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Book closes on Benidict Morgan, iconic mas man

Published: 
Saturday, September 23, 2017
Benidict Morgan portrays the popular Carnival character The Bookman at the staging of Camboulay.

Huddled around an old photo album in a small apartment on Nelson Street, tales flow of the extraordinary life of well-known mas man Benidict Morgan.

Two of his daughters, Annette and Christine, smile as they give story after story. It is clear how proud they are of their father, their sadness at his death at the age of 90 on August 8 mixed with the joy of so many wonderful memories.

Though he was popularly known simply as “the Original Bookman” because this was what he played for the last 20 years or so, he played all kinds of Mas throughout the course of his long life.

Christine remembers when she was a child he played the Art Gallery. “People used to stopped us all the time. On the costume there were pictures of Trinidad from long ago, the tram car, things like that. He lived for his mas. He said he played mas since he was seven,” she said.

“He played with Mac Williams, Saldenha, he played with so many bands, even Peter Minshall in Rats and River. He played sailor. He played Roman soldier. He play a mas that looked like a knight in shining armour from head to toe complete with a shield and spear.

“He was a pan man too, a Casablanca man in the early days of the band,” she added. “He had a tattoo on his arm from the band. All the old members had the same tattoo. He was proud of it.”

Christine takes out his birth certificate to show that this name is Benidict and not Benedict and that he was born on Besson Street in 1927. “His mother was Willimina Morgan, but I don’t know anything about her as she died when he was 12. After that he had to look after himself and his sister. He was a fire officer in his younger days, and then later in his life he became a prisons officer.”

Morgan was one of the few people left playing the Bookman, one of the leading figures of the Devil Band which had its heyday in our Carnival during the first decades of the 1900s.

Originally known as the mythological winged demon Beelzebub, the Bookman carries the Book of Law in one hand and a large pen in the other which he uses to record the names of the subjects of his kingdom.

In the evolution of this portrayal, Bookman characters would write the names of historical/political figures, both local and international, who they deemed to have gone to “hell” through their misdeeds.

There are just a few people left now who consistently play the Bookman. Sylvan Joseph is the main one, while Winston Daniel and his sons play a variety of Beasts, Lucifer, Satan and the Grim Reaper. There are also others who play various characters from year to year, especially the Dragon, but they are also a handful.

The Crosstown Carnival Committee has been trying to keep these traditions alive on Carnival Friday with their Dragon Festival and over the last two years tried to re-imagine Patrick Jones band, Khaki and Slate.

Notably, in 2010 there was a wonderful presentation of a number of the Devil Band characters on Carnival Sunday organised by Lari Richardson with students from UWI’s Creative Arts programme.

What does the future hold for traditions like the Bookman, will this become a figure only seen in old photos?

Or will the theatrics and splendour of this elaborate Mas find revived wings in the fertile imagination of the new generation of Mas jumbies like ten-year-old Jude Sankar, the youngest son of Mas woman Tracey Sankar, whose immediate response when he heard of Morgan’s death was: “I will play Bookman. I will play this mas for him.”

HISTORY OF BOOKMAN PORTRAYALS

Portrayals of the Devil have very early origins in our Carnival, with references as far back as 1848 in the writing of Charles Day.

By 1900 the popularity of playing the Devil was well established, though not as yet formalised into a band of characters.

A major milestone in this type of Mas came in 1906 when Patrick “Chinee” Jones, a leading Mas man and calypsonian of his time who sang under the name “Oliver Cromwell/The Lord Protector” organised the first devil band called Khaki and Slate inspired by illustrations in a copy of Dante’s Inferno.

This first Devil band included Lucifer, a Dragon, along with traditional red devils which were then renamed as imps. Over the next three decades, when this type of Mas was very popular, the number of characters increased, as did the level of drama in its portrayal.

Errol Hill records in his book Trinidad Carnival that Beelzebub/Bookman was introduced in 1923.

Jeff Henry in his book Behind the Mas writes “with a facial expression dripping with mischief and sensuality, he is an enchanting monster. His feet are hooves turned backwards. He carries an extraordinarily large book, with a large pen in hand and ink well on his heel. Bookman is Hell’s recording secretary. He wears an immaculate gown, beautifully decorated in bright colours, with sequins and embroidered gold braid. His movements are smooth and gracefully exquisite. Among his carefully chosen intricate movements are glides, spins and freezes. Occasionally he moves in slow motion. In a ethereal moment, he twirls and dips his pen in the ink well, pointing to one of the spectators and calming writing something down in his book. The action means the person he points at, or someone close to them, is going to die. The mad scramble to get out of the way when Bookman dips his pen for fresh ink is something to behold.”

Henry goes into great detail on the many characters of the Devil Band were divided into three distinct categories: Rulers/Gownmen, Beasts/Dragons and Imps. Each was introduced by a specific piece of music.

Devils bands were always led by Lucifer, then there was Beelzebub/Bookman, Satan-the Second King, Sun of the Morning and the Bride of Lucifer, who was Queen of the band and it’s only female member. There was also the Ghost figure who represented Death, and a figure known as Gentleman Jim. Next in line were the Uncaged Beasts and the Dragons known as Caged Beasts-Satan in Rage attended to by the Key Imp who unlocks the chains of the Beast. And finally there was a host of Imps whose basic costume was tight fitting with wings, tails and half masks with horns carrying an assortment of axes, scrolls, scales to weigh sin, bells, dice and cards. Imps famously portrayed elaborate rituals and dances for the Dragon to be able to cross water. Among other Devil Band characters were ones known as Billiards, the Prince of Darkness and the Wooly Man.

• Maria Nunes is a photographer and cultural activist who has a special interest in the preservation of T&T’s Carnival traditions.