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Back in March, Anthony Irish, Tai Sue Leong Tat, their wives, and a half-dozen friends gathered to begin planning costumes and music for their band, Fun Generation. Most band leaders begin this early every year; it takes time to raise the prodigious amounts of money needed to look and sound good and to hand-make scores of beaded, sequined, and feathered costumes. Irish, a dental-lab operator, is the leader of Fun Generation; Leong Tat, an auto mechanic by day, is the designer. They're both “Trinis,” as Trinidadians call themselves. (Leong Tat's father is a Trini of Chinese extraction, reflecting a bit of the island's multiethnic mixture of coexisting cultures.)
After a few meetings, the directors of Fun Generation -- which, like many bands, has declared itself a nonprofit corporation -- agreed on a “Survivors of the Millennium” motif. Leong Tat translated the theme into costumes evoking four apocalyptic disasters: Volcanic Eruption, Hurricane, Earthquake, and Explosion, one for each section of the band. Every band is organized into sections, the number depending on the band's size, but locally most have four. Each section's costume represents an aspect of the larger motif, and most bands also include a king, queen, and other individuals, or “characters,” who wear much more elaborate and expensive outfits than the rest of the entourage. Whereas a regular costume might cost $100, a queen's attire could run $5000 or $10,000. The qualifications for king, queen, or another character are simple: the ability to buy the costume.
During the following weeks, when day jobs allowed, Leong Tat worked on costume drawings, members shopped for materials, and fundraising events were discussed. And by mid-September the garage of Leong Tat's split-level home in Pembroke Pines looked something like a garment factory filled with sparkling costumes hanging from improvised clotheslines, rolls of fabric leaning in corners, and stacks of cut-out cardboard and fabric shapes waiting on tables to be sewn or stapled. This was Fun Generation's mas camp, where volunteers constructed most of their approximately 80 costumes to be donned by band members.
Miami's larger bands (in the 400- to 500-member range, compared with an average Trinidadian band numbering a few thousand) usually employ designers who live and work in Trinidad and contract out the construction of some or most of their costumes. Many local bands, however, can't afford to be so upscale, and rely on volunteers to make costumes in private homes or small rented storefronts. As Carnival approaches the hours in the garages and living rooms get longer, until everyone is running on adrenaline and almost no sleep.
On a recent weekday night, two women seated at a card table in Leong Tat's garage are stapling, gluing, and glittering, going slowly through the motions as if to conserve what energy they still have. Marvene Nurse-Denny and Janice Hunte head a small band called Barbados Sets the Caribbean on Fire. They're friends of the Fun Generation folks, who have invited them to share their mas camp. CDs of Carnival songs play at a restrained volume from a boombox. Andrew Baptiste, a friend of Tai from Trinidad, sits at a worktable cutting shapes out of satiny gold cloth. The shapes will be trimmed in sequins and, reminiscent of Roman-style armor, wrapped around the ankles and shins of the Explosion masqueraders.
The Earthquake section will wear clever headpieces mounted with toppling skyscrapers of vinyl, suede, and sequins. Wind-bowed palms depicted in sequins and glitter blow across the Hurricanes' skimpy outfits. (Carnival costumes generally start with bikini bottoms and tops and usually add little besides feathers or beads in the way of concealment, though more modest variations can be special-ordered.) Last year Fun Generation placed third in the Small Band of the Year category, and Irish declares hopefully: “I think we're going to win this year.”
On parade day masqueraders will dance and prance down the street, finally ending up onstage, where each band displays its finery and typically adds an extra flourish of dance or pageantry for the judges. As Fun Generation takes the stage, a strange-looking bunch will be in the lead. A section of about 30 “mud people,” having emerged from the aftermath of a devastating millennial volcanic eruption, will celebrate their survival. The mud people will literally be covered with mud. “Other people are making our mud costumes,” explains Leong Tat, a tall, bespectacled man with a professorial air. “We don't have the time or manpower to do all that. I don't know if they're getting the mud from North Carolina or South Carolina.” Mud, naturally recalling the primeval organic stuff that gives form to life, actually is traditional Carnival attire around the world, evoking ancient pagan rites later adopted in Christian rituals. Masqueraders have refined mudwear to the point of incorporating lard and hydrogen peroxide to make it coat the skin better and last longer.
As a schoolboy in Trinidad, Leong Tat drew up designs for Carnival costumes that were worn by bands. He's lived in Miami for the past eight years and has been the designer for Fun Generation since the band was founded four years ago. He can't imagine not staying up night after night making sure each plume and spike and amulet is just right. “Nobody can pay you for this,” he says, fastening a golden shoulder plate to a bald black mannequin modeling the Explosion costume. “You'll never make money on this Carnival. I saw shoulder plates like this in a store for $200. Now in Trinidad, they make big profits; people pay more for a costume. They appreciate the culture more there. But here they look at it as a one-day affair, so they don't see any reason to spend much money to play mas.”