collaborative artform. The Carnival Tuesday spectacle depends on the skill and imagination of the dozens or even hundreds of craftsmen and -women who build the costumes, and the crew members who manage the entire process. And Minshall’s productions draw on the talents of younger artists who design whole costumes sometimes, or even small sections within the bands; dancers, actors, singers, and musicians who perform on the Savannah stage; and the thousands of masqueraders who express their faith in Minshall’s art by paying their money for the privilege of joining the mas, and wearing their sometimes unwieldy costumes for an entire day in the blazing sun (“Suffering for the sake of the vision is part of the deal,” says one longtime Minshall masquerader).

Despite numerous accolades at home and abroad, Minshall’s career has been full of disappointments. At the very same time that he has been trying in his work to demonstrate the metaphysical possibilities of mas, Trinidad Carnival has entered an apparently unstoppable spiral of “bikinis and beads” — the triumph of money over art, the stifling of creativity by profit margins, the dwindling of once-proud traditions, and the re-segregation of Carnival along class lines. This decline, as he sees it, depresses Minshall, but his response has been that of the artist: in his art.

After the River trilogy was all but ignored by the Carnival establishment, Minshall replied with four years of biting commentary, as the pessimistic mood of the country, disillusioned by politics and currency devaluation, was mirrored by his productions. Rat Race (1986) invaded Port of Spain with an army of rodents, their long tails like whips of scorn, led by a king, Man Rat, embodying technology gone mad: satellite dishes for ears, a television glowing in his belly. Carnival Is Colour (1987), an exercise in abstract geometrical form “literally without meaning, as meaningless as the expression ‘Carnival is colour’ itself,” as Minshall said, mocked Carnival conventions. (You might say the judges played right along with Minshall’s script when they gave him the band of the year title.) Jumbie (1988) filled the streets with malevolent staring-eyed spirits; and in Santimanitay (1989), perhaps his darkest mas, sinister effigies loomed over each masquerader, ugly reminders of the vices that lurk in the human soul.

By the end of the decade, perhaps, Minshall was tired of these dark visions, or else he hoped he could intervene to change the mood of a tired and bitter nation. Tantana (1990) was a dream of harmony, the masqueraders dressed in outfits recalling “old time days”, and each equipped with an eight-foot square of cloth appliquéd with a bold, colourful pattern. They were free to use these as banners or capes, to tie them in intricate pinwheel patterns, or to colonise a corner of the Savannah by spreading them across the grass in a riotous patchwork. The queen and king of the band, Tan Tan and Saga Boy, were sixteen-foot-tall puppets that danced together on the Savannah stage while the audience in the stands roared with delight. It was a moment of pure happiness in a grim year: less than six months later, the attempted coup d’état of 27 July wounded the psyche of the country. For two years Minshall did not produce a Carnival band.

But the mas continued: Minshall was busy working on his presentation for the 1992 Olympics, where he was artistic director for the Hola section of the opening ceremony. He filled the stadium with a joyously rippling blue sea, and captured the imaginations of a global audience of millions.

Then, in the mid-90s, Minshall produced his second Carnival trilogy. Whereas River was a clash between good and evil, the trilogy that began with Hallelujah (1995) and continued in Song of the Earth (1996) and Tapestry (1997) was an immense praise-song, an explicitly theological expression of gratitude for the gift of being that drew on icons from various religions, and showed Minshall at his most baroque. For all the simplicity of his basic forms, when it comes to performance Minshall is a maximalist, and each appearance on the Savannah stage — a literally once-in-a-lifetime event — is planned as a major theatrical production, with music, dance, drama, lighting effects, a cast of thousands, and, in the age of live television, an audience of tens of thousands.

But the cycle began with controversy, as many Christian ministers condemned Minshall’s Hallelujah, claiming that the word was sacred and had no place among Carnival’s profanities. Minshall stood firm, instructing his masqueraders not to “get on bad”, but to “get on good”. On Carnival Tuesday, a “Band of Angels” led the way, to the strains of David Rudder’s song “Hallelujah”, and spectators, unfazed by the controversy, leapt to their feet. Song of the Earth metaphorically returned its masqueraders to the beginning of time and the start of the wheel of life, “placing man at the centre, giving birth to all and singing everything into existence”.

Tapestry — subtitled “Threads of Life” — brought the praise-song to its final crescendo. It was “a mas in celebration of humanity in all its diversity”. The masqueraders wore flowing robes and capes and carried squares of cloth, fragments of a greater whole. They were decorated with dried leaves and flowers, branches and old bottlecaps, discarded things gilded and made into ritual objects.

On Carnival Tuesday, the band arrived at the Savannah at dusk, Minshall’s traditional hour (as if to provide a grand finale for the day’s events). Nothing could have prepared the people in the stands for the glorious excess of what followed: the crash of a gong, dancers and incantations, a “cavalry” of traditional burrokeets, winged stilt-walkers; a golden, gliding Weaver of Dreams twenty feet tall; a tableau of Michelangelo’s Pietá; a masked Black Madonna with a huge skirt carried by attendants; an effigy of Shiva, Lord of the Dance, that suddenly burst into motion; and thousands of “ordinary” masqueraders made extraordinary by the power of this all-embracing mas. The state-owned television station postponed the evening news so the country could continue watching, and journalists in the Savannah reported that behind the music the audience never stopped screaming at the spectacle. Onlookers wept openly. For an hour or so that Tuesday night, Minshall could boast what probably no other artist anywhere in the world can today: that he held the attention of an entire nation.

It is late afternoon on Carnival Tuesday, 2006. Today The Sacred Heart paraded in the streets in full “samurai cowboy” regalia, the impressive helmets and tall flags compensating for reduced numbers — instead of the hoped-for nine hundred, the band has almost four hundred masqueraders, a blessing in disguise, since not even the tireless Callaloo crew could have finished more costumes in time.As the light fades over the Savannah, The Sacred Heart queues on the “track” leading up to the stage. Crew members in black run backwards and forwards, carrying props, shouting instructions. The atmosphere of thrilling confusion is familiar to longtime Minshallites. For many, The Sacred Heart has roused feelings of nostalgia for the heady days of Minshall’s two trilogies. For some masqueraders, it’s a relief having Minshall back in Carnival; others wonder if this band is a sort of farewell.

The drama begins with a tall all-white “diva” sailing across the stage, bearing a crystal heart, to the notes of an Italian aria. Dancers in white robes flutter on, carrying big red hearts, which they arrange in a circle. Another heart is symbolically broken in two with a karate chop, while what sounds like Japanese martial music fills the air. The “Body Politic”, a giant, bruised human form, is wheeled on; Minshall himself appears and drapes a cloth over its face. Then the samurai warriors march on, the “bad” hearts — “Greed and Power”, “Darkness”, “Fear” — followed by the “good” hearts — “The Heart That Sings”, “The Shining Heart”. Great banners like ships’ sails billow overhead, and the masqueraders, swaggering in their cowboy chaps and brandishing their flags like swords, look like a real army on the march.

Son of Saga Boy prances on, his masked face etched with stars, moons, hearts, and the AIDS ribbon, his pelt of black feathers gleaming, his rainbow dreadlock plumes flying. He is, Minshall says, “the wild tribal child of the future-world”. Behind him, the Shiv Shakti dancers in costumes of white hoops glide on, and perform a traditional Indian dance to a Hindi folk song.

Then Alison Hinds’s song “Roll It” begins to play, and a squad of Dame Lorraines — traditional burlesque characters, men clumsily disguised as women with heart-shaped masks and prominent bustles — drag a twenty-foot phallus to centre-stage. Two more Dame Lorraines follow with what turns out to be a giant condom, and to the delight of the crowd they unfurl its rainbow-striped length over the waiting phallus, which they then roll away. It is a moment of theatre that communicates a sincere message with comedy, by drawing on an old tradition of Carnival ribaldry.

Finally, the queen of the band — the giant puppet Miss Universe, all in white, her facial features modelled on those of Wendy Fitzwilliam, Trinidad and Tobago’s real-life Miss Universe 1998, known for her work with AIDS charities — dances on, leading the “Hearts of Hope”, angels without wings but with haloes of red, their tall banners streaming like kites.

For the audience, both in the Savannah stands and watching on TV, it is classic Minshall, if on a much smaller scale than usual: a glorious visual spectacle, an over-the-top performance, a serious message behind the costumes. Once again Minshall has proved that his mas can address a subject others think inappropriate, even taboo. That the judges will decide to award The Sacred Heart the medium-size band of the year award — though a vindication of the efforts of the crew and the faith of the NACC — is really beside the point, as prizes always have been.

“My work is not to make pretty pictures, but to make you shed your self-contempt,” Minshall has said. His provocative words gesture to the often painful and bewildering New World experience of the Caribbean, of a people transplanted from their ancestral homes, brutalised by history, and still threatened by global economic and social forces. Properly speaking, making the people of the Caribbean shed our self-contempt, and understand ourselves on our own terms, is the work of all our artists and thinkers.

Working in the most ephemeral of media, making art that exists for only a few hours and then can never be recreated (since most masqueraders discard their costumes after crossing the Savannah stage), Minshall has demonstrated that the “folk” art of mas, springing from the experience of a tiny hybrid island people, is capable of statements as grand and as universal as any painting or opera. Talking about mas, he deliberately invokes Picasso and Brecht; in his eyes, his medium is no smaller than theirs. Minshall’s greatest achievement of all may be just this: showing the people of Trinidad and Tobago — and the world — that mas is high art, and that “here on our island . . . we have a song to sing to the universe that nobody else can sing”.

 

“Minshall asks us to rethink our idea of the monumental”

Artist Christopher Cozier on Minshall and the meaning of art in Trinidad and Tobago

Most attempts at articulating a Caribbean art history sneak past the work of an artist like Peter Minshall, because the historical lineage of his work does not align to 19th-century renderings of property and native types. Carnival is an urban modernistic popular artform that influences and absorbs artistic method and audience expectations. Our entry into art-making is inherently multimedia and contemporary.

Minshall’s work asks us to rethink our idea of the monumental. The Caribbean is not known for pyramids, domes, or towers, but we have our people, their particular stories as defined by their language, gestures, and vision.

In defining his work, Minshall asserts that he has produced more than costumes or costumed bands. The word “costume” offends his sense of possibility. Minshall sees the word “mas” — derived from the colloquial term “play a mas”, meaning to perform or become the thing portrayed — as more capable and appropriate. His artworks — or “roadworks”, as I like to call them, as they are used in street performance — function as interactive entities that animate our inherent theatrical nature, derived from traditional ritual and an understanding of how to assert ourselves in space to the beat of the drum.

His 1998 production, Red, consisted of a few thousand mas players moving through the city. The presentation symbolised an incision into the superfluous glitter and bikini parades that have taken over the streets in recent years, and which is the most exportable and co-opted aspect of Carnival. This red, bleeding fissure proclaimed that the mechanism called Carnival is still alive and hurting, and as a people we still have a soul. A silent figure, perhaps representing the artist himself, as if offering consolation, embraced a broken heart whose jagged black and white lines suggested the national flag.

The band was like a warning to those in authority who fuel the derisive political circumstances in which we had found ourselves. In keeping with the “popular” process of transforming everyday objects, Minshall’s players were provided with red chairs, which they carried in their hands or on their backs, wore on their heads like the horns of a bull waiting to charge, or held like a lion tamer in a circus fending off the beast.

Minshall’s works have been interpreted as sociopolitical theatrical commentaries played out by the people in the streets. Thousands witness and participate in performances designed and orchestrated by this artist and his Callaloo Company. If something like this were to happen in one of the alleged power locations for art theory, there would be miles of text. So far it is perceived to be a mere folk or street festival, the subject for more renderings of culture by local artists and foreign anthropologists.

Do we need an art history of objects exclusively, or do we need to consider a broader theory of art and history derived from creative expression as it has actually existed? This is why the work of Minshall so troubled Trinidadian artists from the 1980s onwards. When his king Mancrab from the band River [1983] passed through Port of Spain, it became clear that objects and actions could function with equal agency in the social and cultural space, and that the arena for creative expression was inherently much wider.

Adapted from an essay originally published in Exclusion, Fragmentacion, y Paraiso Caribe Insular (Casa América de Madrid, 1998)

“He’s always had an uncanny sense of what the trends are”

Fashion designer Meiling on her “love affair” with Minshall

Our love affair, as it were, began with River [1983]. Before that, I was occasionally called in to work on his queens, whenever garments were involved or whenever there was a dress or anything to do with fabric. I always did the basics and then the embellishments would come at the mas camp.

He came to stay here at Carlos Street [her house and workshop] and it was here that he designed the band River. From then on, we became extremely close.

I hadn’t studied costume design — I was a fashion designer. It was a learning process with Minshall. What he provided was a kind of education that I could never put a value on. Because I wasn’t a costumier, I would do my prototypes in brown cotton and take them to him. I needed his guidance completely. And many a time I would do a prototype and Minshall would just take it down to pins and pieces of fabric. At first, your immediate reaction was, gosh you spent all this time . . . but I was never hurt, because he was always very gentle.

And then I’d go back to the drawing board and do the things he’d suggested, and I’d realise that what he’d been saying was so on-point.

The love affair’s been mutually beneficial. He’s helped me with the sets of several of my fashion shows, really getting involved, spending lots of time with me. I’ve always valued his opinion, and sometimes when I’m working on a project I’ll wait until it’s almost done and then ask him to come in and give me feedback. And he’ll tweak and give subtle suggestions to make it better.

From a fashion point of view, when he did River, he made a rather bold step to use just white cotton. You could say he’s always had an uncanny sense of what the trends are. River made Trinidadians — designers especially — take notice and start to appreciate natural fibres. After that, there was a whole new movement in fashion using cotton as the point of departure.

The year he played Red [1998], that was colour on all the runways. This year denim is what’s happening, and he’s done urban samurai cowboys [in the 2006 band The Sacred Heart].

But nothing is ever easy with Minshall. Half the time, you’re working against the clock. But because you believe in what you’re doing and you believe in what he’s doing, you give your all and put your whole energy into making it happen. These days, I feel like I want to drop everything I’m doing at Carlos Street and go running down to Chaguaramas and spend all my days there.

As told to Attillah Springer

“Where is your costume, child?”

Attillah Springer on “Uncle Minsh”, learning what mas can be, and playing in Red

My sister held my hand, but I was lost in the fog of tassa drummers and fascinated that the sky could be pink and blue and gold all at the same time. I was six years old and hooked.

I spent most of my childhood anticipating the day I would be “big people” enough to put on a costume. I was too young to remember George Bailey. Harold Saldenah and Carlisle Chang were mythical heroes. But Minshall schooled my generation in mas as story, with morals and the liveliest, loveliest puppets.

Somewhere amid all the post-1970s ideological and cultural contestations between him and my activist mother, he became Uncle Minsh. And I was, naturally, the child. I grew up choosing to make awkward teen years more awkward by following Minshall rather than finding my place amid the sparkly mass.

One year when I was almost a grown-up, I ran away from university to come home for Carnival. I couldn’t afford the added luxury of playing mas, but I headed for town anyway, hoping that I would be able to bear not crossing the Savannah stage.

Uncle Minsh’s band that year — 1998 — was Red. It was the same year that Machel Montano was causing near riots with his song “Charge”, a.k.a. “Toro Toro”. Red painted the town in a Carnival of fire, caution, and absolute madness.

I found the band stuck at the top of Charlotte Street. It was the time of day when the sting of noonday sun becomes the languid humidity of Carnival Tuesday afternoon. The masqueraders were spread out in Memorial Park, making it look like a poppy field.

I was wearing khaki shorts and a grey tank top and feeling a little out of place. Suddenly Uncle Minsh appeared. He was scandalised by my attire. He bellowed at me: “Where is your costume, child?” I shrugged sheepishly, chastised. He turned on his heels and beckoned me with a flick of his wrist.

I followed him up past the curve in the road to the traffic lights and the right turn onto Jerningham Avenue. A van was parked there. Uncle Minsh fished around on the van and then like magic he pulled out a costume. A few sleep-deprived Callaloo workers formed a human dressing-room around me, and before I had time to consider any prudish Trini sensibilities I was stripping in the middle of Jerningham Avenue. Red cotton trousers trimmed with a kind of plastic. A standard, a halter top, and a long piece of red cloth that I used to tie my head. In five minutes I was transformed from grey pedestrian to Ogun’s emissary.

Uncle Minsh smiled. “That’s better.” And then he was gone as suddenly as he’d appeared, leaving me a little stunned. The band snaked along, red head pointing purposefully westwards.

It was night when we made it to the stage. Red didn’t win band of the year, and “Charge” didn’t win Road March. There were no clouds of abeer or tassa drummers this time. But I can’t help smiling every time I pass on Jerningham Avenue.

“Minshall does not suffer silently”

Artist and musician Pat Bishop on Minshall as cultural icon

If by icon you mean a kind of cultural rallying cry, I suppose you have to say that at various times in his career Minshall has been that.

I think Peter has paid dearly for his fidelity to process, and the price, I’m afraid, has to be calculated in TT dollars.

But I think in making the choice to let down his bucket here, he made a conscious and deliberate choice. I don’t want to talk about big fish in little ponds, or any kind of comparison like that.

But I think that he found a lode that he could mine, albeit painfully, to make some kinds of statements about his own world-view, but which used products, processes, and, ultimately, Trinidadian people to enable him to say his own singular thing.

And if that sounds a bit complicated, then that is how it is. It is not simple.

There’s nothing simple about Trinidad. You can say “multicultural” and transfer that quite easily to New York or London or any of the imperial metropolitan centres. There are all sorts and conditions of people gathered there. Gathered and apart at the same time. In Trinidad we have no choice, because of the collision that is immediate and pressing.

Minshall becomes an icon because he validates a way of life that is responsive to the great moments of the people. That not only validates them, but celebrates them. And in fact affirms the absolute correctness of setting one’s face against the unreality of the instant global world.

He is gifted, but to be gifted is to be burdened in a serious way. In this world, if you’re a communicator and nobody’s listening, then the burden is even greater. Well, it’s the stuff of martyrdom. Somebody once said that geniuses suffer.

Minshall does not suffer silently. And maybe that’s a good thing too. Because you need to know that being part of this society is painful, expensive, that Trinidadian money can’t pay for it. That, at the end of the day, the play is played out and the balances set right. That he says we are the way we are, and it is good to be that way.

As told to Attillah Springer

“He used to say, to hell with the judges”

Peter Samuel, Minshall’s longtime Carnival king, on 1976’s Serpent

Playing king for Minshall came about for me accidentally.

I grew up in Woodbrook, and going by [Carnival bandleaders] Stephen and Elsie Lee Heung was like going home. I always had this thing for helping them out with the bigger costumes, and then Carnival day on the road inevitably I found myself helping carry the costume, often wearing it even more than the real king, Tony Seville.

In 1976, Minshall took over from Carlisle Chang, who’d designed Lee Heung bands in the past. They were doing Paradise Lost that year, and it also happened Tony wasn’t available. Elsie turned to me and said, Well, look, you’re always carrying the costume, why not just play?

I definitely couldn’t afford to play king [in those days, a king of a band paid for the building of his costume], but we ended up with a nice arrangement. Peter designed the costume, the band paid for it, and we put together a crew to make it. It was all experimental, long tedious work, and the costume [The Serpent] was built in my garage on Alfredo Street.

In those days you just had the preliminaries and finals [in the Carnival king competition]. On the day of the preliminaries, we mounted the costume, and we never catered for the sequins being so heavy. There were no tag guns. Each individual sequin was soldered on with a piece of nylon. The costume collapsed right outside my house.

By this time we were late for the Savannah, but we decided we’d repair it up there. So they lifted me in the costume, put me on the back of a van, and we drove up to the Savannah. We managed to get the costume back together just in time. I didn’t get a chance to put on the platforms that were all the rage that year, so I ended going across the stage barefoot.

I went across that stage like I was possessed. I couldn’t let the side down after all those hours of work.

That year Minshall introduced a lot of firsts. It was the first time anyone used a leather harness that was strapped on. In fact, in all the madness and rush nobody had realised that the padding on my shoulders had come off. It was only after I’d crossed the stage and taken off the costume that I saw Roses Hezekiah and she screamed. I looked down and all the skin on my shoulders had come off.

Somehow we scraped through, beating the other costumes by a couple points. We fixed the costume and came back in the finals and blew away the competition. After that I couldn’t think of anything else, dream of anything else.

Then [in 1978] Minshall brought his own band, Zodiac. The king for that band was supposed to be “Rising Sun”. We jokingly call it “the sun that never rose”. He had the idea to make this costume out of spinnaker nylon, but we just couldn’t get the material to do what he wanted it to.

Peter’s genius was beyond his time — he was always pushing the envelope. And that’s why Carnival, my culture, means so much to me today.

It was always about the message. We would talk for hours about the costumes. He used to say, to hell with the judges. As a result, I was never a competitor for a king competition. When I put on that costume, whether Mancrab or Saga Boy, I was an artist. I was a performer bringing a message, making a statement.

As told to Attillah Springer

“The music and the mas are complementary”

Wendell Manwarren of the rapso group 3Canal, longtime Callaloo Company associate, on Minshall as an inspiration for creativity

I have to credit my mother for getting me involved with Minshall. She was an avid mas player, and when she decided to play mas with Minshall I went along to check it out.

Some school friends chained up Roger [Roberts, also of 3Canal] and myself to go and sign up to play in Callaloo [1984]. But I’d been baptised in River the year before. I didn’t need much convincing. I didn’t really have an interest in playing mas before then.

We went and signed up and then we saw a sign at the bottom of Carlos Street saying help was wanted to make costumes. We reported to the address, and as we walked in Minshall was standing there with a handful of feathers asking which one of us had an eye for colour. Before I knew what was happening, I was working on a costume. We literally stayed there all weekend, hardly sleeping at all, going home only for a change of clothes.

We walked the queen [The Bird of Paradise] up to the Savannah, and saw it across the stage. I was completely overwhelmed and transfixed by the mas. I’ve been associated with Minshall ever since.

That time was fundamental. I was at an impressionable age, just out of school and exploring my own possibilities. Minshall provided an avenue for me to step out of the convention of being a red boy from Belmont with a nice bank job. The general attitude was “conform”, and anything outside of that was inconceivable. But the theatre was also happening big-time then, and what Minshall afforded us was that idea, that possibility that we could really go after this performance thing full time.

Working with a genius on the level of Minshall certainly has its challenges. He provided an opportunity for growth. Half the time you don’t know if you’ll sink or swim, but if you can deliver to his satisfaction that means you can really deliver.

We performed with Minshall everywhere. There was one particularly memorable performance of Mancrab in the Plaza des Capitanes in Old Havana at the Bienale. We were also there as 3Canal. When 3Canal came into being, it was another manifestation of the creativity that Minshall had nurtured.

Now there’s a Minshall file on the desk. There’s no separation, it all flows together. The music and the mas are complementary.

As told to Attillah Springer

“You know you was off the ground, right?”

Alyson Brown — dancer, model, and Minshall’s best-known queen, on playing Tan Tan and becoming larger than life

I first knew about Minshall in children’s carnival, as a designer, as somebody extraordinary doing mas. You always knew it was Minshall, but I didn’t even know what he looked like.

And then was Paradise Lost [1976]. That’s the next big image I have of the man himself. I remember playing in some lil’ Mickey Mouse band and going to the Savannah to look at Minshall’s band. I went in my little nasty costume into the Grand Stand and sat and was totally blown away. I think the sky even fixed itself in a certain way to suit the mood of the band.

Minshall used to come to Meiling’s fashion shows, and he would always say something to me, and I remember the best thing that anybody ever said to me was Minshall coming backstage after a Meiling show and saying: “You make me glad that I live in Trinidad.” And he said to me that time too that “You should be the queen of my band.” This had to be ’87, ’88 . . .

But Tan Tan [from the 1990 band Tantana] was the first queen I crossed the Savannah stage with. Of course I only put it on the night of the show in the Savannah. And before I got on stage, the crowd in the North Stand could see her head, doing this [bobbing and nodding], and they started to scream.

And then she burst out on stage. I had a mask on. Trained as a dancer to fill the stage with a smile. By the time I got to centre stage — “Alyson, why are you smiling like this?” Because the audience was screaming, and her face was screaming, and I was screaming behind the mask. It was just a joyful thing, to hear the audience and to see — I’m looking at people now in the audience and everybody is copying the smile on her face.

I have a friend who saw me on the night of the first show, and he said, “When I saw you come out so, I laugh, I laugh, I laugh, I laugh.” I say, “But why were you laughing?” I couldn’t understand why he was laughing, until I saw a videotape of the performance, and — you had to laugh with her, ’cause she had this big nasty grin that you feel, and I think people see themselves at their happiest when they see her.

Joy to the World [from the 1995 band Hallelujah] was different. A man said to me, “You know you was off the ground, right? You was levitatin’! I tellin’ you, your foot wasn’t on the ground. You didn’t notice?”

Of course I never planned what I was going to do. I just had to get on stage, and they were doing David Rudder’s “Hallelujah”, and the music came on, and I just did, from my dancing experience, a movement that suited the music, which was a bélé gliding step. I was a bélé queen, which was how Minshall started out the costume, and then he added the wings.

I’ve been a dancer since I was sixteen years old, and wearing a big costume is like transferring what you know as a dancer — the balance, the coordination, the energy, the projection to the audience, reaching the audience. You become larger than life. You don’t have to worry to smile down here, because the costume is smiling for you, and the joy in your body radiates to her, to the people.

As told to Georgia Popplewell

“We have to bring it to life”

Master costume builder Rudolph “Murphy” Winters on transforming Minshall’s designs into three dimensions

Before Minshall, I wasn’t involved in Carnival. I was a spectator. I was a trained cabinet-maker. That’s the experience and knowledge that fits well into the structural part of it — understanding materials and connections and fittings and hardware.

1980 was my first year [working with Minshall]. I volunteered in 1980 [on the band Danse Macabre], and the next year I was hired — which was ’81. The band was Jungle Fever. I am a skilled craftsman, so when I volunteered that first year I put my hand into everything.

I don’t think Minshall has ever produced any simple design. I have no favourite.People talk about Mancrab, the Midnight Robber, The Merry Monarch — they all were very technical. People still try to copy some of the things, but they don’t know the technicalities, they always have problems, you see it in the Savannah. With his years of experience, Minshall knows it is very important to design a structure.

Minshall’s strength is creating volume. You use lightweight fishing rods and you create volume. When he speaks, he talks about the bat [a traditional Carnival character] — he extended the wing, and created volume. It is no secret that Minshall has changed a lot of things in Carnival. Everybody knows that. He introduced a lot of new materials, like fibreglass fishing rods — he was one of the first to use that.

He gives you a piece of paper — most of the time he will give you a scale drawing, so it makes it easy. Then we have to bring it to life. And that is the fun part of it. You work it out, it happens, you see it work, it functions — and then you win.

I’m not a performer. My job is to produce, to think and engineer things, which I enjoy very much. I don’t enjoy performing. I have never played in one of the bands. I’m still a spectator. My work on Carnival Tuesday is to see what not to do next time.

Sometimes there are problems with a costume. One of the reasons is that, you know, Minshall is always late. Everybody knows that, you’re always scrambling at the last minute to get things together. But when something goes wrong, you know what not to do, so you refine, you come in, you repair, and you go again. You don’t want to stay down. You’ve got to move up!

As told to Georgia Popplewell

Thirty years of Minshall mas

1976 Paradise Lost: Milton’s fallen angels (bandleader, Stephen Lee Heung; band of the year)

1978 Zodiac: planets, stars, constellations

1979 Carnival of the Sea: out of the depths (band of the year)

1980 Danse Macabre: a dark, prophetic vision

1981 Jungle Fever: homage to George Bailey’s African mas (band of the year)

1982 Papillon: the brevity of life portrayed by thousands of butterflies

1983 River: the start of Minshall’s first great trilogy; Washerwoman and Mancrab fight for the soul of the River People

1984 Callaloo: the struggle continues, led by Washerwoman’s son

1985 The Golden Calabash: two bands in one; Lords of Light and Princes of Darkness battle for the golden prize

1986 Carnival Is Colour: Minshall’s mockery of Carnival convention (band of the year)

1987 Rat Race: hordes of hungry rats unleashed

1988 Jumbie: staring-eyed spirits haunt the city

1989 Sans Humanité: masqueraders overpowered by leering effigies

1990 Tantana: Tan Tan and Saga Boy lead a brave celebration of the spirit of Trinidad and Tobago

1993 Donkey Derby: braying jackasses herald The Trojan Donkey

1994 The Odyssey: the Caribbean flows into the Aegean

1995 Hallelujah: Joy to the World and The Spirit of Light lead a band of angels

1996 Song of the Earth: a joyous return of mankind’s primal roots

1997 Tapestry: a celebration of the richness of creation

1998 Red: monochrome Minshall; an open wound, a burning flame?

1999 The Lost Tribe: wrapped in earth-toned robes and turbans, the people search for their promised land

2000 M2K: an army of black and an army of white collide

2001 This Is Hell: hooded in black — like executioners, or their victims — and dripping with gold baubles, the people dance to damnation

2002 Picoplat: a great flock of birds spreading joy through the city

2003 Ship of Fools: Minshall does sailor mas

2006 The Sacred Heart: an army of “samurai cowboys” marching against AIDS and for the heart of Trinidad and Tobago

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