A museum of Minshall


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Category: Trinidad Society 19 Feb 12


I have postponed part two of my interview with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (’till next week when we are sober and contrite with ash) to continue a conversation with Peter Minshall on the mas. I feel like a hypocrite because I have repeatedly battered the stale bikini, beads and feathered costumes, the shouting ‘music’, the noise pollution, the profanity of wining children, the absence of a Museum of Costume, or a Music Literacy Academy, because, this year, I am in possession of a bikini, beads, and many feathered headpiece.

Wanting absolution I called Peter Minshall who belongs with our great heroes—dead and alive—who shaped our collective destiny and identity. Minshall who is of us as much as Eric Williams, Ellis Clarke, CLR James, Sam Selvon, Pat Bishop to Derek Walcott and VS Naipaul. Minshall who produced Paradise Lost, Zodiac, Carnival of the Sea, Dance Macabre, Papillon (with masqueraders wearing ten-foot butterfly wings revealing the ephemeral nature of life).

Minsh who produced the River Trilogy. Minsh who forced us to our sacred, neglected, illiterate, corrupt, talented and profane selves with Rat Race, Jumbie, Sans Humanite, The Lost Tribe, This is hell, Ship of Fools. Minsh who breathed life into Tan Tan and Saga Boy merging puppet and puppeteer in a brilliant piece of engineering. Minsh who reflected our hope with his baroque Hallelujah, the Song of the Earth, and Tapestry and Picoplat.

Minsh with a Trinity Cross, acclaimed, showcased, feted internationally but not enough, not until we produce a Museum of Minshall. I can’t bear the idea of the 17 year olds being denied Minshall, glimpsed at Machel Montanos show in ‘Lord and Lady Fete’ (which he was painting while we spoke) and at the Panorama Finals in his costume designs for Phase II in his tribute to Pat Bishop in the diaphanous metallic silver material floating like a silver cloud over pan men and women in white formal dress.

Speaking to Minsh I feel the same way as I did when I interviewed Derek Walcott or I may have done if Tolstoy was alive. The presence of immortality. Minshall on J’Ouvert: “I went out to J’Ouvert as Dame Lorraine in my sister’s debutante dress, with a pillow in front and behind at the age of 14 to join a cluster of grossly sexually exaggerated big breasted and bottomed women mostly played by men (the hairiest chested macho footballer, judge, policeman) parodying and celebrating female sexuality.

“It was natural to be a judge by day and on J’Ouvert to go out on the streets in your wife’s nightie. This was not gay, not cross dressing, but as natural as the yellow brown savannah in dry season, the equivalent of Shakespeare’s plays where men played women’s parts. In putting together this mass that not cost a penny, wondering down from cascade to the corner of Park and Frederick streets, with every inch of skin covered, playing Dame Lorraine, I experienced an empowering sense of transformation.

“I was liberated of my race, my age, and my gender. I became an entity, a spirit partaking in an extraordinary ritual at the opening of the day. Rivers of people adorned, pigmented in mud, an acknowledgement of the power of creation and death, feet shuffling in perfect rhythm on pitch, accompanying steel drums playing Bach. It’s biblical, universal, drawn from all corners of the earth primal, restores us collectively to our essential selves.”

On his most memorable band, The River: “The River, all its sections, Caroni, Maraval, Oropouche, Dry River, came to me one afternoon while doing yoga. I saw the washerwoman, with the openness of a loving heart, bleached white petticoats, clear unpolluted water from mountains to the valleys sustaining tribes of all continents. The Man Crab, represented greed, technology, pollution.

A mile long, 15 feet wide white canopy over masqueraders showcased the colours of our skins—from vanilla, to cafe au lait, to melted chocolate. Every 15 feet hand there hand held standards. People from each section were dressed in white in the fashion of their ancestors—from Haute Couture, to bele dancers, to saris. It was theatre in two parts.

“ On Monday, it was an all-white band. On Tuesday, each person was given a cotton pouch with the colour of spectrum. They were supposed to spray themselves on stage to signify that somewhere Mancrab had killed the washerwoman, polluted the earth, put greed into people’s hearts. Someone’s costume got splashed. They did it better than I could have conceived. Mas only takes place with the permission of the people, and becomes its own creature on the road.

“They destroyed themselves in front of the Royal Jail. Colour ricocheted up through the band. Tall beautiful girls, women, men began painting themselves. When they got on stage...power... I had hoses of every primal colour shoot up like an arc to the sky falling on the masqueraders. The mile of white became a mad riot. Man crab fashioned an elusive rainbow with greed and material things with power to entice and corrupt. They nailed it. Mancrab won the day.”

On Integrity: “On Tuesday morning of the year, I brought out (1989) Sans Humanite I was in Woodbrook, where big angry women had gathered because they hadn’t got their costumes, the most expensive. I, frazzled, came to beg forgiveness. I was accused of doing obeah, being part of a cult, somebody said, ‘you will get Aids if you play with Minsh.’ And a woman with a big voice replied “is not **** I *******Minsh, is Mas I playin.” But talk started when a man from New York said he was going to beat my arse, and a big black woman came to my defence saying, ‘If Minsh decides to play s*** I will be the toilet paper.’

It was then I realised that white or not she trusted in my integrity. People can see it a mile off in a judge, or a politician, or a white American people who voted for a black President.” The mas reveals our lack of, or showcases, our integrity. Minsh had it nailed. Again.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur