Lewellyn Roberts

1998 Florida Folk Heritage Award

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Master costume maker Llewellyn Roberts (1922-2002) was born in St. Joseph, Trinidad. His father was a Carnival masquerader and exponent of kalinda, a traditional form of stickfighting. Roberts’ family moved to Port of Spain’s Belmont neighborhood, known for its long history of Carnival creativity. There, Roberts learned the art of wire bending and costume design from his father and his father’s friends. By 1936, Roberts was playing (masquerading) with U.S.S. Mischievous, a famous Belmont band in which the participants wore sailor uniforms and long noses shaped like bird beaks, airplanes or ships. A few years later he started playing standard characters such as Midnight Robber, as well as characters he created, and joined a Robber band called the Midnight Toilers.

Roberts continued to master the art of bending wire to fabricate Carnival costumes like the magnificent dragon in the traditional devil band. He also became proficient at a range of other costume-making techniques. Eventually he began to play historical mas (masquerade) as a member of Carnival great George Bailey’s bands. In the early 1960s, Roberts began producing his own historical bands with the themes, “Rulers of Assyria,” “Carthage and the Punic Wars,” and “War of the Roses.” He was subsequently recruited by Trinidad’s Carnival Development Committee to judge masquerade competitions. In 1967 Roberts visited New York City, where he fabricated costumes for Mother Africa, a band produced by Carlos Lezama, the leader of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association. As their Assistant Arts and Cultural Director, he taught young people costume design and wire bending in preparation for the next ten years. Roberts moved to New York in 1970, but returned annually to Trinidad to play a sailor with Jason Griffith’s well-regarded Belmont Carnival band. 

Trinidadian Carnival costumes and costume designers are considered the best in the world. Costumes may range from simple clothing embellished with jewels to fantastic 15-foot superstructures with wheeled supports. Carnival themes change every year, but costumes often represent colorful creatures as well as contemporary or historical culture groups. Although rare today, painted face masks made of wire mesh were an important costume element. Roberts generally made elaborate masks by covering a wire frame base to create beautiful, exotic effects based on the annual theme. Roberts’ brother, Granville, sometimes made Carnival masks entirely of sheet metal. 

In 1979 Roberts re-located to Miami, where he worked with other Trinidadians to establish a carnival which today is one of the largest among the West Indian diaspora. Until ill health prevented his participation, Roberts remained an elder adviser and costume designer for the local masquerade band Mas Brothers. Like many other Trinidadians, he made an annual pilgrimage to his homeland to participate in Carnival as long as he was able. Roberts played an especially significant role in educating Floridians about Carnival. He developed two exhibitions on Carnival masquerade and presented a costume-making demonstration at the Miami Beach Public Library, where he worked as a security guard. He frequently shared his knowledge with folklorists and the public through events sponsored by the Historical Museum of Southern Florida and the Florida Folklife Program. In addition, he facilitated the acquisition of Carnival costumes for the Historical Museum.