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From Hummingbird to Dying Swan

In 1990, Judy Raymond, considering Minshall’s King of Carnival, Saga Boy (I think it was), wrote: I knew it was art because it made the hair on my body stand on end. A generation later, mas man Peter Minshall, declining to politely fade into the background, allowing the lesser lights their lime, set the 2016 Carnival ablaze with his king, “The Dying Swan: Ras Najinsky in Drag as Pavlova”.

Quite in St Philip, Barbados, watching footage shot on a cellphone video camera, every hair on my body stood to attention and shivered in salute. And I wished I could have been in the Savannah, to see it with my own eyes – and to hear the collective gasp; not since 1980’s Midnight Robber has a mas blown me to firetruck away like this.

The Dying Swan is: 1. a moko jumbie, a “traditional” costume but; 2. Minshall reengineers it with a stroke of presque vu genius akin to the flip-top of a toothpaste tube – how come no one ever thought of a moko jumbie on firetrucking tiptoe before? and then Minshall 3. uses the old as a springboard to (swan?) dive into something totally new that; 4. joins the Old World and the New seamlessly while; 5. simultaneously cleanly separating them and bringing; 6. theatre and; 7. history back into the mas to 8. remind us that we once had the 9. depth; 10. gumption and 11. self-esteem to 12. view the whole world as our stage and our palette.

Not bad, for a man on stilts.

But the Mas Man himself is standing on the shoulders of giants.

Just as, 40 years ago, he took the old bat mas and made it startlingly new several times – the Serpent, Mancrab, the Sacred & the Profane – Minshall used the old moko jumbie to hold up the mirror anew, revealing ourselves to ourselves.

Or trying to.

If we were what we could be, that mas would have come first for the next three years; because of what we are now – and perhaps what we may have permanently become – the man pulling the pretty float that “won” used his apparent (but actually Pyrrhic) victory to whine on Minshall about a moko jumbie placing so high; he had probably rehearsed his speech with Ras Najinsky winning, so perhaps did not want to waste it; but it was one of those rants that said less about the thing spoken about and more about the person speaking.

And the people spoken to.

Ras Najinsky deserves to be the defining memory of Carnival 2016 – but it will be hard to forget other powerful, less salubrious occurrences; such as a young man being stabbed to death allegedly by a Carnival band’s “security” (and Minshall’s heart must have broken to see the personification of his dying swan come about so swiftly); the Japanese pannist (probably) murdered and left in the Savannah for the Port of Spain mayor to insult; and that lonely, sad beauty in the G-string and pasties, reducing herself to her buttocks and pudenda.

In the 40-odd years Minshall has been making mas in Trinidad, Carnival, like everything else, has changed; and a lot of people on my side of 50 wouldn’t consider it to have developed; the so-called all-inclusive-but-really-all-exclusive model hasn’t managed to completely spoil Jouve yet but, for me, everything else remotely good left in Carnival has been ruined by the sheer din: if you played, “Sa-Sa-Yey” at today’s eardrum-shattering volume, it wouldn’t sound sweet, but like “galvanize” sheets being folded; after being ironed flat.

My pardner Raymond Ramcharitar takes probably the dimmest public view of modern Carnival, rendering it as a PNM propaganda tool à la Himmler, and denying any legitimate expression of public anger whatever to Canboulay – but his own open letter to Minshall published in this space on Wednesday should be read by everyone; even those – especially those – who disagree with him; in (my estimation of its) essence, it recognises the beauty of Ras Najinsky but declares it falls on barren soil: Minsh is talking to himself, but Ray will listen, if no one else, because they have all left the Savannah and are in da club or da cocktails party; or, indeed, da political party.

Between Raymond and Minsh there lies a great deal of good thinking about the possibilities and limits of Carnival – my former drinking and still writing pardner Si-Oh Lee, in this paper yesterday, should also be read, as should Mark Lyndersay, Raffique Shah, Sunity Maharaj and others.

But all our thinking amounts to nothing if it fails to turn into positive action; and there are people in positions of real power and influence – the King of Carnival, the mayor of Port of Spain – who bring to their utterances no thought at all.

How many such have Cabinet portfolios? And what can those of us, without, actually do?

The function of the artist is to show the society what it is; and there may never have been a clearer depiction of that than Ras Najinsky. The shivers that ran up our collective spine the first time we bore witness to it, though, are but one side of the coin: toss it, and the chill runs icily down that national spine and crumples at our feet in a yellow bikini, with pan-sticks in hand. If the burgesses of Port of Spain allow a functionary so manifestly unsuitable to remain in office, the swan would have died in vain.

And Minshall, having given us the Hummingbird and the Dying Swan, will have to start his drawings of the Cobo.

BC Pires does take this shiretrit too seriously, oui; give that man a drink and a big work and keep his short arse quart
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