Wendell Manwarren: none shall escape

3Canal member Wendell Manwarren speaks to Tracy Assing

Wendell Manwarren–one of the three members of the group 3Canal. Photograph by Alex Smailes

As a child I was never interested in Kiddies’ Carnival or anything like that. I was carted off very early to the Savannah for Panorama and I can’t say I enjoyed it at the time, but it left an indelible impression on me.

My entire family was involved in Carnival, and it was an extended family. My father used to play King of the Band and my mom played mas and pan. I was always aware of Carnival in a very intense way, growing up in Belmont. There were three or four steelbands in the vicinity. Ken Morris was just up the street, Jason Griffith was my barber, there was a legendary J’Ouvert band down the street, a mas camp right next door, my grandfather’s friend Edgar Wiley used to come around all the time and it was only later I found out he was the famous “bat man.”

You know how we say: none shall escape. I had a J’Ouvert christening at the age of nine when an uncle of mine—an avowed masman and J’Ouvert was his thing—decided it was time for me and two other boy cousins to play J’Ouvert. He got us involved as some chariot-pullers for a mechanic up the road named Jacker (I never found out his real name). Jacker was building his own chariot. He came with some crocus-bag sacks and said these were our costumes. He woke us up at 2 am or whatever early hour people were playing J’Ouvert at that time. He marched us to the mas camp and doused us in mud. We made for Independence Square.

I was scared, frightened. It was incomprehensible. It was otherworldly. It was intriguing. It was a rite of passage.

It was really overwhelming and I guess my uncle knew when to get us out of there. It was dark and dangerous.

All that is part of J’Ouvert. It is part of the mix: that element of danger, that sense of a threat, a sort of liminal sense of fear, it is part of the whole J’Ouvert atmosphere.

My uncle didn’t take us again and I was never sure why he didn’t. It was a one-off and that memory lingered for a long, long time until I was old enough to investigate J’Ouvert on my own.

The year I was leaving St Mary’s College I decided to finally play mas, but by then I’d become really intrigued by it through the stuff [masman Peter] Minshall was doing, and my mom was playing mas with him. What appealed to me was the theatricality of it and the freshness and boldness of it.

I had a few friends playing with River [Minshall’s band that year] and we were liming in the band. I was liming on the stage when these women came out in long white gowns carrying calabashes. [Calypsonian] Tambu was singing and the women tipped the calabashes and spilled all this red dye looking like blood all over themselves. Tambu changed his tune and soon everyone was throwing dye in the air and I ended up jumping up in the band.

Then I really got into the idea of it being OK to play mas, because I had never really understood it before then. So I finally decided to pay to play in ‘85 and went to Minshall’s mas camp. He was bringing The Golden Calabash and there was a sign outside the mas camp which said “Help Wanted.” I immediately fell to work on Madam Hiroshima [a main character in the band, which eventually led a peace march through Washington on the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki]. We worked on it until it was time for the costume to go up to the Savannah, and I never felt so good, to see something we had worked on parading in this full form.

That set the tone there. I wasn’t a person who paid to play mas. I became a person who was involved in the making of mas from the get-go.

Mas is a ritual. I have played Don Juan and the Devil on stage, but to play a mas is a whole other thing. I have real respect for the people who play mas and become overtaken by the character of the mas.

I became more involved in the concept behind the mas and the theatrical portrayal of the mas. I was living in Woodbrook and the house became a crashing point for people working at the Callaloo Mas Camp. Roger [Roberts] and John [Isaacs] were around and Steve [artist Steve Ouditt] lived on Alexandra Street, and we met regularly for coffee and just to hang out. Stanton [Kewley] was working in the mas camp. There was a lot of good creative energy around.

The idea to form ourselves into a little group came up, Steve came up with the 3Canal name and we did Jocks-Tuh-Pose because of where we felt the J’Ouvert was headed, as there were now these corporate incursions…polluting the whole notion of what J’Ouvert was. We wanted to respond to that and go as far away from that as we possibly could.

The second year we did Jocks-Tuh-Pose Black With A Vengeance, which we launched downstairs the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. There were holes in the roof and in the floor but we chanted and ranted and Steve did these really big drawings and put them up, Ataklan did a [Midnight] Robber speech and Redman and the Natural Culture Drummers came with their drums. [The late playwright] Godfrey Sealy swore it was the most powerful theatre he had ever seen. I suppose in some ways it was the first 3Canal show.

It was cool to do mas year after year after that. It was never to make money. It was to make a space to do our thing and for people to join in and share our vibes.

In 1997, the whole thing evolved with the offer to make a song. The song was Blue. The song began: Yes! It’s 10,000 blue devils coming dong! None shall escape! And on J’Ouvert morning they did come, almost to our detriment. We still have no idea what happened that morning. That experience became the definitive J’Ouvert experience for an entire generation. It was surreal and the closest thing to the experience I had when I was nine.

So, having crossed the line from rants and chants to making a song and making a video that appealed to thousands and thousands, we had a complete change of career. And music and J’Ouvert was our life and business from that point on.

John passed in 2000, but before that John was the “theatre man,” and he always advocated a repeat of what we did at the Theatre Workshop. He was the one who got me involved in teaching and working with the Lilliput Theatre and all that.

When he passed we re-examined what we wanted to do. The songs were appealing to people and we were getting booked in fetes, but it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to do.

In 2004, when we first did the 3Canal show, I simply went back to what we knew. Back to the Tent Theatre. Back to the Minshall Callaloo workshops. And Carnival is a living ritual, so there is immediacy and a topicality to it. You go with the rhythm of what is going on on the ground. We don’t have to try angles, we just put out the real and people respond to it in a real way.

We work with the same people, so everybody is accustomed with working with each other. We have developed a body of material and we don’t see why we have to throw away our songs each year and start afresh. It is about mining ideas that emerged a while ago that you can still touch on, and working with a team of people who have grown together.

So the show keeps growing and coming together and we think it is time to shine in 2008. It is time to rediscover a beauty and a sweetness and a purity and stop people from feeling all this aggression in the place. Rediscover something in you that would allow you to counteract the darkness and the madness around you. It is a conscious invocation of the spirit to shine some light.

Glossary

Callaloo: the Callaloo Company, Peter Minshall’s production team Fete: a Carnival party with live entertainment, attended by thousands of paying party-goers

J’Ouvert: before dawn on Carnival Monday, bands of masqueraders parade through the streets in very simple costumes, often home-made, or plaster themselves with mud, oil or coloured body paint

King of the Band: the man who wears the most elaborate male costume that heads a mas band as it parades through the streets

Mas: short for masquerade—Carnival costumes

Mas camp: where the costumes for Carnival bands are produced

Midnight Robber: a traditional Carnival character who stops passers-by and makes long, elaborate and threatening speeches

Pan: steelband