The dance of the dragon mas
February 10, 2018
RC primary, secondary schools do well in Junior Pan
February 10, 2018

A wire-bender remembers…

Wirebender Richard Lera in his work space.

Story and photos by Simone Delochan

Richard Lera has almost three decades of being involved in the creative side of Carnival, and has seen the changes to the mas. His involvement began with Wayne Berkeley, for whom he worked 24 years, bending wire for the backpacks and headpieces when mas was in its heyday.

Now he does mainly wire bras, which is soothing in its repetition, and this that he does has become a year-long activity, as after he finishes off the season here, he still has costumes to do for carnivals up the Caribbean.

It may not be an artistic challenge but it has its benefits: “It’s a job; you making money, so you can’t fuss about it. It’s more relaxing to do. I used to do wrought iron, so is not like you in heat all day…” He completes about 10,000 costumes every season, and approximately the same for the other islands.

During the chat with the Catholic News, it is clear that he does miss the days of Berkeley-type creation. He describes how Berkeley would approach his design: “When Wayne did ‘Titanic’, he chose things from this ship. How he chose was always puzzling to me. When he did ‘Les Bijoux’, he had about 20 books. He went through the books deciding what to take and what to do. Wayne used to research before he design. I doubt the people who doing design doing that type of research. When Wayne did something on paper bending in China, he got a special lacquer from outside to put on the paper so if rain fall, the costume would last…people not going to that depth anymore…”

To him, then, it’s not just wire bending during Carnival that is dying but designing mas as well. “They will get a theme…but they don’t know how to do research, one, and they don’t know how to go about making the costumes. Some of them make it on their own. Some of them would find somebody to just weld something.”

Lera is a certified welder himself, and observed that in the industry, “somebody would buy a torch and suddenly they become a bender. They bending it and welding anyhow. There are people who are doing welding and they are not qualified.”

Lera inherited his bent in carnival creativity from his father, Alvaldo Lera, who worked with copper and still assists his son during the season. Lera (Junior) describes one costume his father made for his mother, Jacqueline Lera—a complete copper suit.

His mother played in the costume Carnival Monday and Tuesday. He brought out a copper headpiece his father had done, and it was remarkably light. It covered the head completely, resting on the shoulders, with a movable flap which moved to the top of the headpiece and gave the wearer a choice of whether he wanted to have his face completely masked, or shown. There was an even, petalled finish over the entire headpiece. The time to create it and the meticulous attention to detail were obvious.

“My father has the art of how to make copper breathe. My mother played Monday and Tuesday and when she came out of the costume, she was dry. This I think, was in the 60s or 70s. I don’t think there is any other person who played in copper who lasted two days. My father is a perfectionist. He did the Coat of Arms and nearly get lock up because he was supposed to get permission…” This piece now resides with the Coast Guard, at The Nest in Chaguaramas.

The mas today

After his time with Berkeley, Lera could not but comment on the sameness of contemporary costumes; take a section from each band, he says, and put them together. Nobody would be able to tell one band from the other.

Foreigners, he says, want to see depictions, and he believes the majority of them are people of the diaspora returning home for the experience.

When bikini mas began, circa the mid-1990s, it really was for the comfort of the revellers but there was still depiction: “When bikini mas first came in, they used to use it in such a way that you still had the backpack and the pieces. That is why Wayne used wire. Before they would use plastic mould for the headpieces, and they would keep people head hot. When they used wire now, it was easy to breathe. While it was a change, it was a change to make masqueraders more comfortable.”

That there is a Brazil mimicry in the design of the costumes seems obvious except for one major point: “Brazil mas is not only skimpy mas. Whatever they say they depicting, they depict. If they playing ‘sea’, you would see the sea…and they would maintain their million and one foreign visitors.”

He thinks that the mas really started to change when business interests moved in. “They know how to cut back on certain things to make money….and then they start to skimpy-down the mas.”

Young people, the artform…and work ethic

That there can be a comfortable living made from wire-bending as it stands now seems a little-known fact but “youngsters not coming into this. Is still the old people working for all the bands. Wire bending is a limited amount; decorating is only a certain amount”. And there is the additional problem of poor work ethic. “Trinidadians have a bad attitude. They will start off working at $200 a day, then say they want $300, or they would say, ‘You see me, I not going to work tomorrow’, and then you short. That is a real killer.”

The job requires consistency, discipline and commitment especially coming down to crunch time. He, at present, has about four people working for him, but he begins his workday at seven in the morning, and closes off at two, the morning of the next day. He has intentions of introducing interested young people to wire-bending through on-the-job training.

During the conversation, Lera mentioned Antigua several times in glowing terms because of the representational mas and the work which he has seen in the mas camps there. “We have a few things we can learn from Antigua….other than the wire-bending that I do, everything that is decorating is done there. It’s a nice vibe: everybody do what they have to do; they talk and laugh. It have no arguments or anybody cuss ’way anybody. At one point we had that. Not anymore.”