Wasting our money behind ‘bumsees’

by Raffique Shah
January 27, 2008

Trinidad Carnival 2005LISTENING to today’s masquerade band leaders clamour for the Government to “run more money” my thoughts fall back on yesterday’s greats-George Bailey, Harold Saldenah, Cito Velasquez, Irwin McWilliams, the Harts and the Lee Heungs, to name a handful. These creative geniuses, forerunners to Wayne Berkeley and Peter Minshall, presented generations of Trinidadians and Tobagonians with Carnival spectacles that remain forever etched in the minds of those who were fortunate to see them parade in the city.

With small armies of amateur wire benders and papier maché specialists, many of them masqueraders, these band leaders worked tirelessly for months to put on the road for two days masterpieces that could adorn art galleries anywhere in the world. What was the big prize they vied for? Up to 1960, the Band of the Year won the princely sum of $500! The increase that came in 1961 brought the winner of the coveted title $1,000. They never complained, griped or threatened to not play mas’ because “de govament” was doing nothing to help. They and their loyal fans played mas’ for love of Carnival.

Imagine young Bailey revolutionising the face of Carnival back in 1957 with Back to Africa. The seasoned McWilliams challenged Bailey with Cleopatra and the Kings. But Bailey, with themes like Relics of Egypt, Ye Saga of Merrie England, Byzantine Glory and Somewhere in New Guinea, swept the competition aside. In the meantime, Cito came west from Barataria to enter the fray in 1959 with Fruits and Flowers, McWilliams lit up the city with Wonders of Buccoo Reef-a combination of history and nature and fantasy coming alive and chipping, entertaining huge crowds of spectators. There was no cry for “de govament” to “run the money”.

Today, and for some time now, mas’ has become big business. Professionals are paid to “bend wire” in the few instances where that skill is still required (mainly in the costumes for the kings and queens of the bands). Costumes are sewn together by a battery of tailors, since we are talking here of envelope-size bikini-and-beads creations, with some sequins stuck on. Better still, they are imported in bulk from China, at costs much lower than what would obtain if they were produced here. The price to those who wish to “wine” on the streets, I am told, stands at a minimum of $3,000.

Add to the clear profits that accrue from Carnival days’ activities the many band launches that are staged from as early as October of the previous year. Mark you, some bands “launch” here a few times (I sometimes wonder if they belong to NASA, not the NCBA!), and they snare the silly in cities in North America as well.

By the end of the season, smart band leaders can afford to sit back in luxury, quite literally, and plan again for the next carnival. The only thing creative about them is the many ways they devise to make even more money the following year.

Taxpayers do not have a problem with most of these bands transporting Maracas Bay onto the streets of Port of Spain for two days of bacchanal and revelry. What people have been asking, and with good reason, is why should we collectively fork out huge sums to support people engaged in orgies on the streets? As it stands, prize money for mas’ runs into millions of dollars, and all of it comes from “de govament”. The costs of policing the streets to protect masqueraders, and to provide the infrastructure for the parade of bands (really, the biggest “wining” contest anywhere in the world) are also prohibitive. Other than providing “eye food” for lecherous men (like me!), what do we get in return for these expenditures?

I am fed up with the ritual agitation of several stakeholders in Carnival, clamouring for more and more public funds every year. Mas’ bands are among the main culprits. But there are others. The calypso tents, many of which feature self-proclaimed bards whose voices sound like old truck engines, demand Government funding. No audience of note, no singers worth their lyrics or melodies, but “run de money”. Time was when there were two or three good tents where, even though their casts were padded with some less-than-ordinary singers, one could expect fare that would truly entertain. Now, but for a handful of “true true calypsonians”, we are subjected to cured ‘tatah’, as Ras Shorty sang before he departed this earth in disgust.

Where are we going with Trinidad Carnival? Already, because we have succumbed to bikini-and-beads, we face stiff competition from Barbados, St. Vincent, Antigua and several cities in the USA. Were it not for the continuing evolution of pan music and the genius of a handful of genuine calypsonians, we’d slide out of the world rankings of carnivals and similar street festivals. It’s a crying shame that must make those who have passed on turn in their graves. If Bailey and Sally and Cito and McWilliams were to somehow reincarnate and walk the streets on Carnival days, they would no doubt rush back from whence they came.

Look de Devil dey, they’d scream-and hasten back to heaven or wherever.

5 thoughts on “Wasting our money behind ‘bumsees’”

  1. Now, this is the Raffique I like to read. Edgy, acidic, but making a point about cultural evolution that I believe is well worth making. Had I still been teaching formally, this is a piece I would have made my students read, although I would have had to translate “bumsees” for American high schoolers, and would have been hard pressed to find one word that captures the well rounded, 99% uncovered, gyrating and glistening backside of a Trini female reveler on carnival day.( My at home readers need to know that “backside” is not offensive in North America) So I a not cussing, OK?

    As a comparison of carnivl mas-making them and now, this is an invaluable piece, and if I had the authority, I would have archived it.

    The face and financing of carnival has changed, and something seems to have been lost in the shifting. This piece is a lament shared by many.

  2. This article resonates with me in a special way, since I will be seeing carnival in Trinidad this year for the first time since 1969, having left in February of that year shortly after carnival.
    On my visits back I am often told that I should come for carnival, and how much it has changed.
    Being from Belmont, I experienced the great bands mentioned in the piece, and as a boy remember spending carnival Monday and Tuesday in the Belmont (Rising Sun) section of “Back To Africa” and crossing the stage with the entire band after all parts came together.
    After these many years I admit to being ambivalent about carnival, on one hand admiring its beauty and creativity, while abhorring the crass sensuality of the public street parading.
    What, I ask myself, are the moral, social and spiritual ramifications of some of the lewd displays wittnessed by the young and old alike, on the street and in the media? At the very least, I see that question as constituting ample food for thought.
    I will be seeing carnival with many sets of eyes. But as intimated in the article, I believe that one useful perspective would be to try and see it in an imaginary way through the eyes of George Bailey, the splendour of whose presentations set such a high standard. Hopefully, it’s not too late to turn things around and begin again to emphasize the creative and imaginative aspects of carnival in the future, so that there would be no need for ordinary spectotors to turn their heads, and for the stalwarts of times past to turn in their graves.
    Like the previous commentator, I salute the writer for the insightfullness of this article.

  3. Man Raffique, that’s the best article you’ve written in a long time.

    Mas is not what it used to be – and BTW, I’m a young head – early 30’s and I do remember. Granted, I haven’t seen a live, in-person T’dad carnival in 21 years, but someone always bring back a magazine for me and yes, there is the internet now. Bottom line, mas it not what it use to be. Along the way, we’ve lost our identity and uniqueness that really distinguised us from the other carnivals – costume wise. It’s the same costume they’re using for the past 15 years… .they are only moving the feather from one arm to the next in the subsequent carnivals.
    Give me a break that I paying 3K for something that cost mere cents to make and practically every band looking the same.

    It’s really, really sad.

  4. Raffique,

    Thanks for the insight. I often wonder who the “bandleaders” think they are fooling besides the two or three thousand members who are prepared to pay the outrageous sums for their bikinis.

    I hope its not too late to save our carnival

  5. Please,we like ” wining bamcee” as the Calypsonian said,” wine on a bamcee,that is we ting!”

    Me eh see nothing wrong with how people spend dey money after all ” money make to spend!”

    better we spend it on a nice ” bamcee wine” than a thirty six millon palace for a bunch ah foreign people we do not know nor want to know nor care to know who only come down here because they could get money from we so better the band leaders get it!

    Yuh eh see the big house one ah dem does live in up in Salybia right next to Salybia Resort???

    Actually former President Clinton ( will be coming down to stay in the Palace and wine on ah bamcee …not Hillary leather bamcee…if Hillary win the Presidency!

    So,please,leh we spend we money in we pocket as we see fit and quite frankly Shah may well be right if he talking ethics but in strict economics as long as a man earb he money legally and spend it lawfully then it is he bamcee to catch when he ” wine on ah bamcee yes!”

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