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KING OF THE FANCY SAILOR

By Andre Bagoo Wednesday, February 28 2007

“King George V was dead. It was 1936.”

Jason Griffith remembers that that was precisely how his friend and mentor, masman Jim Harding came to invent the ‘King Sailor ‘Mas.’ Harding was inspired by the King’s death to add a ‘crown’ to the format of the sailor costume. So that out of the death of one king came the birth of another.

Years later, well beyond the passing of the first king of the House of Windsor, another king would be crowned: the “King of the Fancy Sailor, the King of Belmont.”

I see no throne as Mr Griffith, 79, invites me past a line of potted plant trees and into his cool veranda at his home on 51 Pelham Street, Belmont.

Griffith stopped bringing out a sailor band since 1998, but he has never stopped making “Mas.” As we speak, several headpieces he is working on for “2 Ha Qaui’s” 2007 production A Sailor’s Tale, designer Paulette Alfred sits at the corner of the veranda.

“I can’t help helping people,“ Griffith who turns 80 in June, says, “I just can’t say no.”

‘Sailor Mas’ and traditional Mas’ as a whole, form the heart of Trinidad’s unique Carnival, according to Griffith. But he is afraid of the ‘sailor Mas’ dying. “If people come in the stands and they don’t see a sailor band or two, they might not come back. If they ain’t see that they say they haven’t seen ‘Mas.’”

Griffith, who talks lightly and has a youthful mien, has come to be synonymous with ‘Sailor Mas.’ He holds several awards from the CDC, the NCBA, the Downtown Carnival Committee, and the Uptown Carnival Committee to name a few. In 1990 he was awarded the Humming Bird Medal Gold.

It all started in 1946 when he was accidentally recruited to help with decorating the ‘noses’ of traditional ‘Sailor Mas’ for Jim Harding. Three years later, he came out with his first band: USS Sullivan. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Griffith was born in 1927, pretty much on the very spot where we are conducting our interview at Pelham Street. Griffith has lived all his life here or in other parts of Belmont like Carr Place ( as it was then known). A street, the Morris-Griffith Link Road, is named after him.

The stories of how Griffith used to sneak away from his mother’s strictly religious house to look at ‘Mas’ are well known. “Belmont had a lot of ‘Mas’ in those days,” he notes. He says he used to run away to the corner of Erthig Road and Norfolk Street to see Jim Harding’s presentations. He also used to look at the robbers and Indians and burrokeets. As he speaks I see these characters return to him, they dance on his face, they linger in his words. It must have been such a forbidden treat.

But ironically, his mother, Christine Griffith who died at the age of 96 in 1987, ended up with him in the house on Pelham Street at the height of his ‘Mas’ making career.The land had belonged to her all her life, she never sold it and the house, he says, was built on weekends.

“From long time there have been people like that...it still have religious people who didn’t believe in Carnival. But I tell you what, she ended up here with me.”

Griffith’s parents separated when he was nine. His father, Clarence Griffith died at the age of 89. Griffith has outlived all of his immediate family, including two sisters.

Asked what the ‘Sailor Mas’ has meant to him all of these years, he avoids a direct answer, instead speaking some more about the well-known stories of how Harding came to be inspired by sailors coming on shore and going back to ship with bowls or fruit, or pipes, or walking sticks. But still I want more. I want to hear what he has to say about its meaning - if there is any. Why is the sailor figure so enduring? Why does it somehow resonate on such a personal level?

“The dance,” he says, “Because all the bands had their own dance. The sailors created this dance.”

The dance of kings perhaps, I think, everyday kings.

He shows me photos of his past creations. I have seen them before but am still struck by their splendour, their craftsmanship, the colour and the powerful aesthetic sensibility that characterises his work. As he shows me the photos he laments, “What we are doing here now is assembling costumes. We are not making them. But before most of the bands were themed, like the historical bands which were often biblical, and were all well crafted...You were making these things.”

In 1961 Griffith played King Ferdinand, the King of Horace Lovelace’s band Discoveries of the New World. Now, in 2007, sitting with me in the house that he has built on his mother’s land he tells me, finally, what the ‘Mas’ has meant to him. “Part of my life,” he simply says. “Carnival is a thing you have to like it to be in it.”

And love it too, I think, eyeing one of his regal headpieces.

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