“At its zenith, it is one of the most surreal indigenous expressions ever to come from this island . . . You can take the finest costumes that Picasso ever designed, and you can put a fancy sailor next to it, and say, that’s just as good!” (Peter Minshall)
The Fancy Sailor Mas tradition dates back to the late nineteenth century. British crewmen, and later United States Marines and Navy personnel, would be a common sight when their ships docked in major areas such as Port of Spain. Their presence influenced popular culture and social norms, chiefly of which can be seen through Calypsos and Carnival caricatures. The original fancy sailor portrayals were realistic imitations of the sailors’ persona and dress “complete with rolling gait, smoking pipe and a lady on the arm.” (Laughlin and Kerrigan)
The evolution of the sailor was nurtured by Belmont born George ‘Diamond Jim” Harding, the early pioneer of Sailor Mas in Trinidad and Tobago. Standard issue uniforms gave way to elaborate headpieces and colourful uniforms however, the gait and drunken demeanour was maintained. By the late 1930’s the sailor had an endless genre filled with prospects for design and artistry. Additionally, the Belmont community had become synonymous with the Fancy Sailor genre with many of the assistants under Harding’s tutelage eventually creating their own bands. One such ‘assistant’ is Jason Griffith, who is viewed as Harding’s creative heir and has contributed heavily to the further perfection and evolution of the Fancy Sailor genre, cementing it as one of the traditional caricatures in the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival experience.
Jason Griffith – The Man and his Art
“The thing is how I came into this mas. Nobody taught me this craft.” (Jason Griffith)
A most formidable Mas-man, Jason Griffith has influenced Sailor Mas for more than 50 years. Born in Belmont on June 20, 1927, Griffith would go on to become one of this country’s revered mas-makers, earning numerous awards including the Humming Bird Medal Gold in 1990.
As a boy he would run away to see Harding ‘make mas’ at his Mischievous Sailor Band, the U.S.S. Mischievous. Later as a young man, he became an apprentice assisting Harding to produce headpieces. It was not until 1946, after the end of World War II, he had the opportunity to participate in his first mas portrayal, COLTS (the Belmont Batallion), with Jim Harding.
For the next two years, he worked with Cecil Jobes’ U.S.S. Michigan before finally launching his first major production entitled the U.S.S. Sullivan in 1949. Due to the competition from more established bands such as Desperadoes and Syncopaters, Griffith together with five other compatriots formed the “Big Six” which further perfected their Carnival portrayal. Griffith in his 2005 interview stated that “…it was never Jason alone. You had committees that you sat down with, so it was always our band not Jason Band.”
The Fancy Sailor experienced a revival in 1969 when Griffith launched his Old Fashioned Sailors which brought about a change in the fancy sailor aesthetic. Griffith states,
“… All of a sudden the Fancy Sailor Mas died out until I came back in 1969, and all I wanted was six fellows, because I had a big six in 1950, 1951 and 1952… From 1969 without any advertisement or anything, the band started to grow. At first we were singing on the road all the old time tunes, then we got a pan round the neck pan-side. Then eventually we had a DJ, then we went with two DJ’s and a steelband, so it was good, it was real good.”
The costume maintained its playful absurdity while introducing new artistic elements such as copper work. Griffith notes that, “We have wire bending in the mas, especially when the band was big. But this is the first time that a sailor band came out with copper. A year we played in “Retrospect to Belmont Heroes”, with Harold Saldenah, Ken Morris, Horrace Lovelace and other people, well Ken’s son had a section here.” It is these elements that have added a new twist on an old craft.
The 1980’s and 90’s marked the Golden Era of artistry and design in Jason Griffith’s Sailor Mas Portrayals. Griffith’s mas truly evolved during this period as he took local and international events and merged it with the traditional Fancy Sailor aesthetic. He not only highlighted the artistry but also married the vibrancy of colours, the extravagance of the headpieces or in some cases its sheer simplicity to create a sophisticated costume that linked the Sailor Mas of the past to the modern era in Carnival.
This ‘artistic oxymoron’ has cemented the Fancy Sailor as an essential caricature that is synonymous with Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival culture with its simple elegance and refinement. In Griffith’s own terms,
“The Fancy Sailor has come to be regarded as just another long-time thing in our Carnival. No one stops to consider the effort and the cost involved in producing such a band. If they did, they would have realized that the seemingly simple… garb is of headier colour and higher cost that outstrips most of the skimpy outfits of masqueraders in conventional bands.”
The Old Fashioned Sailor Band grew steadily over the years and went on to win multiple titles for presentations such as “In the Realm of the Nipponese Wonder”(1987), “Days of Chivalry and Royal Pageantry” (1991) and “Legends of the Sea Carnival”(1992). The band’s impact was so far reaching that it was featured in various Carnivals within the Trinidad Diaspora abroad such as New York and Miami. Griffith also received awards from the C.D.C., N.C.C., N.C.B.A., Downtown Carnival Committee, Mt. Hope Connection, Belmont Action Group, Cutting Crew and Friends and N.J.A.C. There is also a link road between Belmont Circular and Lady Young Road that has been dedicated to him and Ken Morris, another great pioneer.
After such an accomplished career in Mas, Jason Griffith retired in 1998 even though the band continued to produce presentations until 2000. When asked if he would return Griffith retorted,
“I think I had enough of it. People will meet me in town and say, “oh gosh Jason man come back! Anytime you see you come out of the arena, don’t go back. I say you going back to get lick up… You have to operate on your eye; you had do this and that and all kind of things. What are you looking back there for? You have the money.”
Griffith, Jason. “Jason Griffith Master King Sailor Interview” Personal interview. 15 Apr. 2005.
Laughlin, Nicholas, and Dylan Kerrigan. “The Admirals: George Harding & Jason Griffith.” Caribbean Beat Magazine. Caribbean Airlines Ltd, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
Laughlin, Nicholas, and Dylan Kerrigan. “Trinidad Carnival’s Artists of the Streets.” Caribbean Beat Magazine. Caribbean Airlines Ltd, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
Liverpool, Hollis “Chalkdust” Rituals of Power and Rebellion: The Carnival Tradition in Trinidad & Tobago 1763-1962. Chicago: Research Associates School Times Publications, 2001. Print.
Serrant, Jerry. Kings of the Fancy Sailors: The Saga of Jason Griffith’s Old Fashioned Sailors …part of the Definitive Story on Our Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. Port of Spain: Key Publications, 1988. Print.
Small, Essiba. “Tribute to an Old ‘Sailor'” Daily Express 3 July 2013, Lifestyle sec.: 1. Print.