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Minstrels, clown and Carnival of yesteryear

Published: 
Sunday, March 2, 2014
A clown band in Port-of-Spain in the 1920s.

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 inventiveness 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 elements of composition and rhythm. One of the proud ole mas characters 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 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 “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 photographs 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 Carnival 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 provided 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 devils. 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 chandlery 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 artificial beads.

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, Mystery, 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 consciousness 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, including 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 instruments of the chantwell to add to the effect. This band appeared only for one year and then was never seen again.