Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : March 2nd 2014 Contents Personally, I find the greatest
loss to diversity can be felt during
Carnival when one compares the
mass market "beads and bikini"
phenomenon with the inventive-
ness of yesteryear s ole mas.
There is still some preservation
of the lyrical tradition of proper
kaiso, but even this seems set to be
overwhelmed by the tide of local
artistes bent on generating a gaudy
stage show while ignoring key ele-
ments of composition and rhythm.
One of the proud ole mas char-
acters of yesteryear that is now either
extinct or very rarely seen is the
minstrel. The tradition developed
in the United States during the 1830s
and found its audience in the post-
Civil War era after 1865.
Minstrel shows were popular
across America, from the large cities
where they took the form of extrav-
agant vaudeville plays or, in more
modest circumstances, one-man
The minstrels were sometimes
white men in "blackface," which is
a form of caricatured makeup that
mocked and denigrated the features
of Africans. The performances
mainly focused on plantation themes
that also sought to degrade the Afro-
American, such as the character of
the "dandified coon."
The minstrel made his appearance
in full blackface in Trinidad Carnival
some time towards the end of the
19th century and is seen in photo-
graphs from the early 1900s as well.
Many sang songs of the Ante-bellum
era like Old Uncle Joe and relied on
the banjo and box guitar. In the Car-
nival bands of east Port-of-Spain,
they fell in naturally with the beat
of things and some even became
quite creditable calypsonians.
In these days of music trucks, it
is hard to imagine a time when the
kaiso for a jump-up during J Ouvert
or on Carnival Tuesday was pro-
vided by a single man. Each band
had a chantwell with his guitar.
These bards had names of fantastic
import like King Pharaoh, Black
Prince, Duke of Marlborough and
Moro the Rebeller. Perhaps one of
the best known was Frederick
Julien, who played with Whiterose
and went about as the Iron Duke.
On the road, there were so many
characters that they presented a
truly grand sight. Some of these
persist in the ole mas renderings of
today, but others have vanished.
One of the most striking was the
dragon band. This was meant to
represent the fiery serpent being
escorted by a king and queen,
attended by a host of imps and dev-
ils. Around 1900 one band called
the Red Dragons stood out as the
finest example of this portrayal.
The Wild and Fancy Indians were
a legacy of the fascination of
Trinidadians with the dime-novels
telling about the heroics of the Old
West and the emergence of western
movies in the cinemas. Dressed to
the hilt in beads and feathers, there
were Red, Blue and White Indians.
With no specialist Carnival chan-
dlery stores and the stuff in the
downtown emporiums being out
of the reach of the working classes,
masqueraders in these bands would
scour the forests months in
advance, collecting seeds, which
were painted and used in lieu of
The clash of rival Indian bands
was something to behold, since the
players would burst into blood-
curdling war-whoops and the kings
of the bands would clash in verbal
confrontation. Nothing was left
out, and there were even squaws
with their papooses on their backs
and sometimes a replica tepee.
Clown bands were perhaps the
most gaudy of the old mas of yore.
There were several that persisted
throughout the early years of the
1900s, including Honey Boys, Mys-
tery, Davis, Iere and Dandy. The
masqueraders were not clowns in
the circus sense but instead were
fantastically bedecked in beads,
pleated cheesecloth, satins, sequins
and with yards and yards of tinsel.
The clown costumes would actually
jingle from the numbers of bells
attached to them.
In an awakening of conscious-
ness of their African heritage, one
band dressed as Zulu warriors in
1927. These were nothing short of
majestic, with the players being
clad in skin-fitting merinos with
their heads swathed in tight black
cloth with a tuft of fake hair to
imitate the matted locks of the
people they portrayed.
The band encompassed other
theatrical elements as well, includ-
ing a life-sized papier-mache lion
drawn on a cart. The king of the
band, ironically enough, was a
"great white hunter" dressed in
khaki with a cork helmet and a
rifle slung across his back. Drums
were added to the usual instru-
ments of the chantwell to add to
the effect. This band appeared only
for one year and then was never
Minstrels at Carnival in the 1930s.
Sunday Guardian www.guardian.co.tt March 2, 2014
A clown band in Port-of-Spain in the 1920s.
Minstrel shows were popular
across America, from the
large cities where they took
the form of extravagant
vaudeville plays or, in more
modest circumstances, one-
man performances. The
minstrels were sometimes
white men in "blackface,"
which is a form of caricatured
makeup that mocked and
denigrated the features of
Africans. The performances
mainly focused on plantation
themes that also sought to
degrade the Afro-American,
such as the character of the
Minstrels, clown and Carnival of yesteryear
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