Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It's been raining off and on all day--what happened to the dry season?--and when we get to the Savannah around eight for the semi-finals of the Carnival king competition it's still drizzling. With my newly acquired press pass round my neck, there's no need to smart-talk my way onto the track, but I find the Callaloo crew just after it's announced that the competition has been postponed to Friday night--the rain has made the stage slippery, and the officials are afraid some of the masqueraders may fall and be injured.

Son of Saga Boy sits huddled at the side of the track, wrapped in layers of plastic to keep his feathers dry. The costume looks small and vulnerable. Kerwin Paul, the king of the band, who was meant to cross the stage tonight, stands nearby under an umbrella, getting a pep talk from Alyson Brown and some of the other crew members. You have to play the mas, don't let the mas play you, someone says.

In the background, one of the little food stalls is blasting music through loudspeakers: a chutney soca version of "My Favourite Things", which would seem odd only to someone who didn't know how popular The Sound of Music is with a certain generation of Trinidadians.

On other nights I've been reluctant to bother Kerwin for fear of breaking his concentration, but tonight I manage to chat with him for a few minutes before the rain gets heavier. I've been struck before by his apparent calm, despite the fact that he's never appeared on a stage before, never had to bear the literal burden of a costume weighing hundreds of pounds, never had to face the kind of public scrutiny that comes with being a Carnival king--especially a Minshall king. It's also been well publicised that he's HIV-positive--this is one of the reasons Minshall chose him--and it can't be easy for him to make this known in so dramatic a fashion. "The hero in our midst", Minshall calls him.

What does the costume feel like, apart from heavy, I ask him.

"It's like a character. It's no longer Kerwin. That gives me the drive when I'm on stage. I don't feel nervous, because I tell myself people are looking at the costume, not me."

"Last Thursday night was the first time I actually put the costume on. That was just a lot of firsts--first time I put the costume on, first time I'm on stage...."

And it turns out this is the first time he's played any kind of mas at all.

"There's a lot of firsts, but I'm doing it big."

"It's the cause that really has me doing this right now. Other than that, I would not have been even playing mas this year. For me it's not just playing mas. My friends are supporting me all the way. They are glad that I'm doing this. I've had strangers come up to me and they say, 'Well, you don't know me but I know you. I appreciate your stand.' Even my mother--she was in tears, she was so proud. She calls me her little hero."

And what about Minshall himself--what his impressions are of the masman?

"Nothing short of genius. At first I was very nervous, and thinking, you know--Peter Minshall. Will I be able to keep pace with him? But he was very grounded."

Kerwin's first Minshall memory is of Tan Tan and Saga Boy, the queen and king of the 1990 band Tantana. "But my favourite band from Minshall ever was Red. One colour, but so versatile."

I ask him, have you caught the Carnival jumbie now?

"I can't play king one year and then give up. If I'm not playing king then I'll definitely be jumping up with the band.

"And I recruited all my friends and they will be playing. I've even had some cancel their registrations with other bands to come and play."

The crew is waiting for the truck that will take Son back to the mas camp in Chaguaramas. Tomorrow Kerwin has another practice session lined up. He's talking on his mobile phone, smiling. Then, still holding his umbrella, he strides into the crowd and, anonymous with his black bodysuit hidden under a t-shirt, he disappears.

Say what:


Mad Bull said...

You said : "It's also been well publicised that he's HIV-positive--this is one of the reasons Minshall chose him--and it can't be easy for him to make this known in so dramatic a fashion."

Whats this cause that you're talking about? How does his being HIV Positive affect this cause?

Nicholas said...

Sorry, Mad Bull--I've just realised that nowhere in the several posts I've written about The Sacred Heart have I mentioned that the band is partly sponsored by the National AIDS Coordinating Committee; the "cause" Kerwin refers to is awareness of the stigma of HIV and AIDS. Hence the red ribbons that feature prominently in all the costumes. Important to note, however, that Minshall's explicitly said:

"This is NOT an Aids band. It's about Trinidad & Tobago. It's about the broken heart. It's about power and greed, crime, fear, the bruised heart. It's about us as a people making a choice. Against the darkness there is the heart that shines and sings."

Dylan said...

Hey nicholas,

im wondering about Carnival as a festival of resistance - its historical evolution and traditions - and how Minshall is able to reach into that fountain of culture and put it into practice on the streets with this band and its various threads and themes. Why is it that other bands play to the aesthetics of sexuality and not to the woes of Trini or for that matter global society? Why are they lost in the commodification of experience rather than the in traditions of resistance?
let me know after monday and tuesday - can imagine its bachannal over there right now. be safe