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U.Va. History Professor John Mason Captures Cape Town Carnival in Words, Pictures

Photographer and historian John E. Mason tells the story of the Cape Town Carnival from the inside.

Mason, a history professor in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, has just published "One Love, Ghoema Beat: Inside the Cape Town Carnival," a history in words and photographs of the carnival, one of the world's most colorful and least known celebrations.

A frequent visitor to South Africa since 1989, Mason, who teaches the history of South Africa and the history of photography, had been encouraged by a friend to participate in the carnival, a traditional New Year's event celebrating the end of slavery in South Africa. A musician and carnival aficionado, Mason joined the Pennsylvanians Crooning Minstrels, one of the largest of more than 60 marching units.

At first he thought his contribution would be his French horn playing, but soon found that there was too much new music to learn and took out his camera instead.

"They were happy to have someone inside taking pictures," he said. "The first year, I thought I was just taking cool photos to share with my students. By the second year, Paul Weinberg, a South African photographer, looked over some of the photos and said 'You've got a book here.'"

Mason photographed the carnival for four years, shooting members of the Pennsylvanians and other marching units, in practice, sewing costumes and making instruments and ultimately performing.

While the modern carnival, with its competitions, is about 110 years old, roots are deep in South Africa, dating back to the 1830s when slavery was abolished. 

"At the start of the new year, to commemorate the end of slavery, the residents of Cape Town marched down the street in their finest clothes," Mason said. "They still do it every year and they have added new elements."

Across the years, the carnival has had many influences, among them the American minstrel players who performed in South Africa in the late 1800s.

"They picked up the banjo and face painting from the minstrel troupes," Mason said. "There is a real American connection and it is reflected in some of the names of the troupes, such as the Hollywood Entertainers and the Beach Boys. Not everyone has them, but many do."

The banjo and accordion were popularized by the minstrels, but over the years, the choice of instruments has evolved.

"Forty years ago, the bands would have drums, accordions, banjos and guitars, with a few trumpets and a saxophone," Mason said. "There was not a lot of brass. Now, the bands are overwhelmingly brass – 10 trumpets, 15 saxophones. The amount of brass as expanded tremendously."

The marching units sport colorful outfits, using a different color scheme every year.

"Some of the troupes dress in a variation of the 19th-century minstrels, in tuxedo jackets and a straw top hat," he said. "But these are poor people. A lot of the costumes are cheap, made with fake satin, presenting a certain gaudiness."

While many troupes decide their own color schemes, some hues are determined by sponsors, such as the Shoprite supermarket chain, which uses red, white and yellow.

"Most of them have no sponsors at all," he said.

While the main celebration takes the form of a huge downtown Cape Town parade on Jan. 2, the troupes continue to compete for trophies and bragging rights. On Saturdays in January, the bands face off in the soccer stadiums, vying in categories that include best bands, best choirs, best dressed and best drum majors.

"They compete on how well they dance down the street," he said. "They do a grand march past the reviewing stand, emulating the British regiments. It is very precise marching and some of the troupes hire drill instructors."

The carnival is a January and February phenomenon. The members lay off for a few months, and then start practicing again in June and July.

"They have intense rehearsals, but there is also a lot of socializing," he said. "Some of the troupes sponsor youth bands, which gives the young people an alternative to the streets and keep them away from the gangs."

The carnival troupes are for all ages, "from toddlers to those who are no longer walking," Mason said. "You join one your family was connected to. There are a lot of little kids, teen-agers, people in their 20s. The troupe members march and dance as long as they can."

"There are 65 troupes, some of them have between 400 and 800 members," Mason said. "With family and friends, everybody in the Colored community is touched by the carnival."

Initially, when he was just shooting "cool photos," Mason was casual in his approach. When he realized he was working on a book, he started thinking about more expanded coverage.

"I got to know the drum makers," he said. "There were a dozen tailors, sewing costumes in shops run out of their homes, with six to eight people working in them. I wanted to show various aspects of the carnival."

He moved beyond the Pennsylvanians to photograph other groups, such as the Fabulous Woodstock Starlites. He was well-treated wherever he went.

"I was still the outsider," he said. "But they enjoyed the attention. There are not a lot of American history professors hanging out with the troupes. The people were open and generous and they tried to do a lot for me. I always made a lot of prints and gave them away to people."

And while it was a project, it never really became work. "It was absolute fun," he said. "I never got bored."

He said when the book was published in South Africa, he set aside some copies for the Pennsylvanians' clubhouse and for many of the troupe's members.

"They don't go to bookstores and they are not likely to shell out money for the book," he said, "But it is cool when someone comes across a picture of himself or herself in the book."

While the project is done, Mason said he will maintain his relationship with the marching units.

"They've become friends," he said. "I love Cape Town and have many friends there. And I can't stop myself from taking pictures."

For information on the Cape Town Carnival, visit johnedwinmason.typepad.com/oneloveghoemabeat/.
 

-- by Matt Kelly

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