“Songshine was a kind of miracle. I was lucky enough to be part of making it happen.” — Gillian Moor
“That was the weirdest experiment I’ve had in my ten years,” my son murmurs, dazed, as we step out of the dimness of Roger Holder’s Nelson Street mas camp into the bright light outside. He’d just been surrounded by a handful of neighbourhood boys his age, rhythmically beating old biscuit tins, and menaced by a few wearing hairy, grotesque masks, until I bribed them off with a $5 bill.
The mas camp is a house of horrors. Devils, demons, zombies and corpses stare down from hooks on the walls. Cluttered desks look like Santeria workshops, with candles, icons, and mysterious tools.
“I wore this one at the prelims, last night,” says Holder with great pride. The huge, devilish head grins evilly back at me, and when he presses a button, red lights flash from a small skull.
Nearby, the torn-off heads of baby dolls are smeared with paint and nailed onto something that looks like a cape. My son, for once in his life, is speechless.
I ask to see his main king, but he refuses. It’s a secret. Nobody gets to see it until it hits the street. Plus it would scare me, he says with a laugh.
This year, most of the costumes have wings; tall, spare, with pointy tips and prominent ribs. These are not butterfly wings, but were inspired by them.
“I was taking a walk in the mountains,” explains Holder, a Paramin native and lover of the outdoors. “I saw a big butterfly...I put my finger out and it landed on it. It was like the butterfly pulled on my finger and led me up the mountain.”
He’s one of those people who are just born with an affinity for animals, and they seem to love him back. He’s got tame birds who sing at midnight, when he’s up making costumes. He boasts that he can keep any bird from flying away. Someone brought him a bird that was a notorious escape artist.
“I put him by my heart, and my heartbeat and the bird’s connected. He never flew away again.”
He also has a wild agouti that he caught in the forest without the aid of dogs.
This doesn’t mean he’s opposed to the idea of capturing his own wild meat. The skull of a wild boar sits on a counter, fangs sharp and scary, bearing a hint of glitter and paint that say it has served time as part of a costume. “I killed that one myself,” says Holder.
The skin of a caiman is nailed to a wall, cut in a way that suggests it has been worn as a shoulder adornment one year. “Yeah. We ate that one, too.”
Holder is a shoemaker by trade, the descendant of Sobo Holder, who made shoes on the same spot on Nelson Street 100 years ago.
They supply the T&T police and military services with shoes, holsters, and other leather items. But as times change, many of his contracts have gone elsewhere, and the once buzzing Holder Brothers Shoe Factory has dwindled to a staff of one—him.
“Workers died. The machines got old.” Although he has a home in Belmont, he prefers to sleep in his factory. He shows me a sheath he has made.
“I go all over the country selling these.” The “cutlass holders”, as he calls them, are his primary source of funding for his costumes, since he doesn’t ask for money from any of the 50 players in his band.
Most of them are relatives from Paramin; uncles, cousins, nephews, from more than one generation. “Family is very important to me,” he clarifies unnecessarily.
“Everything you see here is made by me. Nobody ever put a dollar or give a piece of cloth. Nobody pays for a costume. I don’t even mind if a stranger comes. He will get a costume.” He shows me an ornate Red Indian mas that he hopes someone will take on before Carnival.
Not only does he finance the band himself, but any money earned is shared among the members. He plays for love and love only.
“The other night, two of them were fighting over who gets to wear a wig. I love that!” Nonetheless, he’s quite open to any sort of support or sponsorship—hint, hint—“even if it’s just a piece of cloth or a pitch-oil tin.”
As we leave, Holder and his troupe of little devils-in-training wave an enthusiastic goodbye. I feel a trickle of joy and hope run through me. I look at the wonder on my son’s face.
He was born on the cusp between old-style mas and the new. I, on the other hand, am the child of two bandleaders and literally grew up in mas camps. My siblings and I spent a chunk of our childhood playing the fool with smelly Dunlop glue, stealing feathers, and trying in vain to wash glitter out of our hair.
I have wondered about my future grandchildren, and asked myself how I will be able to describe to them the smell of a “real” mas camp: stale coffee, smoke, velvet and dust.
How I will convince them that once upon a time people made costumes by hand; cut out shapes, glued them on, bomb-sprayed them and stuck on sequins. That since they were hand-made, each one was a tiny bit different. That once upon a time, costumes were made by real people, not stamped out on assembly lines by robots. And I thank God for people like Roger Holder.