Artistry vs. sexy – the mas dilemma

Beautiful … but artistic?

(photo credit: Baje International)

It is getting close to the summer Carnival season in the Caribbean and its diaspora. In the next few months, St. Vincent, St.Lucia, Barbados, Antigua, Grenada, Toronto, London and New York will all hold carnivals (whew!)

Which brings the modern reveller to the eternal dilemma – do they choose artistry – the band leaders that will actually try to depict a theme and take time over creating costumes that will represent that theme?

Or do they choose sexiness – the band leaders of the most popular, thousands-strong bands who will glam up their bikinis with the most gorgeous and expensive beads, appliques and feathers but whose dedication to a theme extends only as far as to come up with some kind of name to go with the different sections that are defined almost solely by their colour.

To be honest, I cannot remember the theme that was depicted in the last several carnivals I jumped in – not in Barbados, nor in Trinidad. I remember the colours of each costume but not the theme the colours were supposedly depicting.

Take for instance, Barbados’ Cable & Wireless Contact – one of the first major bands to launch in that island for the Crop-Over festival. The costumes are gorgeous and the entertainment on the road is going to be fantastic – Machel and Krosfyah. But what do the costumes with vague names like Radiance and Sensuous and Sassy and Virtuous really mean? What is the connection to the particular colour choices and so on?

As someone who appreciates West Indian culture and the specific artistry of the Carnival tradition it’s bothering to me that I’m part of the bikinis and beads brigade that may well be stifling the life out of the true mas.

For this reason, some designers like Trinidad’s Brian McFarlane have turned away from the bikinis and beads trend in recent years and gone in for more dramatic depictions like his 2005 Carnival presentation ‘The Washing’ (pictured below).

But … the thing about costumes that are artistic is that they are often… well, a lot of cloth. Who wants to be covered up on Carnival/Crop-Over/Caribana/Labour Day? It’s about freeing up and ‘playing yuhself’ as  Trinis would like to say.

When I see McFarlane’s costumes on the road when I was playing mas in Trinidad I am awestruck – this I thought, was true ‘high mas’. But in the boiling humidity, I was glad to be just be observing such costumes, not wearing them. Besides, my bikinis and beads were sexy!

I keep thinking there must be some happy medium. There must be out there costumes that satisfy my artistic conscience and my desire to be sexy and have minimal cloth to carry around on the road.

There are some bands that I find have done so in recent years, though none yet in my homeland unfortunately – it seems to be a straight toss-up between true artistry and sexiness here. You get either or, but not both.

However, one band I find has been pretty good with this has been Trinidad’s Carnival Tribe. Their 2007 presentation ‘Ole Time Someting Come Back Again’ was great in my estimation. The outfits were sexy yet they had a true voice and you could see what they were depicting. Yet it was not over the top or cheesy with the depictions of old time mas characters like the Red Indian, Pierrot Grenade, Fancy Sailor and the  Midnight Robber.

Take a look.

I thought it was a pretty heartening sign. I was kind of disappointed when the next year they went back to gorgeous costumes that didn’t really mean anything or attempt to depict anything. Like this one from their 2008 presentation Myths and Magic, which was called Mystique.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking modern day bandleaders for what they do … or at least, I’m trying not to knock them too hard. It would be hypocritical of me because I do jump in their bands every year and I know it’s just business. I have spoken with them and they get it – many of them came up in the carnival tradition, used to be active members of bands where they would actually help make their own costumes, enjyoing the camraderie and the smell of hot glue in the mas camps. But they are also businessmen and women and Carnival is a huge business nowadays.

I just wish that more bandleaders would find that happy medium that Tribe found in 07. I think it can be done. What says you islandistas?

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