Mention the name Winfield James in Guyana and the two things that come to mind are calypso music and beautiful, exotic costume designs.
So overpowering has his contribution been in these two fields over the last forty years that few people remember that he is a qualified contractor.
The older folk could relate the excitement and joy that Winfield James brought at Mashramani time just a few decades ago.
Once it was learnt that there would be a Winfield James design on the road, people held their breaths in anticipation, instinctively knowing that whatever he came up with would be a sight for sore eyes.
During that time the ‘tall man with the slight Trini twang’ was extremely popular for his outstanding artistry and creativity in costume designs and has won numerous awards for his skill and competency in this regard. He has held a number of workshops which resulted in scores of children being trained in designing.
These days he is more known for his calypso endeavours, and persons can chant along with his more popular pieces like “All dem men who beating deh women, put dem in the jail,” and “We got to move on.”
Even though James is a Trinidadian, he never really had the opportunity to regard himself as such, having thrown all his energies into improving Guyana, which he calls his ‘real home’.
These efforts were recognized by the Jaycees in 1985 when he was awarded the ‘Hands Across the Caribbean’ award for the most outstanding non-national who contributed to the development of culture in Guyana.
James was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, to a Trinidadian father and Guyanese mother.
He came to Guyana at the age of four with his family when his father, Hamilton, who was a popular contractor, came to complete a contract on the Globe cinema.
The family would remain in Guyana for the next few years as more construction jobs began to pour in for his father. Some of these included the mosques at Mc Doom and Corentyne as well as the All Saints Anglican School.
The senior James is also credited with being the first person to embark on providing low cost housing in New Amsterdam, Berbice.
Hamilton was a staunch calypso fan who had close associations with the leading calypsonians of the day and it was not unusual for the James household to be visited by the likes of the ‘Mighty Sparrow’ or the ‘Mighty Melody.’ As such Winfield’s appreciation for the music genre grew and developed.
Commenting on his flair for designing, James noted with a laugh that it was derived from his mother at an early age since she was ‘a fancy woman’.
“My mother had a house that was so fancy you would not believe it .She loved pretty things and was always adding some new frill or flair to things in the home…. Even her clothing were always an eye candy.”
She made a point of teaching both of her daughters to sew, but somehow, the young James also caught on.
After delivering one of his younger siblings, the matriarch of the family needed to have some curtains sewn but her fragile condition disallowed that.
His sisters tried their hand at it, but not to their mother’s satisfaction who claimed that they were “running the machine too fast”.
James tried his hands at it and ended up doing a perfect job.
As a child he was also in charge of the interior Christmas decorations for the home, which in those days were made of crepe paper and balloons, but James would always improvise, winning the approval of his mother with his unique decorating skills. Soon he began designing clothing for his younger sister who, like her mother, had a knack for things fancy.
During the riots of 1962, the family returned to their homeland. It was there a few years later that James won a scholarship to pursue studies in construction with an American-run institution. He excelled, prompting the facilitators to offer him an attachment in the US.
He declined, preferring instead to return to Guyana.
His first stint in the Mashramani arena came in the late ‘70s, shortly after he played ‘mas’ with the Bert and the Nation band.
In that instance he was dissatisfied with the costume allotted to him and the next year he took the initiative to help design his own costume.
The next two years with the band saw him solely designing his costumes, which he remembers were called the ‘spider’ and the ‘arch’.
Recognizing the spark of creativity, the then Minister of Home Affairs Vibert Mingo asked him the following year to design the costumes for his agency.
James declined and asked a friend of his instead to do the Minister the favour.
“At that time I cannot say I was really interested in designing at that level. I was just creating my own costumes because I wanted to be comfortable in what I wore”.
But fate had different plans. As it turned out, the friend that James had asked to do the task at the Ministry of Home Affairs had apparently bitten off more than he could chew and James got a call from the Minister to that effect. He was forced to go to the rescue and save the day at the last minute.
And what a job he did. So well received was it that the next year the said Minister recommended him to do the NIS float. Every consecutive year for the next 17 years, he would design the float for that organization.
Soon his popularity grew and the demand for Winfield James to design the costumes of organizations grew so much that some years he was tasked with creating three and four floats for the Mashramani celebration.
One year he had the NIS, Telecoms, Joint Services and City Council floats to design, and it was chaotic madness.
He remembers that his home in South Ruimveldt, where he lived at the time, and those of his neighbours were used as Mash camps and were a hive of activity all the time. “I would scurry from one to the other all day long and I am talking about designing for bands with five hundred members strong” he said with a laugh. “I thank God for great friends and neighbours.”
He, however, recounted that in those days, the floats were not of the size or quality that we are accustomed to today and the competition was stiff.
Those were the days when the designing kings such as Bernard Ramsey, Peter Tang, John Fernandes and Jeffrey Chin were doing their thing and it was an annual contest to see who could produce the biggest, most creative, most expressive float. However, James held his own, winning many competitions.
James reminisced on the beautiful fabric that was used back then and the energies, dedication and commitment that went into each design, even as he lamented the lack of those qualities today.
“In those days, when we put out a float it was a spectacular creation, and even the individual costumes were well put together. These days what you have are a lot of skimpy outfits with not much quality.”
He, however, does not blame the designers, noting that they operate in an era in Guyana when the substandard quality costumes are normal.
He pointed out too that designing a really great float takes a lot of money and in this regard he urged the private sector to support Mashramani in a more tangible way.
He also believes that the new generation of designers does not have as much pride in work as the set from yesteryear.
He recalls one time when the float parade was some two days away but he decided that he could make his design better.
He destroyed a great part of it, hurriedly flew to Trinidad to source the fabric, returned and completed the piece.
“We were so late we had to complete it in the National Park, but I wanted it to be just right. Those days, designers used to go all the way to the US if necessary to source the right fabric for their creations.” As recent as a few years ago he designed a band for the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company, and says he has not totally resigned from that.
“But it would have to be a really great float for me to get involved; I don’t want to put my name to any mediocrity.”
James entered the calypso competition in 1998. In that year he won the crown and continued to enter every year after, until two years ago. He took a hiatus because he felt that he was being robbed. He plans to return to the stage next year.
These days James, who is the father of six, lives a quiet life with his wife of thirty-five years at their Section ‘K’ Campbellville home.
He also hosts the ‘Tribute to Mothers’ show which is in its 23rd year.
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