Thursday, February 23, 2006

alyson brown and miss universe

Last night at the Callaloo Company mas camp: Alyson Brown working on the head of Miss Universe, the queen of Peter Minshall's band The Sacred Heart

son of saga boy mask 2

The face of Son of Saga Boy

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:

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Happy birthday, Caribbean Free Radio! I'm breathlessly awaiting what I understand will be a smashing first anniversary podcast.

And now I'm off to the Savannah and the semi-finals of the Carnival king competition--armed with my all-events press pass, which I finally remembered to get from the National Carnival Commission. (No more inventing stories at the gate to the track.)

ncc press pass

Sunday, February 19, 2006

machel concert ramp

Machel Montano on stage at the 2006 Alternative Experience show

So your boy hear that Minshall sending he king to Machel big Alternative Concept show on Saturday night in the Savannah, and he decide he have to go and maco. He make two, three phone calls and pull one, two lil' strings, and in the end he photographer friend M--- get he a press pass, all-access.

So I pull up in the Savannah last night, right by Casuals corner, and first I can't believe how many people it have there. Machel people build one big arena right there on the grass, big stage with bandshell and towers and lights and hot air balloons and I don't know what else. And it look like we might have to park all the way in St. Clair, they have so many cars, but then the policeman see those magic all-access plastic cards and let us park right behind the stage with all the big-shots. And we slip right in the gate in the back where all the crew and singers and dancers and groupies liming, and we pass right outside all the big stars' dressing rooms (which is really tents, because the amazing thing is the whole thing get build in a few days and will take down just as fast, and I looking at everything and thinking 'bout what Minshall say the other day, that instead of knocking down the Grand Stand and building a massive ugly expensive Carnival "centre" in the people nice Savannah, why we can't just put up a state-of-the-art temporary city every year with big pretty tents and lights and stages, and on Ash Wednesday take it down again so the rest of the year the grass could grow and people could play they cricket and fly they kites?).

It have so many people inside of there, we get confuse, but eventually we end up inside the VIP section and bounce up some friends, and we manage to get some drinks and then push up near the stage to see Alison Hinds performing her songs. But like the band didn't have time to practise, and Alison talking too much in between the songs, and everybody waiting for the real show to start. People keep stepping on people foot, and your boy get confuse when some fella just turn around and hand he two Caribs. So I give one to Georgia and I stick one in my righthand pocket, and you know when we decide we moving out from the crowd the same fella come up and say, You owe me two beers? I pull out the one from my pocket and say, You could have this one back.

So we say we going to look for where the Callaloo crew waiting, and we bounce up Ashraph with a big grin on he face, and he show us where Son hiding in a corner under some scaffolding, waiting for Machel to go on stage. All Minshall people there, dressed in black as usual, and we decide when the time come we going to just follow Son up the ramp so we could see him dance from right by the edge of the stage.

By now we thirsty, so we gone back backstage and a set of Carib girls in bikini costumes nearly run us down, and we trying to pass by the dressing rooms but the police lady don't want to let a fella through because he don't have no pass. Is Mr. Vegas, somebody say. And when we reach the bar we fighting up with must be a hundred people and the bartender sour sour, but we see some more friends and finally we get some drinks, and then we realise Machel about to come on stage, so we run back in front and squeeze in the Callaloo corner.

Attillah climb up on the scaffolding, so I climb up too, because I want to see how many people there in the crowd, and when I look is only people and lights, like the whole Savannah covered, and somebody say, they print eight thousand tickets, but it look more like ten thousand to me. But the scaffolding starting to shake, so we come down, and any case Son getting ready to go up on stage, and everybody tense because it have so many people by the ramp, and when Machel come on is one explosion of smoke and confetti and everybody screaming and waving, and the Callaloo crew fighting to clear some space. I see two policewoman holding hands and trying to keep people back, and Cherisse the Callaloo production manager take she walking stick and clear the whole ramp, and stand up like she will lick down anybody who get in the way.

Meantime Machel have the crowd crazy, and if is one thing you could say 'bout that boy, he don't hold back when he on stage, he moving like he's a superstar, and ten thousand people in love with him, and he know it. And Son just waiting by the side of the stage, nodding and smiling he smile, and all the Callaloo crew trying to keep him from getting crushed, and I standing right by the outlet for the wind machine and one cold breeze blowing in my tail, and I trying to get up by the edge of the ramp so I could see what going to happen. And Wendell only looking up at the video screen to see when is time for Son to move, and on the side of the stage a fella supposed to give the cue, but he only nodding all the time and getting everybody tie up.

And then we hear the start of Son big song--"Heart of a Man"--and I see Minshall Sacred Heart symbol on the video screen, and everybody saying Go, go! and Son trying to get up the ramp, but they build it too steep and it have six, seven people pushing him from behind, and I hear Machel say, Who here love Peter Minshall? and people screaming, and I trying to see what happening, and Georgia in front of me shouting, Media, media! and I nearly trip by the ramp but I get up and I almost by the stage now, and Son dancing, and I standing there like I stupid, just staring, I not even taking pictures, and I want to tell somebody how lovely Son looking, but nobody could hear a damn thing. And is then a police come right in front of me and start to push, and half the Callaloo crew behind he and half in front.

And now Son turn around and he coming down the ramp, and everybody fighting to make room, and some crazy fella on a motorbike only revving like he want to run everybody down, and they trying to get Son back under the scaffolding, and then finally everything finish. Except it not really finish, because Machel still on stage and the show have hours to go, but is, what, two-thirty, and they packing up Son to go home, and I ready to go home too, because is only now I start to feel tired.

I pick up a black feather that fall off of Son next to the ramp and stick it in my pocket. I waiting for Georgia, who gone off to some Japanese star dressing room, and I just sitting in a corner feeling stunned.

Outside the fence people standing and listening to the music--it so loud you not even bound to go inside. We find a young lady sitting by the car parked next to ours looking vex. She tell us she can't get in the car because (she wave she hand) "The driver in there playing the drums".

And the moon bright and I only thinking, is eight days till J'Ouvert.

machel concert alyson & kerwin

Alyson Brown, Kerwin Paul, and ten thousand people waiting for Peter Minshall's king Son of Saga Boy to take the stage at the Alternative Concept show

Say what:

Saturday, February 18, 2006

miss u and son of s

Minshall's queen, Miss Universe, heads for the Savannah stage, while his king, Son of Saga Boy, awaits final assembly on the "track", at the Carnival kings and queens prelims

I buy a ticket for the Grand Stand, but I have no intention of staying there. It's the night of the Carnival king and queen competition preliminaries, and the action is all on the "track"--the once-dirt, now-paved route from Queen's Park South to the foot of the ramp leading up to the Savannah stage. Georgia has her all-access media pass round her neck. At the track barrier we tell the NCC official, a middle-aged man in a red t-shirt, that I've "forgotten" mine. Well, it's true--I forgot to apply for one this year. After some light banter he lets us both through, and for the rest of the night as we go back and forth he gives me knowing little smiles.

The track is lined on one side by little wooden huts housing vendors of food and drink--smoke drifts overhead from the jerk hut--and on the other by big empty tents which I suppose are meant to serve as dressing rooms. But the real dressing room is the open air. On the grass on either side of the asphalt, dozens of kings and queens sit in ranks--fluttering, glittering, besequinned, bejewelled, beribboned, befeathered, bespiralled; strange, surreal confections, the smallest costumes not much bigger than their masqueraders, the largest twenty or thirty feet tall or wide, constructed around frames of metal or fibreglass. Wings, sails, tails, shields, stars, dragons, bulls.

One costume sports a "Greek" statue standing in what looks like an arbour of grapevines. Another has two giant snakes with bloodcurdling green eyes. There are variations on fancy Indians and fancy sailors; a man standing in a chariot pulled by a rearing horse, the entire costume apparently made of cardboard; and a fascinating king called "The Pot from Hell", a fifteen-foot-tall saucepan surmounted by tongues of flame, guarded by three imps.

We are looking for Minshall's queen, Miss Universe, and we find her sitting serenely behind a pickup truck on a sheet of black plastic, a group of women reclining at her feet. She is supposed to be "Tan Tan's girl child"; dressed all in white, with a gauzy cape descending from her shoulders, she looks like a bride-to-be, or the effigy of some goddess.

Alyson Brown, Minshall's longtime queen and the original Tan Tan, is Miss Universe's chief attendant, a yellow utility bag round her neck. She is waiting for Jenna-Marie Andre, the new queen, the former Miss Universe contestant who will be a different kind of Miss Universe tonight.

We walk down to the far end of the track, through the throngs of NCC officials, band supporters, and ordinary people who have slipped past the barriers. Cameras flash; a film crew is interviewing Brian MacFarlane, the designer who many think was angling to take Minshall's place until Minshall surprised everyone and came back this year.

When we get back to the Callaloo camp, Jenna has arrived and is already in her black bodysuit, her limbs exaggerated by wire-spiralled hoops. She looks extraordinarily calm, but then she's used to facing audiences and spotlights. Miss Universe is now the centre of a small swarm of activity--last-minute adjustments to her fibreglass skeleton, the drape of her veil. She is, essentially, a giant puppet of a species invented by Minshall sixteen years ago, designed so that her limbs mimic the movement of the masquerader half hidden inside her frame.

The music from the stage seems to get louder. The first queens are already crossing. People are starting to gather round, waiting for Miss Universe to stand. A man with a clipboard calls out: "Tan Tan, get your outside child ready."

Alyson is helping Jenna with the black discs that decorate the front of her bodysuit. She looks like a mother preparing a daughter for some ritual, then like a monarch passing the insignia of her reign to her successor, then like a stagehand dressing a performer.

Miss Universe gazes into the night.

Her supporters raise her to a crouching position; it is time for Jenna to be strapped into the harness. She disappears into the cave of white frills. Everyone's movements are suddenly more urgent. From behind Miss Universe I glimpse Jenna through the translucent veil, a princess or a priestess in a sanctuary tent.

Now Minshall is here, and a ripple goes through the crowd: a pickup truck has pulled up, with the king, Son of Saga Boy, riding in the back.

Miss Universe is ready. Gracefully, she rises; she takes her first steps. Silence. She shimmers in the light of the arc-lamps. And for many of us who remember Tan Tan's dance half a generation ago, the moment has a heart-swelling poignance; we are watching a spirit rise to remind us of the beauty of an age irretrievably past.

As Miss Universe glides towards the stage, the crew is unloading Son of Saga Boy from the truck, his black feathers glistening as though wet.

We are through the barriers and at the foot of the ramp, in the full glare of the lights but hidden from the Grand Stand audience. Minshall and his black-clad lieutenants and the crew are huddled around. Peter Samuel, Minshall's longtime king and now the leader of his own band, walks up and grabs the masman by the shoulders. "Relax!" Jenna's been released from her harness; she stares up at the stage, waiting for her cue.

Then someone gives the signal. We run round to the Grand Stand so we can see her make her entrance.

Back at the Callaloo camp, Son of Saga Boy sits grinning, his mask-like face etched with symbols: hearts, stars, crescent moons, and a red AIDS ribbon in the middle of his forehead. Kerwin Paul, the young king, is standing nearby. Alyson Brown goes up to him, fixes him with her eyes. "You frighten? Tell me."

The Callaloo team has been working on Son all last night and all today, and he still isn't quite finished. When they try to strap Kerwin into the frame, something doesn't sit right, doesn't fit. A stepladder, tools: the builders are frantically making adjustments. Tension is building. More and more people gather round to see. The head is crooked; one of the long plumes trailing behind has been fixed at the wrong angle. Minshall is looking on grimly. He turns and says to the person behind him, "To cut a long story short, I'm going to start doing mas on wheels."

They try a second time to get Kerwin into his harness, to make Son stand. Again, something is wrong. Kerwin emerges drenched with sweat. Everyone is exhausted. After the apparent ease with which Miss Universe came to life, Son's birthing pangs are almost painful to watch. But this is no new story with Minshall: how many kings and queens were assembled only on the track here at the Savannah, with minutes to go before their cues?

Then it's finally finished: the last bolt is tightened, knots adjusted, the engineers have done their job. Son of Saga Boy stands--pauses--takes his first careful step, then another and another. The crowd gasps and now people are running to see him, but he's already heading for the stage.

One of the other bands has brought a tassa side, and they're playing not too far off, drowning out the music from the stage. And one of Son's handlers starts to clap in time to the rhythm--this is the first time Kerwin has worn the costume, there's been no time to practise, he's literally just learning to walk. And Son starts to chip along and then it just happens: he finds his stride, he starts to move, he's alive, and a spasm of joy hits us all. Big, tired, hard-bitten men and women start to laugh and cry out and skip with delight, and the drums are rolling and Son is prancing, and I'm speechless and my heart is in my throat and I nearly want to sit down and cry. But everyone is following him to the stage, and I hear Alyson say to somebody, "You not proud of your boy?"

At the ramp, once again, everyone has to wait, and I can't tear my eyes away. Behind the barrier some of Kerwin's friends are screaming his name. He hears them and gives them a quick smile. As he waits for his cue, it feels like everyone's heart is beating in time, and he edges up the ramp, his handlers helping him support the weight till the very last moment, and all the photos I'm taking are ruined by the trembling of my hands. I remember I want to see him from the Grand Stand, so I run, and I just make it.

As he lunges onto the stage a roar goes up, and I'm shouting too. And all I can think is how beautiful he is, and then I think this thought as well: whatever else I've never managed to do or have or see, I saw Son of Saga Boy take his first joyful steps, here, tonight in the Savannah.

Say what:

Friday, February 17, 2006

Minshall's queen and king

jenna & miss universe

Jenna-Marie Andre waits at the foot of the ramp to cross the Savannah stage as Miss Universe at the Carnival King and Queen Competition, preliminary round, Thursday 16 February

kerwyn & son of saga boy

Kerwin Paul waits to cross the stage as Son of Saga Boy

Say what:

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mas camp journal, part 2

sacred heart cones

Metal cones waiting to become Sacred Heart helmets

It's maybe twenty to eight by the time we park outside the Callaloo Company mas camp in Chaguaramas. We pick our way to the gate round a vast puddle, and into the bright, warm hanger, full of people and noise, conversation and the whines and roars of power-tools. The key people look like they haven't slept in days, and you can almost smell the adrenaline (or are those glue fumes?).

At the far end of the space, two heads are being sculpted out of fibreglass. Closer to hand, a team of four people is arduously threading an eight- or nine-foot spiral of wire into a cloth accordion--a giant puppet's limb. It's the night before the Carnival king and queen preliminaries, and Son of Saga Boy and Miss Universe--the king and queen of The Sacred Heart--are still being assembled, major structural decisions thrashed out on the spot.

I report for volunteer duty, and am assigned to what turns out to be a hairdressing class. Each helmet for the Bruised Heart section requires a sort of wig made from a raffia-like material. A determined young woman tries to show me how to bundle the raffia into clumps, sew it, braid and wrap and trim and weave it. I know already I'll never be able to do this. Wig-making is not a skill I've managed to acquire. I ask meekly if there's anything else I can do, some menial, repetitive task.

Yes: someone has to cut three hundred three-quarter-inch strips of black foam "rubber", somehow crucial to the internal architecture of the wigs. I find a corner of a worktable, a steel ruler, an ice-pick to score the sheets of foam, a scissors. I put my head down and get to work.

My little corner is a shoal of calm in a sea of energy. I half overhear many discussions. Someone asks K--- the artist whether the helmets will heat up in the sun and melt the wigs. "Don't worry about that, it's gonna rain." C--- the production manager escorts a young man to the neighbouring table. "This is the king. He wants to help. I don't want him working with metal in case he damages his hands." Other people come over to scrutinise the detailed drawings pinned up on a board, figuring out where to put a stitch, insert a rivet. Metal cones which will soon be "samurai" helmets pile up in a corner.

Then: the Voice. He must have come in the back entrance. Genius is entitled to be agitated the night before his work makes its public debut. The lieutenants scurry back and forth carrying fragments and samples for his inspection. "Somebody get Minshall a glass of water!" Out of the corner of my eye I see him smiling at the metalworkers.

It's nearly midnight by the time I've finished my three hundred foam strips. They're neatly bundled and bagged and labelled and stowed on a shelf. I take a walk down to the other end of the hanger to see what's going on. The air is thick with fibreglass dust.

The regular costume builders are starting to go home. The king and queen teams will be here all night. Tomorrow Son of Saga Boy and Miss Universe must dance at the Savannah.

(See Georgia's Callaloo Company mas camp photos here.)

Say what:
sacred heart helmet

Helmet prototype for Minshall's Sacred Heart, Callaloo Company headquarters, Chaguaramas

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Through the Looking-Glass

I'm sitting at my desk, frowning at my laptop screen, trying to write a particularly tricky email.

K--- sticks his head round the door.

"You heard Ato Boldon is a UNC senator? They swore him in today."

I laugh. How do these ridiculous rumours get started, I ask myself.

I pick up the phone. I call A---.

"Erm--have you been looking at the TV this afternoon, heard any news?"

"You mean about Ato Boldon being appointed a UNC senator? It's the funniest thing I've heard in weeks."

"You mean it's true?"

"It was on the radio. And Roger Boynes congratulated him."

My first thought: I need to go home and go to bed.

My second thought: No, I have to sit by the phone. They might be calling to ask me to be a senator next, the rate this thing going.

(Of course is Jack set the whole thing up.)

"In this year was the great mortality
of birds," they noted in the chronicle.
If all kinds of winged things fell from the sky,
would quietness be more remarkable
for happening by flashes? Just today,
today you are, are beautiful. Don't wish
for more: to look like this again: why choose
to be some history? Can you fix this list:
what influences and what can be used?
Different as kissing is from being kissed.

-- Vahni Capildeo

(From the February issue of The Caribbean Review of Books)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

So I spent the afternoon working on the production of a massive performance art project--which is to say, I spent the afternoon down at the Callaloo Company mas camp in Chaguaramas, snipping sheets of galvanised zinc into little rectangles that will eventually become studs for the chaps for Minshall's Sacred Heart costumes. I have blisters on two fingers and the thumb of my right hand, from the heavy metal shears--see, I too have suffered for the sake of art.

sacred heart mas camp

Galvanised zinc and red ribbon at the Callaloo Company mas camp, Chaguaramas

I pull up at the mas camp--housed in a World War Two-era aircraft hanger that used to be part of the US military base in Chaguaramas--around half past one, in a drizzle so gentle all it does is cool the air. Two weeks till Carnival weekend, and nine hundred costumes (plus a king and queen) to build--I expect to find barely contained chaos, but instead everyone is relaxed, not a furrowed brow in sight.

Costume prototypes lie around on tables or hang from rails; Minshall's sketches are pinned up on a long noticeboard, with scribbled notes, photos, swatches of ribbon. At a long row of worktables, people are cutting and measuring and sanding and driving rivets. A tame parrot creeps across the floor and climbs the lower rungs of a ladder. From the backyard come the sounds of welding and pounding.

I explain I'm here to volunteer. Someone hands me a pair of shears and points me to a rough wooden stool. The metal sheets are marked off into strips about two inches wide; as soon as I get the hang of the shears, I'm snipping away at assembly-line rate, and as blisters form I wrap my fingers with layers of masking tape.

On the one hand, it's drudge work--tonight my back will ache, and I'll be lucky to get through the afternoon without drawing any of my own blood. On the other, it's calming simply to attend to my task, concentrating on metal and blade, trusting that this is an essential part of a greater whole. And near the back of my head, this thought: snip by snip, I'm entering capital-H History.

I've brought a thermos of green tea, and after a couple of hours I stop for a biscuit break. I wander around a table where four or five women are cutting lengths of ribbon and trimming the edges of small metal discs. I try on the prototype helmet--a sort of metal cone with a padded "doughnut" inside, a black foam-rubber neck-guard, and dangling red ribbon "dreadlocks". I ask myself if I'll really be able to parade through Port of Spain for a whole day with this thing wedged on my head, but I already know I will. We all will. A--- walks over and I get her to try on the helmet. Not such an easy fit, it turns out, for someone with a real head of dreads. Two tech people come over, fiddle with the "doughnut" and the cloth straps that hold the whole thing together. Poor A--- is now their manikin as they debate whether to make the straps longer, or adjust the position of the velcro tab.

Back to my table. I haven't kept count, but I've cut--what, six hundred of these little sharp-edged rectangles of zinc? I finally find out what section they're for: the Rainbow Heart.

Maybe next time I come, they'll let me tie ribbons instead.

Say what:

Saturday, February 11, 2006

bdos pride

Barbados pride tree in bloom, Queen's Park Savannah (opposite Casuals Club corner), Port of Spain

It seemed the rainy season would never end this year, but two Fridays ago, walking in downtown Port of Spain, I realised it finally had. And today was one of those gorgeous February Saturdays--breezy, bright, blue-skyed--that make you glad to live on a tropical island, and remind you what the best childhood holidays were like.

After lunch at Martin's in Newtown, we went for a walk round the Savannah. Over at the Grand Stand, they were sound-checking for whatever tonight's show might be, but that was soon drowned out by a steelband--over from Tobago for tomorrow's Panorama semi-finals--who had set up on the grass just opposite All Saints' church and were practising the opening of their big tune.

A few strollers stopped to listen. Nearby, some people in blue t-shirts were playing a very modest sort of cricket fete-match, and a little further down two pasty fellas were fooling around with a softball and bat. (Well, that was the first time I've ever seen someone play softball in the Savannah.) We walked up to what I still think of as Casuals Club corner-- though the old building was razed years ago--snapping photos, looking at cricketers off in the distance, smudges of white against the green, and basking in the loveliness of the afternoon, inhaling that old Savannah smell of cut grass and "dust" that for me has Proustian powers of memory-wakening.

On our way home we stopped at the Minshall bandhouse on Ariapita Avenue, to scrutinise the Sacred Heart drawings (after peeping at the bad scans online all week). I'd been leaning towards Greed and Power, which reminds me of old-time robber mas, but I'm worried about that heavy black tunic in the Carnival Tuesday sun ("But you know with Minshall part of the point is suffering for the sake of the vision"). Besides, wouldn't it be better to play in a section representing something good and hopeful?

So now it looks like the Singing Heart, with those red-ribbon fringes and the little grackle emblem.

(3Canal: "This place bless / this place nice."

Sometimes, sometimes.)

saturday savannah steel

Bass drums stacked in the Queen's Park Savannah the day before Panorama semi-finals
B.C. Pires: "A lot of these people here are demonstrating against the Prime Minister, but I am demonstrating for the Prime Minister because I think he doesn't have enough room. I mean, there is still a security threat and I find he should incorporate Coblentz Avenue as well, then take the Hilton so he will have more room for when guests come.

"He should take the Savannah, because then he can have a heliport. He should take part of Maraval because he could then go up to Paramin.

"I think he should take over all of Trinidad and call it Patrick Manning and Tobago."

(What--he don't deserve Tobago too? And what about carving the visage of the Father of the Nation into Lady Chancellor Hill, a hundred feet tall or so, with six-foot dimples and searchlights set into the eyes--so we'll know he's always looking down on us?)

Friday, February 10, 2006

hosay tadjah 1

Panchaitee tadjah, St. James, Hosay 2006

I get down to Western Main Road at about half past four, just in time to see the first tadjah cross Long Circular Road and enter St. James proper, as the Hosay procession returns from the prayer ceremony at the Queen's Royal College grounds in St. Clair. (The location seems odd only until you realise that Hosay in St. James predates the founding of QRC by a couple of decades, and until the end of the 19th century what became the college grounds was open pasture.) The tadjahs have been out since early afternoon, proceeding from their respective yards to QRC via Serpentine Road; now, as the afternoon heat recedes and a lovely dry-season breeze sighs down from the hills, a crowd is gathering to watch the end of the procession.

One by one, heralded by their tassa sides and escorted by their supporters, the five tadjahs slowly nudge forward; their order of precedence is supposed to be determined by the seniority of the five "families" who build them and follow the traditional rituals: Cocorite first, then Panchaitee, Gulam Hussain, Balma, and finally Bis (short for Bisnath). At the head of the procession are the two moons, red and green: heavy fan-shaped standards perhaps six feet tall, decorated on one side with the Islamic star and crescent, on the other with ornate patterns of sequins, and crowned with peacock feathers. They represent Hussain (red moon), the grandson of the Prophet martyred at Kerbala in 680 AD, and his brother Hassan (green moon) murdered with poison eleven years earlier. (Hosay is the commemoration of Hussein's death on the 10th day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar; the ceremony was brought to Trinidad by Shiite Indians beginning in 1845, groups of whom settled in St. James, which was once a village west of Port of Spain and is now the city's westernmost district.)

The moon dancers are solemn-looking men, who seem to hold themselves apart from the rest of the procession. Though the boom and peal of the tassas fills the air, the moons seem to move in auras of silence. The dancers--leather harnesses and towels padding their shoulders, shoeless feet protected by thick white socks--take turns hoisting the heavy moons on their backs and spinning them round and round: this is the dance. The strain of the weight shows on the men's faces, and the strongest of them manages just five or six spins before he surrenders the burden to his successor. Once the spinning starts, the momentum is hard to control, and sometimes the moon hurtles towards the crowd, adults scattering and children pushing.

I walk down the length of the procession and back again. I decide Gulam Hussain has the best tassa side--the most players and the most energetic, all wearing orange t-shirts that read "1846-2006 / 160 years". But Panchaitee's tadjah, gold and white, impresses me most. The tadjahs--elaborately decorated floats--represent Hussain's tomb, with minarets and domes, windows and doorways, and sequins flickering in the breeze.

A little girl in pink darts past me. Her mother laughs, talking to a friend. "Yes, her first time."

I'm halfway down Western Main Road by now, and the crowd spills from the pavement into the street, closed to traffic. Though Hosay is a Shiite holiday, the citizens of St. James have joined in, regardless of faith, for decades. The moon dancers are all Muslim, but the tassa drummers and the supporters pushing the tadjahs and the many spectators are, well, Trinidadian, which means as diverse as you can imagine. Young men with cornrows in basketball jerseys, a Hindu woman in a sari, middle-aged men in Phase II t-shirts laden with bling, Rastas in tams, teenaged girls in tight denim, old women in headscarves, men in ties and women in suits wandering from their offices, and many children clutching the pinwheels that for some reason have become a Hosay tradition. And Hosay itself has become a way to affirm a kind of community spirit, something shared by everyone in St. James.

The tassas are meant to be war drums, someone tells me, but they don't sound angry; they sound, well, joyful, though Hosay is supposed to commemorate a tragic event. And though few people dance, everyone is smiling and joking; the sky is blue and gentle, pigeons swirl overhead, and the drums are the pulse of life, not a mourning dirge or a call to battle.

As I meander through the crowd, pausing to snap a photo or look at the drummers, two thoughts simmer in my mind. First: the impossibility that Hosay and Carnival can have co-existed in Port of Spain for a century and a half without some kind of cross-pollination. My creole eyes see the tadjahs and think of kings and queens of the bands; from a distance the moons remind me of fancy Indians with their huge fan-shaped feather headdresses.

Second: the remoteness of the scene I'm in the midst of--the tadjahs' stately grace, the moondancers' dervish-like devotions, the sense of friendship and neighbourliness animating the now-thronged street, Hindus and Catholics and Protestants and Rastafarians helping to beat the drums that commemorate the death of the Prophet's grandsons--the remoteness of all this from the image of Islam that's preoccupied the world these recent weeks. And I think: this place is a mess, yes, but we've figured a few things out.

And, as happens more and more as I get older and try harder to understand the world, I think this too: I don't really want to be anywhere else.

As dusk settles, the procession breaks up and the tadjahs turn down the side streets to their yards. On Monday, Teejah Day, they'll emerge one more time, heading down to the sea at Invaders Bay, where they'll be dismantled and submerged.

The crowd of spectators has gradually turned into the usual Friday night crowd. I walk down to the far end of Western Main Road and catch a taxi, and head for home.

hosay tassa

Balma tassa side, St. James, Hosay 2006

hosay moon

Dancing the red moon with the Gulam Hussain tadjah in the distance, St. James, Hosay 2006
Keith Smith: Has the Manning administration become so smug in the face of protracted UNC disunity and present and projected petroleum revenues that it now believes it can do any damned thing?

NL: Yes, it has.

3Canal: "Doomsday reach, better find your retreat / 'cause the children coming to take back the street."

(Faster, Lord, faster.)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

3canal 4

Monday night, the Little Carib Theatre

As we stroll up White Street past the Little Carib stage door, we weave through a handful of young men warming up their voices, practising their harmonies. At their panyard a block away, Invaders are warming up too, chords floating by as though with the breeze.

There's a small, laid-back crowd on the Roberts Street corner--mostly friends and relatives of the performers, a few journalists and photographers hanging around, looking like they haven't been getting enough sleep. It's eight, and the 3Canal show starts in half an hour, but the main doors aren't open yet. It's preview night, so no one's bothered.

L--- the features writer and D--- the photographer are chatting about The Brand New Lucky Diamond Horseshoe Club, which opens on Wednesday. L--- is wearily nibbling a currant roll. D---'s been to a couple of Lucky Diamond rehearsals. "It's going to be a scandal," he says, eyes twinkling.

At the far end of Roberts Street the illuminated cranes swing lazily over the site of One Woodbrook Place. Mr. Manning says we need more tall buildings, and fast, so they're working the night shift.

The theatre's only half full when we get in, and we snag a spot on the right-hand side, second row. (Last year and the year before, coming to the show near the end of the run when houses were packed, I had to sit up in what you might call the gods.) Here we're ten feet from the stage, with a prime view of the jamettes--Cecilia Salazar, Dionne McNicol, and Tonya Evans--and the Cut + Clear musicians, and the Canals themselves when they bound on amidst smoke and flashing lights.

From the start, the energy is high and the licks are hot. 3Canal's music has always pulsed with political commentary and moral fervour, and in previous years the show took aim at all manner of public hypocrisy, but this year the edge is sharper and the thrust is angrier. The lyrics are plainspoken: "The people not taking that", says one song, "What you gonna do when the people come for their millions?" asks another (dedicated, Wendell says with a grin, to "Smiley and Eric", a.k.a. ex Cabinet ministers Franklyn Khan and Eric Williams, both under investigation on bribery charges).

Song after song, the Canals lash out at corrupt politicians, corporate fat cats, criminal ganglords, and every kind of authority figure betraying the public trust. And song after song, they link their protest to the tradition of Carnival "resistance", the confrontational "warrior spirit" of J'Ouvert, of the blue devil, the sly subversiveness of masquerades like the midnight robber, the Dame Lorraine, the jab jab. This music isn't merely angry--it's optimistic. It has faith in justice and hope for redemption and trust in the goodness of ordinary people, and it evokes the wrath of the almighty. ("When judgement come / we dropping the bomb".) It is the kind of music you'd want to hear on the barricades, and while Stanton and Roger and Wendell are on stage--tall and strong and fierce, their eyes flashing fire and their waists working up an irreverent rhythm, smoke swirling around and strobe lights transfixing the audience--for each song's duration, at least, the capital-R Revolution seems possible.

And just that morning an email had arrived in my inbox, forwarded via a string of acquaintances, announcing plans to resist Mr. Manning's attempt to seize the President's Grounds--a small park in St. Ann's, just outside the walls of the official residence of the prime minister, and used as a playing field by generations of sportsmen and schoolchildren--to seize the President's Grounds and incorporate that public open space into the prime minister's private garden, because Mr. Manning and his nepotite wife apparently feel their flowerbeds are not quite grand enough to match their combined dignity. Perhaps Mr. Manning thought no one would mind, or more likely he simply doesn't care, but the people of St. Ann's and Cascade do mind, and tomorrow morning at half past six--when the birds are still singing their dawn chorus and the foreday dew is still on the grass--they will walk up and down in front of Mr. Manning's big gate to make sure he understands that they don't intend to let him take their park.

In the second row at the Little Carib, bobbing up and down in my seat and smiling at the Canals on the stage, I think of the President's Grounds; and of the Red House, which Mr. Manning wants to turn into his private office, evicting Parliament; and of the cricket stadium in Tarouba that no one but Mr. Manning wants; and of the aluminium smelter that the people of Cedros are up in arms against; and of the skyscrapers going up in downtown Port of Spain that Mr. Manning says will make us into a developed nation; and of the multi-million-dollar blimp that Mr. Manning says will keep us safe from crime; and of all the other instances of Mr. Manning's megalomania that have proven--if we doubted--how little respect he has for even the appearances of democracy, and have proven--for perhaps we still need to be convinced--the bankruptcy of our politics; and I thought, lower-case or capital R, the Revolution cannot come soon enough.

Their critics say 3Canal's message is naive, their lyrics jingoistic slogans. Certainly a line like "The people not taking that" can't be described as subtle. But surely the time for subtlety is long past in this bacchanal pappyshow nation. The juggernaut of the Manning dictatorship--and that's more and more what this feels like--might be halted now only by a critical mass of real public anger, by enough people deciding they really aren't taking "that" anymore. And if (there was once a time I would have said "when") we do reach that point, well, I'll just say the soundtrack on my own barricade will be 3Canal.

They sing "Ben Lion" (with Christine Tanker in the audience), and, tantalisingly, the first verse of "Las' Carnival", but as always, it's "Talk Yuh Talk" that really works up the crowd. "Run your run, now is Armageddon...." By the curtainless curtain-call everyone's on their feet, and then the show is over.

In the lobby of the Little Carib someone hands us plastic cups of wine, but I take just a sip or two. I see L--- the writer again; she's grimacing with a migraine. Outside on Roberts Street the cool air is still fresh with the melodies of Invaders. Two blocks west, the construction cranes have shut down for the night.
I find myself strangely drawn to Greed and Power....

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Monday, February 06, 2006

3canal 2

3Canal, preview night, Vibes It Up, Little Carib Theatre, Port of Spain
Until the last week of last month, I was all set to play with a steelband. Wherever Carnival was, I knew it wasn't in the costumed bands I played with for all those years that were now playing with me, and the whole country.

And then, out of the blue, Minshall announced he was bringing a band. And my head hurts and I hope it isn't Bird Flu, but my heart is soaring. The debt this country owes Minshall is as nothing compared with mine. When I thought it had all been lost, he would never bring a band again, I would never get the chance to make the real, true, spiritual connection with the best thing we ever made, our own Carnival, at the very end of the rope, at last, at last, thank God, after 30 years of involvement in Trinidad Carnival, I'm going to play a real mas, thanks be to Minsh!

-- From B.C. Pires's essay "Making Minsh-meat of Carnival", in the February Trinidad and Tobago Review, published today (but sadly not online).

(Also in this new TTR: my review of Rupert Roopnaraine's book Primacy of the Eye: The Art of Stanley Greaves; a shorter version appears in the February Caribbean Review of Books, and perhaps this week I'll get around to posting it online.)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

12 songshine

12 the band performing at Trevor's Edge, St. Augustine

As we start to get near to St. John's Road, we join a parade of traffic. It's Panorama judging night at Exodus panyard, and the crowd spills out onto the Main Road, and, lordy, where will we park? We find a lucky spot round the corner. Are we the only ones not here to hear pan?

Trevor's Edge, the little dive just above Eastern Main Road, used to be called Tony's Tavern (sign outside: "Since 1984 and still escalating"). In my UWI days I used to come here sometimes for a whisky and soda--those were my whisky-drinking days--or a roast beef sandwich--those were also my carnivorous days.

I don't know who Trevor is, or why he's on edge, but apart from moving the bar to the northern side of the room and crowning it with an aquarium of alarmed-looking goldfish, he's pretty much preserved Tony's aesthetic: dark, smoky, the low ceiling painted black. On the eastern side of the room there's a small stage--well, a platform a few inches high, a black-curtain backdrop decorated with gilt-paper stars, and a couple of simple spotlights.

The place is packed, though it doesn't take too many to pack it. I fight to get noticed at the bar. Some friends who got here early have a table right in the middle of things, and I manoeuvre into a chair.

A--- the photographer has never heard 12 perform; she's talking to R--- the designer. "What kind of music?" "I call it alternative calypso."

The programme starts with an open-mike session: a couple of fresh-faced poets; twin sisters who do a kind of operatic rap number; a rapso artist who calls himself Big Bamboo.

Then the lights go down and come back up, and there's Sheldon Holder in his trademark red track jacket with the white arm-stripes, and there's the band, and they look relaxed and excited at once.

There's a BBC producer in the house tonight, recording material for a radio documentary, pointing a big fuzzy mike.

And as they start to play, the sound for a moment seems shockingly big for such a small room, and I wonder how we'll all fit--all these bodies packed in plus the music--and then I stop wondering and just listen.

The last time I heard them play was the end of December, a festive gig where everyone was sexy and glittering and somehow impossibly distant. But there's something cosy about tonight--no one's more than twenty feet from the stage, and everyone's coddled in the warmth of the bodies of strangers.

And as the room pulses and hums to the now-familiar songs, I think how much I enjoy seeing Sheldon on stage--his big, serious eyes, his side-to-side bob, the little wine he sometimes breaks into behind his guitar. And Johnny Hussain on lead guitar is never not brilliant, but tonight he's tossing off miracles without breaking a sweat. And my favourite moment comes when Sheldon looks back at Johnny's fingers on the fret, and he can't suppress a wide-eyed grin.

And a hundred feet away in the dewy night, Exodus prepares to open the gates of the divine: the keys are steel and flesh and nerves.

And in here I'm clutching A---'s camera bag in my lap, and someone I don't know is jamming my chair, and later my clothes will stink of tobacco, and Sheldon's big, boldfaced voice pleads and cajoles us into smiles.

"I trying myself not to let it blow my mind / my good Trinidad mind."

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Applause. Slowly--almost wincingly--he climbs the three or four steps to the stage, a young woman hovering at his arm. He is dressed in black from head to toe. 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."

Minshall. At the Central Bank auditorium Friday morning, delivering the feature address at the opening of an exhibition of photos: Noel Norton's classic images of George Bailey and Harold Saldenah's mas of the 1960s. But "address" is far too staid a word for the performance Minshall puts on. As ever with Minshall, this is theatre, and all the elements are there: script, movement, lights, music, dance, and the drama of his eyes and voice and mind. "The Artist and the Mas": that is the title of his piece, but clearly for Minshall "artist" and "mas" are broad enough terms that anything might be worked in--and is, with a virtuoso's flourish.

There is some fumbling with the microphone, and a technician emerges onto the stage to run a wire under Minshall's shirt. A look of delighted surprise on the masman's face. Laughter.

"In a world that's mastered by technology, in a world where we live the life of the three screens, the movie screen, the TV screen, the computer screen, and everything is push a button, push a button, push a button--the world that we inhabit here in this island, our energy is human energy. The button you press in the world of the mas is the belly button."

He begins with his birth in Georgetown, British Guiana, in 1941 (but "I was conceived in Trinidad!"), then leaps forward to his fourth birthday: 16 July, 1945, the day the first A-bomb was tested in New Mexico--at a test site called Trinity. "Man made and saw his brightest light ever." He spins a dizzy web of connections and coincidences: the cosmic dance of Shiva, the Trinity Cross, mankind's origins in Africa. And then his Genesis: a version of the creation myth in which God is an artist working in a darkened studio, a divine workshop that sounds much like a mas camp, where band sections like Stars and Planets and Oceans and Mountains get built before the masman turns to his masterpiece, the king of the band, a creature called Man.

"He do so--and he make the little ankle and the two little foot, the little toenails, no two the same size ... and he come so and he do the knees and the thighs and the torso [moulding an invisible body with his hands]--and the bellybutton [a lick of the finger, a poke]--the two nipples, the shoulders, the arms, the muscles--wait, nah! And the inside! So complicated! And the outside! Matching together! Coming up--the ears, the little earlobes, all of that fancy thing there [tracing the curves of his own ears]--the mouth, the nose, the eyes, the eyelashes, the hair on the head.

"And God do so--[stepping back and admiring his handiwork]. And God say: Walk."

One awkward, lunging step.

"And God say: Dance."

Two or three elegant moves, Bob Fosse style.

"And God say: Sing. And the thing open he mouth and make a sound prettier than any bird song that God self did make.

"And God next wish--he didn't even have to speak, God think the next wish, God think: Think.

"And the little fella head open--with that wondrous thought he looked at the beauty of the universe all around him.

"And God, the greatest artist of all time, did not then say: Kneel.

"So, artist to artist [looking up]: I don't kneel down no more."

Every now and then, he remembers he has a written speech waiting for him at the podium, and he slips on his glasses and reads in polished tones. But when some image or phrase catches his excitement, he pounces to the centre of the stage, and leaves his script far behind. His stream of ideas is just as nimble, flowing from religion to politics to the question of social justice; from urban planning to Megasthenes describing Holi in India two thousand years ago; from a powerful denunciation of the plan to erect a Carnival "centre" in the Savannah to a breathtakingly sharp assessment of the work of Leroy Clarke (his paintings "will never dance in the street"); from a story about wearing a fancy sailor suit to a London gallery opening back in the 70s to the memory of George Bailey's black Queen Elizabeth from Merrie England, stepping from a golden coach wearing an orange wig made from old rope. "A wig to fit our own head."

And all his arguments thrust towards this belief: that "the mas", "living art that we make fresh every year", is the highest and deepest artistic expression of Trinidad. "Our aesthetic is performance, the living now." And this aesthetic is also an epistemological imperative: Carnival is the chance, once a year, "to be who we are in our own heads", to truly understand ourselves. And here in the Caribbean, "we are at the tip of the spear that leads to the future."

And his voice resounds and his eyes burn like a prophet's, and I'm freshly amazed at the audacity and optimism of this creed, and I wonder what would happen if enough of us believed.

The audience gives him a standing ovation, and a few musicians come on playing old-time calypso. Minshall dances off the stage, and on a screen overhead is projected rare footage of mas in the Savannah in the 60s.

I step out of the Central Bank's cool lobby onto St. Vincent Street, and walk up the block to Independence Square. The noonday sun blazes down, and Port of Spain, as always, is noisy, dirty, and alive. It feels like the dry season has finally started. And this great thought rides a surge of impatient thrill through all my nerves and veins: Carnival is coming.
In Freeport last Saturday in one of the preliminary rounds of the stickfight competition, I watched stickmen contend for a measly $500.

And little boys staring in fascination at these dancing warrior men. And the air filled with the sound of drums and a chantwell with a high but gravelly, sweet lavway. And the singers who give the response to his call. And the people crowd round the gayelle shouting "bois!" Braksing from blows they do not feel.

And I said to myself, self, this is your Carnival.

And I was struck with terror that this is the root that we are allowing to die. This idea of Carnival as resistance and defiance and warrior spirit is dying a slow painful death and being replaced by fake breasts that are more obscene than any Dame Lorraine.

-- Attillah Springer, in her column in today's Guardian.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

On Carnival & Learning to Be Free

My earliest Carnival memory is actually an Ash Wednesday memory: it's of walking with my parents round the Savannah and seeing dozens of discarded wings from Peter Minshall's band Papillon scattered across the grass & along the road. An armada of giant butterflies had passed through the Savannah the day before, and not all of them had survived. It was 1982; I was not yet seven. Chances are I'd actually seen the band on the road the day before, but what caught in my brain was the sight of its aftermath.

In many ways, I've come to Carnival too late.

My great-aunts on my father's mother's side lived in Woodbrook, on Cornelio Street, half a block down from the main parade route along Ariapita Avenue. For years my idea of Carnival was spending the day at that house, keeping watch from the front gallery, listening for the music trucks, running up to the corner when a band was passing and looking on enthralled, then retreating till the next band came by. The TV would be on in the drawing-room, so we could also watch the bands in the Savannah, and an assortment of aunts and uncles and cousins would arrive and disappear and arrive again. I'd always keep an eye out for pieces of costumes dropped in the streets, and bring them home like trophies. The only one I've kept to this day is the head of a Minshall jumbie, picked up on Ariapita Avenue in 1988 and now propped up beside the bookcase, staring at me as I type.

When I was a child my mother played with Edmond Hart a few times; one year, I remember, her costume involved frills of flowers made from red and pink cloth, and gold leather boots. But it never occurred to me that one day I might play mas; I always thought of myself as a spectator, one of the people lining the pavement.

Around the mid-90s--my early 20s--I stopped going into Woodbrook on Carnival Tuesday. Maybe I was responding half-consciously to the great shift, clear in hindsight, that was happening just then, as the "golden age" that started after the Second World War--the age of Saldenah, Bailey, Edmond and Lil Hart, Aming, Lee Heung, Chang, Berkeley, and Minshall, the great designers and bandleaders whose extravaganzas gave birth to the idea of Carnival as a national festival that brought classes, races, and creeds together in celebration of life--as that wonderful age sputtered to a close, and gave way to the current age of the Carnival of investors and entrepreneurs and marketing strategies. Or maybe my youthful enthusiasm for the spectacle was simply overwhelmed by my natural distaste for crowds and heat and dust and noise. For a decade or so, I sat Carnival out--went to the beach, hid at home reading, tried to ignore the whole thing until we were safely into Lent. But always, always, I made sure that on Carnival Tuesday evening--Minshall's traditional hour--I was near a TV so I could watch his band cross the Savannah stage. I never missed it. Since Papillon, I've seen every Minshall band, in the flesh or via the cathode-ray tube.

In 2004, Minshall didn't bring out a band--he'd given up, people said--and it was the first year I left Trinidad for Carnival. I went to St. Lucia to visit some friends, had a wonderful time, and on Carnival Tuesday evening I was sitting on the beach at Reduit sipping a Piton, watching the sun set behind Pigeon Island, and thinking, I'm not missing a thing.

Last year I played J'Ouvert.

That's an abrupt transition, but I don't know how to make the segue. I didn't really plan to, didn't change my mind about anything; it was an odd time, barriers and bonds were dissolving in my life and in my mind, a couple of friends decided at the last minute to play, and I just went along. It was probably the only way it could have happened. I'd never done it before, never wanted to before, but it was brilliant, and nearly twelve months later I can see it was a real and important bend in the road. I left the house at one in the morning, drove into Woodbrook, put on a wire devil's tail, covered myself first in cocoa then in mud, and ran out into the streets, and in more ways than one I never looked back. Dawn found me on Park Street; we drove down to Macqueripe and washed our mud away, and I came home and slept and woke up and knew that something was not the same.

Last year was full of changes and decisions; and I turned thirty, and discovered I finally felt my age. Last year was a rough year for all kinds of reasons that even my closest friends don't know, but on 31 December I looked back and thought, I've had a real year's worth of it, and a good one. And I won't, of course, say this all started on J'Ouvert morning--life isn't so neat. I will say that going out and playing J'Ouvert and giving in to the weirdness and loveliness of the whole thing, and deciding my worries and misgivings weren't important enough to stop me, that was symbolic of a great change in my life and the way I face up to the world.

Last J'Ouvert I felt something I hadn't realised till then I'd never really felt before: freeness, that quintessential Trinidadian quality. And (I think) I finally understood what it means.

This year (I think!) I'm joining The Sacred Heart--I'm finally going to play mas. It's a strange time to be making my Carnival debut. Minshall's return feels like the end of something, the last gasp of an age that can't be revived (but this is Minshall--what a gasp it will be). I don't like the beast that Carnival's becoming, a creature of profit margins and costumes pre-assembled in Asia and all-"inclusive" bands that are instruments of class warfare. Friends who've been playing mas for years say the Carnival they love is gone; so many people say they just don't feel it anymore. Maybe I've come to Carnival too late.

But the mere fact of Minshall's return this year seems to have energised and awoken dozens--hundreds?--of people. And I have to believe that Carnival's subversive, revolutionary element--the Canboulay lineage, not the Mardi Gras--can't be so easily killed, not by greed, not by fear, not by selfishness or forgetfulness. Maybe that spirit is simply biding its time, waiting until enough of us see that without it we just can't be who we are.

We: what a terrifying pronoun.

Maybe I'm just in time.