Even traditions have to evolve to stay relevant.
With that in mind, San Fernando traditional mas band, Jagessar Costumes, has survived and thrived for the past 48 years.
Originally called Lionel Jagessar and Associates, the band is now a company and was renamed in 2015.
Lionel Jagessar Jr, CEO, and bandleader told Sunday Newsday the mas and the company has been evolving and making minor changes over time, especially in recent years with the input of himself and his three siblings Denise Kuru-Bhagwandeen, Darryl Kuru, and Nicole David.
In the case of the mas, Jagessar Costumes is famous for its Fancy Indian productions and stays faithful to that. But they decided to upgrade.
“We are the bridge between traditional and conventional while most bands are at the extreme ends. I’m trying to get people to understand that traditional mas could still be a viable option but in a conventional way. When you see it you can identify that it is a Fancy Indian costume. It’s not a long dress but it’s not bikini and beads.”
Completely traditional costumes are also available in each section.
He said people who play mas now idolise the mas they saw when they were young, so they try to emulate that rather than evolve.
“We have strived to move away from what was there before because we understand the market and the economy. When people hear Fancy Indian they say, ‘Oh that’s long dress and old time thing,’ but when you see the design, it’s nothing like what they think.”
He said he recognised the change might be “heartbreaking” to people who love Indian mas but he could no longer sell that kind of old-school mas. He said if he posted a picture of it on social media he would get likes, shares, and positive comments about keeping the traditional ways but no one would buy it. He said because of this there are very few traditional bands left and the ones that survive were small groups or comprised of mostly aged people.
Untamed but structured
He said Fancy Indian mas is “completely a Trini thing” with the closest thing to it being the “fancy dancers” in a Native American Indian pow wow. He described it as a Native American-inspired costume using materials available today.
Therefore, he said, various elements such as shapes, dress styles, and headpieces would stay the same but modern materials like laser foil and glass, could be used. In this way, Fancy Indian mas would change as technology evolved.
“What makes it different is that there are so many Indians you can portray. So you can go back to the history and find chiefs or warriors from different tribes. And if you go into the fine details, the shapes, patterns, and way they decorate the clothes, you can tell they are from different parts of America.”
Jagessar Costumes’ 2020 presentation is Untamed Territory with eight sections – Untamed Night, Untamed Morning, Untamed Forest, Untamed Seas, Untamed Skies, Untamed Plains, Untamed Mountains, and Untamed Valleys.
Jagessar explained that the broad scope of the name gave the band freedom to design what they wanted rather than being limited to a particular tribe or area. And so they designed the costumes for all the sections but will only be producing five, while two will be produced by children of other founding members of the band, and one will be an open section.
Turning mas into a business
As a youth in the early 1960s, Lionel Jagessar Sr would make his own costumes to play mas. His friends saw the costumes and wanted to play too, so they gave him money to buy materials and make the costumes and they played as a group. Over the years the group evolved to a section, and then into a band, and now a company.
Jagessar and Associates was founded by Jagessar Sr and some of his friends in 1972, and he is still the head designer.
“We are one of the few bands that still do artists rendering of the costumes before we produce a prototype. Most people now call themselves artists, mas-makers and designers and they can’t draw. They go to the stores and buy pieces and put it together. Our costumes come from a vision, then we put it on paper, choose colours and fabric from the base up, what each piece is going to be, put it on paper and then create,” said Jagessar Jr.
He said business began to expand in the early 1990s when a Trinidadian living in St Martin invited them to produce a mas band there. The band won band of the year, individuals, and the king and queen categories. It won for five consecutive years, and they produced mas in other small islands as well.
He recalled that around the same time a popular large Port of Spain band asked Jagessar to design and manufacture some headpieces for them, so they redesigned a traditional war bonnet using a different manufacturing process. Other bands and individuals loved the look and requested headpieces.
Now Jagessar Costumes designs and produces headpieces and full costumes, does traditional performances at events and theatre, event decor, and conducts workshops for children on how to make traditional costumes, as well as Native American songs, chants, and dances.
Future of the band
According to Jagessar, the band has had an average of 500 masqueraders over the last few years. That makes it a large band as San Fernando mas stipulates large bands must have a minimum of 201 people.
He said they continue to get a range of customers, people from different financial and social levels, from different countries, of different races, and of different age groups – from children to the elderly.
He said the band gets "a handful of new people” every year, but it is getting more and more difficult to get people to play because most of them want to play mas in Port of Spain where there is a bigger audience and more media coverage.
“Back in the day my father could have just put up a banner and say, ‘The band is ready,’ throw a little party, put up the drawings and people come and it sell out. Me, I have to beg. I have to advertise, send What’s App messages, I have to be on Facebook and Instagram, I have to be on TV and tell them to play mas.
“I am 100 per cent sure if we did not make the changes to the costumes, the band would not have survived as long as it has. We could use the other traditional bands as an example. They don’t really cross 50 people, they don’t make money and then they break up.”
Jagessar said the future of Jagessar Costumes depends on the San Fernando Carnival market.
He said the band, which has won the band of the year title three times, could no longer depend on prize money as every year the subvention given by the National Carnival Commission gets smaller. He said the highest was $1.2 million about six or seven years ago, but last year it was $300, 000.
He said Jagessar Costumes has not been paid its winnings in about three years. In addition, most of the time bands were not told the prize in advance so when they win they could be handed any small amount of money.
Apart from the money, he said the mas itself has been on the decline. He said 2020 would be the third year there have been no Carnival king and queen competitions. Also, he said, there were talks of moving San Fernando mas to the Brian Lara Stadium because bands on the roads are hampering emergency vehicles’ access.
“They might kill San Fernando Carnival completely one of these days. God forbid it happens, but what I will do with the company depends on that. The mas may have to go out completely.”