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Behind bikinis and beads

By Terry Joseph
March 12, 2004

Another Carnival has danced by and once again, in its wake, we are witnessing a revival of the campaign against women who prefer brief mas costumes, that body derisively referred to by traditionalists as "the bikini brigade", castigated for no greater crime than exercising freedom of choice. Critics of the brigade say mas has been reduced to bikinis, boobs, bum-bum and beads, sneering at the tens of thousands of women opting for this style of costuming, deeming them indecent carte blanche and even calling for some kind of imprecise regulation to contain Carnival day dancing; as they mourn the loss of "the good ol' days".

Interestingly, of those calling for a return to "The Glory Days of Carnival", the majority doesn't actually play any kind of mas, hiding behind the argument that no one designs costumes suitable to their tastes, looking still for Valmond Jones portraying "Nero" in Harold Saldenah's Imperial Rome; fully 49 years after man and band crossed the Queen's Park Savannah stage.

Don't get me wrong: It was an engaging portrayal, the portly Valmond, a con-artist of Olympian skill, all his transgressions forgiven for going the distance with retinue, crown, flowing cape and weeping-cup into which, some say, he actually flushed tears; so anxious were mas men of those days to imbue the costume with suitable theatre.

But therein lies a pivotal point- they were Men.

Apparently none of the traditionalists noticed this interruption of the dream of repatriating Montezuma's machismo to the mas, nor pondered any of the many other causes of radical changes, some of which have been with us since the early 1970s, when bikinis first joined the parade.

For openers, black awareness and consequent reappraisal of recorded history diminished adulation of bandits like Sir Walter Raleigh and identity thieves like Christopher Columbus, with Greek mythology and Roman lore, tales from cultures that once embraced slavery also losing reverence, as freshly-induced perspectives took root.

Mas designers, particularly those attached to large bands, quickly adapted, for the most part shunting from historical to fantasy costuming. And while Julian Boldon held the fort, Irwin McWilliams went thoroughly local, garnering a record 5,000 members for his 1980 band The Rains Came.

George Bailey had left us at the start of the decade, Peter Minshall truly arrived midway, Stephen Lee Heung scored a hattrick and betimes gave us Raoul Garib. Fancy sailor bands by Cito Velasquez copped two King of Carnival titles, while Wayne Berkley secured his hattrick of Queens, closing the 1980s and scorching toward the millennium with six consecutive victories in the Band of the Year contest, followed by three in a row from Minshall.

Glued to this spectacular parade of artistic excellence, few allowed themselves to be distracted by parallel developments that would change the very face of mas. The once 90 per cent male masquerading component dwindled to less than one-tenth of that figure, as women's liberation simultaneously dismantled the fabled male monopoly on drinking liquor and wining in Carnival bands.

Add to that the phenomenal rise in the number of women working, controlling their own finances, able to act on impulse and then top out all this with the fitness craze, which made participating females eager to show off their bodies. The sum of these concurrent conditions effectively and swiftly reversed the gender-ratio that best accommodated tribal and historical portrayals.

Mark you, for all the lament from ossified purists about loss of tradition, Henry Ramdin's annual presentation of Native American Indians remains a small band after more than 20 years, although it may be that those who wish to see more of this type of mas are acutely allergic to buckskin and feathers.

Stevie Derek's D'Midas Associates, the quintessential example of applied Carnival arts, has stayed in the medium category, whereas large fantasy bands like Harts Ltd, Legends et al keep growing, Poison fielding 10,000 masqueraders this year, with thousands beating down their doors begging for inclusion, as proprietors find themselves unable to accommodate any more.

Moaning about indecency constitutes an even larger curiosity, when one considers that Carnival is, by definition, a feast of the flesh and, on the evidence, milady doesn't seem to mind her boobs and behind hanging out of deliberately flimsy harnesses.

It is also important we never forget who pays for the costume. Unlike other festival performers, masqueraders spend to entertain us with no chance of recovering the outlay. How anyone upholding the principles of freedom can summon up the temerity to tell her what to play is well beyond my comprehension.

And which man among us today really wants to revert to carrying a wooden standard with banner marked SPQR, heavy shield on the other arm, sword and scabbard hanging from the waist, leggings, metal helmet with plumage, copper breastplate and weighty plush-velvet cape fastened at the neck while Machel Montano screams "Craziness" from the speaker boxes?

Like everything around us, Carnival is evolving. If you "don't like what it is coming to", there is always the option of setting example by playing the mas you'd prefer to see, instead of staying on the sidelines frowning on those who followed their convictions; no matter how frivolous such choices may appear.

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