Mas with Minshall

Emmy Award-winning artist Peter Minshall laments the death of theatre in Trinidad’s famed Carnival


I may have committed a cardinal sin when I donned an African witch doctor costume I concocted for Halloween in New York’s Greenwich Village, and stepped onto the streets of Port of Spain with the intention to play mas—without joining a band.  That was in 1992 at my first Trinidad Carnival.  I was on assignment for a newspaper and figured the truest candid shots of the release Carnival induces are captured from within the mas.  It was difficult to be incognito amidst the laughter my costume evoked.  The best thing to come of that Carnival experience was my encounter with the mas band designed by Peter Minshall.  That year he produced Barcelona – Port of Spain, a symbolic reference to Trinidad’s monumental presence at the Olympic Games in Barcelona.  The band was vibrant and lighthearted, the masqueraders graceful, and the energy infectious.  I was eager to be part of that artistic collective.

Every Sunday afternoon I clocked in at a huge warehouse set a stone’s throw east of West Mall to witness the Callaloo Company discover and refine its approach to dramatizing the prologue for their Carnival Tuesday presentation in the Savannah.  Dance choreographers Noble Douglas, Sat Balkaransingh and Dave Williams routinely steered the troupe of actors, clerks and curious souls through limbering warm-ups.  Before launching the troupe into a mirroring exercise and other theatrical techniques, Minshall imparted philosophies and drew relevance between European artists or current events to the work of the mas.  “The aim of the Callaloo Company was two-pronged,” offers Minshall: “To serve the Carnival with a Midnight Robber speech that danced like a bat and had the finery and surreal imagination of a Fancy Sailor.  The other [aim] was to distill out of the Carnival its essence and find a way and means of introducing it into legitimate theatre.”

I have portrayed a Minshall mas many times: Donkey Derby, The Odyssey, Song of the Earth, Tapestry, Red, M2K, Picoplat, Ship of Fools.  When Minshall embarks on designing his goal is to create mas that is kinetic, “that channels and expresses the spiritual and physical energy” of the masquerader.  There’s little that’s unknown about Minshall’s devotion to using mas as a medium to reflect on and respond to the state of affairs and political turmoil in his adopted homeland, and to empower his countrymen to dramatize his provocative narratives.  Minshall’s darkest bands: Danse Macabre, Rat Race, Jumbie, Sans Humanite, This is Hell offered poignant and critical commentary on the chaos, dis-ease and despair of the time.  There’s usually an epic poem or epic battle at the heart of a Minshall effort to arouse the consciousness of the citizenry.

Born in Georgetown, Guyana, Minshall, now 68, was a child when his family migrated to Trinidad. Minshall studied theatre design at the Central School of Art and Design in London and was igniting a propitious career in theatre arts when he was summoned to Trinidad’s Carnival.  A career-altering moment occurred in 1974 when Minshall’s elaborate hummingbird mas entitled “From the Land of the Hummingbird”, portrayed by his stepsister Sherry Ann Guy, delivered a triumphant performance.  Two years later, Minshall designed his first full-size band for bandleader Stephen Lee Heung…the rest is the legacy millions have watched unfold.  Minshall resides with distinguished company as one of the most acclaimed theatrical performance designers on the planet.  Highlights of his career beyond Trinidad’s Carnival include: The 1985 Adoration of Hiroshima, a nuclear protest mas staged in Washington, D.C.  He co-designed and directed spectacular ceremonies for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, 1996 Atlanta Olympics and 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.  And he collaborated with French composer Jean-Michel Jarre on the Concert For Tolerance in 1995.

Following their Olympics trifecta some felt the Callaloo Company was poised to stage dazzling performances around the globe.  Members of the ‘tribe’ were hyped but little materialized.  Meanwhile, the Carnival tradition was dying on the streets of Port of Spain.  Quietly, rumors of depression swirled.  One Minshallite shared: “Minsh was fed-up and frustrated with the state of the mas and the country, that’s what triggered his withdrawal from Carnival.”

Minshall is in year three of a sabbatical from the Carnival, but it’s been six years since I last danced through Port of Spain in a Minshall mas.  Unmotivated to join another band, I, like other Minshallites— loyal masqueraders and supporters—have resigned to reminiscing and wishing for a reunion or working in other camps.  I needed a reason to attend Carnival 2009, so I called on Minshall for a one-on-one chat about mas’, of course.  Surprisingly, Minshall gave me six hours over two days in the peak of the season that once kept him too busy to breathe.  Here’s some of my conversation with the beloved masman:

What does creating mas do for you that no other medium could?

“Maria Callas said: “Art is the highest form of human communication.  And music is the highest form of Art.”  She was the great operatic diva of the 20th century.  Mas is operatic.  Mas transforms apparel into energy and art and dances it to music on a grand scale.  It is visceral, immediate, celebratory, hugely symbolic, huge in every way, bounding with energy, everywhere around, like a sea, like a river flooding the street, sweeping from street to pavement, from player to spectator and back again, joining them, pulling all into its flow, pulling them in with its deep rush of feeling, sensually drowning them with its primordial force and emotional power.  Mas is elemental.  Mas communicates like no other medium can.”

Which mas band in your repertoire do you wish you could do-over partially or in its entirety?

“My work in the mas is amorphous, ephemeral, collaborative, and on the day, hugely improvisational.  I make my work with all of this always in mind.  I am never unaware of the chaotic river into which I intend to set sail my very soul as I create its clothing and adornments.  I deliberately design and make art and mas for the choreography of chaos.  My success is best measured when angels dance with demons in perfect harmony.”

“However it comes out, it comes out.  There can be no regrets.  But there is one mas band that I would do again.  And again, and again.  All over the world.  And it would never twice be the same…RIVER.”

“It remains to this day the most powerful work of art on the state of the environment done anywhere in all of the 20th century and the 21st, so far.  I am sure of it.  I look back and I place it in the world and it stands alone and supreme.  It was a simple, strong, dramatic, terrifying work of art.  And it was played and performed by some two-thousand natives of a small Caribbean island, such an unlikely venue for such an awesome work, RIVER, a MAS in 2 ACTS, with a King, MANCRAB, and a Queen, WASHERWOMAN, and a simple story of greed and power, of the self-destruction of an island people, their loss of love for their beautiful land, and for each other.”

“I would do it again.  Yes, in my dreams.  It is impossible ever to do a mas again.  That is the terrible secret of its essential strength and power.  It is the ultimate of rare.  It can only happen once.”

Oftentimes the message in your mas ignites controversy…that’s not intentional, right?

“I am not a bandleader.  Making money is not my primary inspiration.  I am a MASMAN.  I belong to the tribe described as ARTIST.  Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us.  It is only by risking ourselves from one hour to another that we live at all.  There’s this trapeze artist that lives in my head, swinging away on his bar, and that’s his message to me all the time.  I must dare do it without a safety net.”

“If all the other guys choose to paddle at the shallow end of the pool and if I cannot help but jump in at the deep end from the high diving board because of the risk and the thrill of the leap, you may be sure they are going to yell controversy when I make a big splash as I land and hit the water.”

What would be the theme of the dialogue you would like to witness happen among emerging and established bandleaders?

“Make mas as art.  Believe in it.  Love it.  Hold it close.  Look into the heart of it and see it, feel it for its great strength and beauty, its truth, its communicative power, as no lesser than any art.  If you’re good at it, you can make money, too.”

“But do not make mas just to make money.  You will kill it, even as you kill your own spirit.  The Carnival is fast becoming little more than noise and sex.  They say it sells.  That is the whole point.  That is exactly the problem.”

What is your offering to fellow masmen trying to keep the festival viable?

“The masman would best be advised to become virulently political and assume a visibly different leadership role and hone more socially conscious skills in order to affect, inform and essentially change the cultural illiteracy of the ruling class.”

With play writing are you pursuing a dream deferred, give me a snapshot of the plot of the play you’re crafting?

“HIERONYMUSis the formalized playing of a mas’ between a white homosexual and a manicou.  They have a conversation about the burdens of life we all bear, some more than others, and they discuss the reasons why the distribution at times seems so uneven and unfair.  The manicou dies at the end, but not before he says, with harrowing reference to the burdens that beset the black man, ‘Blackest coal under greatest pressure becomes brightest diamond.’”

What part of the world do you dream of exploring, why?

“After every cove and inlet of Tobago, and then every island of the Caribbean, I have a lingering curiosity about the hinterland of Guyana and the Kaiteur Falls and those great rivers, and that towering, enveloping forest, and then Brazil, the Amazon, Bahia, and those samba drums, and then…”

What keeps you in Trinidad?

“Nine black ninjas.  I could not abandon them.  You’ve just met them in the yard.  The girls: Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Mae West. The boys: Humphrey Bogart, Montgomery Clift, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy.  The father: Michael Norman Manley, a West Indian of mixed blood, part-German/part-Belgian shepherd with a touch of pitbull.  The mother, Elizabeth Taylor, a creamy labrador with a hint of rottweiler in her aristocratic blue blood…the typical West Indian family, all de children black.”

Have you retired, if not, what’s next for Peter Minshall?

Aye aye, I find you fass.  I don’t know what retirement is!!”

“Tribal politics has us nailed to the cross.  The country, the culture, the people, the music, the mas has been crucified.  It is time to resurrect.  Or to bury for good.  We will see.  A grand finale, perhaps.  REZZAREK.  Yes.  We will see.”


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