There could be massive job losses by the time Carnival 2012 comes around if the trend of importing Carnival costumes continues, as workers affiliated with the local mas-making industry will be made redundant.That was the grim prediction from president of the National Carnival Bands Association (NCBA) David Lopez, who said bandleaders began importing costumes from India and China some eight years ago when they discovered they could capitalise on hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The issue has been the focus of intense national debate in recent days, since Arts and Multiculturalism Minister Winston "Gypsy" Peters warned that a 2,000 per cent tax would be imposed on imported costumes.Some bandleaders have branded the minister's statement as "reckless" and are calling for immediate consultation on the matter.However, Lopez put a different spin on the issue when he revealed that bandleaders paid between US$60 and US$80 for the imported costumes, complete with elaborate headpieces.
He said some costumes cost as little as US$15 to US$20 to import, but there was a mark-up of as much as 500-600 per cent on them by the time they reached local mas camps.Lamenting that costume-making was a "rapidly dying if not already dead industry" in T&T, Lopez said: "The industry is not where it was some ten years ago."Soon people will no longer need skilled labour like wirebenders, metal beaters and hundreds of people who are employed in accessorising the costumes," he added.
Call to set up"mas factories"
The NCBA president said the Government could curb the tide of imported costumes by setting up "Carnival factories," paving the way for T&T to be exporters rather than importers of mas.This, he said, could boost T&T foreign exchange earnings as there already existed thriving links between local bandleaders and international Carnival organisers, including those in the North American and European markets.
Lopez explained: "Local designers, bandleaders and producers already have links to foreign markets because they produce costumes for those countries and also small islands like St Vincent and Grenada."But in those countries, it cannot be mentioned that the designer is a foreigner, that's how serious they are in protecting their carnival," he added.He said T&T's "greatest export was creativity," but successive governments had done nothing to ensure that it was protected.
Lopez said removing import duties on raw materials was one way of preserving the mas."An NCBA member should be allowed to bring in a certain amount of raw materials, namely beads and feathers, duty free," he said."We want to encourage locally-made costumes but we need to face facts that some of the materials are not available in T&T," he said.
Lopez pointed out that bandleaders often travelled to Miami to have the feathers and cloths dyed at cheap prices and in the colour schemes of their choice.Importation, he warned, amounted to loss of creativity as mass production offered little or no variety."Mass production can also lead to problems relating to measurements, because when someone goes to a traditional mas camp they get a costume to actually fit them," he said."The NCBA recognises it's a free market but we want local craftsmen to be protected," Lopez said.
He said Carnival was T&T's creative export and every year bandleaders were faced with increasing overhead expenses, ranging from renting of facilities to promotions."When an order is placed to have costumes made abroad, it is guaranteed to be completed and shipped on time," the NCBA president said."But in some instances the deadline is not met with costumes made locally, so the bandleader, like any other businessmen, would find ways of avoiding unnecessary costs."
Use local materials-McFarlane
At the Woodbrook mas camp of award-winning bandleader Brian McFarlane, workers were busily pasting strips of newspaper onto compressed strips of foam when the T&T Guardian visited last week.Another group was sticking flattened crown corks onto wire meshing.McFarlane said the majority of materials used in his 2011 production, Humanity-Circle of Life, was bought locally andhe urged his competitors to be more creative."We also went to the hardware and picked out washers and bolts of all sizes...It's all about being creative and looking at things very open mindedly," McFarlane said.
Lamenting that the season had turned into a two-day street party, McFarlane said there were ways to "jump-start" the industry by implementing a contemporary twist through the use of local materials, including rope and pods from flowers.He said, however, that some bandleaders were "simply out to make money and not preserve the mas." McFarlane said he supported the proposal to impose a 2,000 per cent tax on imported costumes."I know it sounds harsh, but if that's the way to help save the mas and put it back on the right track, then I'm definitely all for it," he said.
"I'm looking at preserving the art form in keeping with part of our culture, history and our way of life."If we are calling ourselves artists, we need to be true to ourselves." He said mas bands with imported costumes should not be allowed to take part in national competitions."There are lot of these bands who set out to make money...It's an art form first and foremost, and then the money will come," McFarlane said.He, however, disagreed that the breadline was inevitable for workers in the local mas-making industry."If they find that they cannot import costumes then they would have to go back to finding ways of being creative," he said."I think we can get a whole new rejuvenation of the mas."
A different view was expressed by popular bandleader Louis Hart who accused the Multiculturalism Minister of "putting both feet in his mouth."He claimed Peters had "no clue" about the mas-making industry.Hart, whose 2011 presentation is Planet Rock, said Peters' plans to impose a 2000 per cent increase in tariffs on imported costumes would destroy small and medium mas bands.
"The minister wants to come off as this knight in shining armour to save the poor man but what he's doing is going to kill the small and medium bands who are trying to expand," he said.In the mas-making industry for well over half a century, Hart said bra pieces and arm bands for his costumes had been imported from China.He added that some of the leg bands were also imported, while some, along with the headpieces, were locally made.
"So it's 50-50 of what we import and what we make...No longer are we using the glue gun technique," Hart said."When our costumes come from China, they are made according to international standards with proper stitching which is not available locally." He explained that because increased cost in duty, taxes on values of shipment and air freight, bandleaders would be forced to increase the cost of costumes by ten to 15 per cent each year.Additional costs, Hart said, were incurred in security fees and the renting of music trucks.
"I make a living, I don't make a killing," he said."Expenses keep soaring and you have to also safeguard against pilfering, because some of the local people you employ would steal your costumes."If there was subsidisation on the part of Government, I believe the minister would have a say, but since there is no subsidy he is totally out of place to tell me where and how to produce my mas...At the end of the day, my masqueraders are happy."
Creativity in design
Dane Lewis, Island People's bandleader said he was forced to import feathers and appliqués because they were not available in the region.While he emphasised that creativity was in the design rather than in the manufacturing, Lewis said it was unheard "in any part of the globe" to hike tariffs by 2000 per cent."Tariffs cannot be placed arbitrarily," he said."While we welcome the reduction of raw materials, it has to be matched with sustained labour."Bandleader of Tribe, Dean Lewis, said some components of his female costumes were imported but the male costumes were "fully designed and assembled" locally."Only a small per cent of the female components were imported primarily because we don't have the production capacity," he said.Saying masqueradors had become "very discerning," Lewis said it was trend to use more modern and fashionable materials.