Post 295.


“If people truly catch the spirit,” Ziya reasoned, “then it means that gods are real and, if gods are real, then magic is real because gods are basically magic”.

She may not have had the right words, but so went her seven-year-old murmuring on Saturday as we headed home from the annual Heritage Masquerade Festival hosted by the Omo Oduduwa Institute.

Two hours earlier, we were driving into the winding roads of Petit Curucaye in San Juan as light rain hovered on the hilltops. I was thinking about my own atheism and, yet, the importance of valuing the pantheon of possibilities by which your neighbours make spiritual sense of the world.

Drumming had already begun when we arrived and we sat listening to the depth of refrains remembering Zion and calling on the Egungun, who are regarded in Yoruba tradition as a manifestation of the spirits of ancestors.

There was so much I couldn’t explain to Zi. We both know far too little about Ifa/Orisha practices, and what they can teach about spirituality, and communion among the ancestral, divine and earthly.

It really does require an invitation, or mutual openness, to grasp the significance of different colours, of deities and the designs on shrines, of invocations with white rum and water, and blessings asked for and given with ash, smoke and fire.

Most humbling was seeing the combination of Black Indian masquerade, specifically born out of Trinidad’s Carnival, with Yoruba practice, which survived the crossing of slave ships, and is ancestor to Carnival itself.  Black Indian masquerade, like Ifa/Orisha beliefs, especially combines African traditions with reverence for those who came before on this land.

Indian mas, whether Red or Black or Fancy, traces its lineage from Indigenous People’s beliefs, designs, and ancestors from across the hemisphere. It invokes them in the practice of Carnival mas making, and as a warrior mas that is reverently worn, shaping self and life not just for two days, but throughout the year.

We think that Indian masquerade makers are simply Africans or Indians, or Orisha or Hindu, or wire benders or electricians, but even when not wearing this masquerade, its spirit walks in their shoes.

This is the thing about Trinidad carnival. Spirituality is not just about the main religions we can identify. Blue Devil, Jab Jab and Indian mas are equally spiritual, where medicinal plants and moon phases matter, where ancestors are called upon regardless of their race, and where sounds, calls, chants and dances are sacred, handed-down languages.

As the small procession made our way down the hill, led by two Egungun wrapped in red and yellow cloth with wooden mask faces, we stopped on the Santa Cruz Old Road at the La Venezuela statue of an Amerindian man.

There at the junction, water was poured in all four directions to acknowledge the universe and all its elements, the Indigenous presence in Santa Cruz, the river that was once honoured as both life and as escape from colonial authorities, and the contribution of African rites to recognizing the land and all our people as now, here, together in shared survival.

The procession gathered by a small Spanish-style, concrete gazebo further in. It wakes you up to remember that there are a thousand places sacred to First Peoples, which could change how we ethically move through this space if only we continued to honour them as sacred today. It’s easy to forget that we walk on the bones of those from the past.

At both spots, spiritual manifestation highlighted the momentous resonance of the moment. Zi stood observant of a worldview she was witnessing for the first time, deep with questions about gods, ancestors, cultural traditions and reality, and turning to a child’s framework about magic. Hopefully, such wonder is only a beginning.

From attending church with her grandparents, Zi has become more familiar with Christianity. I took a world religions approach to school so, last year, Zi was in Hindu classes and, next year, she’ll be in Muslim ones. I felt she should understand different belief systems, be able to connect with Trinidad and Tobago’s diversity, and decide for herself what role theology, or the study of God, plays in her life.

In my rear view mirror, I could see her murmuring as her mind worked through what such a new experience meant. Above our heads, the hovering rain finally began to descend.


Ronald Alfred. Copyright Maria Nunes(Photo: Maria Nunes)

Post 177.  The Whipmaster’s Secrets

There is a Carnival that you can buy with $1200 all-inclusive tickets, a Carnival that you can purchase by scrolling a catalogue on-line, and a Carnival where rum, bacchanal and bum-bum time prevail.

There is another Carnival that you cannot access with money, that requires you to earn trust over time and one on one, and that cherishes sacrifice, strength, and preparation through abstention from alcohol, meat and sexual relations.

You could put on a costume, but you soon learn that carrying it is more about discipline and seriousness than jump up and freeness. You could want to practice fancy steps and fling rope, but you soon realize there are stories to respect, bush leaf tea to drink, root and flower medicine to rub, and a rhythm you have to hear before your mask could transform into a mas, and before you can crack a whip like a conductor leading an orchestra drumming on nothing but thin air.

There is a Carnival, weaving through the masses of bikinis and beads, which most will never notice. They will think they are merely seeing “traditional” colours on display, not realizing that a small group of the fiercest and most feared in the country could only dazzle so because of old secrets still shared beneath the boom of big trucks.

Like plants scattered across the central range, some of those secrets come from India, some from Africa, some from Amerindians, and some were invented precisely because Carnival was created right here.

This is the Carnival where such knowledge is both fiercely guarded and handed down over generations. So, come Monday and Tuesday, all those secrets, from a powerful foot stance to a remembered battle chant to a sun-drenched oil to a special weave of natural and man-made fibers, make a convois with the mirrors, sequins and whips, creating a battalion of uniquely painted, tightly wired faces advancing, seemingly, without emotion or fear.

Yet, in this Carnival, commitment to nation and culture is so deep that the hurt it risks could, just almost, stop a man from taking his art on the road. You see, MPs could break hearts with promises they don’t keep, and the recognized VIPs are those with office, who set rules and write cheques, rather than those with life-earned skills and leadership.

Still, this is a Carnival refusing defeat, so a front yard might not be paved this year or next in order to give all to dreams of community, and a vision for a Jab Jab Academy, deeply grounded in relationship to land, will yet again be defended from party financiers and strong-armed police.

In this season when men lose their reason, it’s clear that if a Jab Jab Whipmaster’s spirit don’t take you, there is only one Carnival you will ever know, the other one slipping by, right under your gaze, but unseen.

As I listened to his stories of both sharing and protecting, I walked amongst his sacred plants, shared his quiet anger at the disrespect and poverty faced by traditional mas makers, felt his untold anguish at the clearing of forests where memories were held and spirits released, and appreciated the value of fairness in the life of a family committed to mas.

Last Sunday in Couva, I learned that one thing a Whipmaster knows is how to take pain, which is why so many of his secrets are for healing.  Yet, as I left, I wondered if those secrets, meant to protect the skin under the material and masks, could also protect from a Carnival whose injustices cut more deep than lash.


Post 135.

Hearing Ronald Alfred talk about Jab Jab mas in Couva, I was reminded what I love about Carnival. Some people love fetes. I love to fete too, but besides Jouvay, it’s mas making that gives Carnival meaning for me. By mas, I don’t mean imported bikini and beads, I mean the kind you have to sit with people to make from scratch, painstakingly and skillfully cutting and gluing, sewing and bending.

For some years, I played mas in San Fernando with Lionel Jagessar and Associates, always in awe of Indian mas, the making of bonnets and bustles, herring bone chest pieces and bead patterns, loving the wisdom, the fatigue and the stories of elders that came with sitting in a mas camp alive with labour and love.

For me, such love for mas transforms ordinary women and men into deeply grounded and connected leaders of neighbourhoods and national culture. Like the Jagessars, the Alfreds are Hindus, but it is not being Indian or Hindu which defines who they are, it’s their mas. Like Lionel Jagesser, for this family, mas is about ancestry, spirituality, livelihood and community. Mas band leaders, both women and men, are chiefs in their own rights, informal queens and kings that draw respect and authority from a lineage made and handed down here. Authenticity isn’t an issue because their mas has ‘authenticity-plus’, a version of something from other places – like most of us – yet original not to that other place, but to the mas interpretation and tradition of it over locally-born generations.

All mas makers, whether they play Jab, Dragon, Indian mas, King Sailor or something else, will tell you similar things. A jumbie comes and begins to move in you. You feel your ancestors on the road. You respect the power of your costume. You protect secrets while handing them down. You carry this identity with you throughout the year. And, when you dead, they bury you with your beads, your whip, your feathers and with chants, songs, dances and a gathering of costumes. Beyond religious rites, these are mas rites. Beyond notions of race, mas makers constitute ethnic groups, who interact with life, the nation and the state not as Indians or Africans or Christians or Hindus, but as Jabs or Black Indians, Blue Devils or Moko Jumbies.

I’ve always thought it would be interesting to do a census that maps these categories of personhood. Forget where Africans or Hindus predominate, where are mas identities, lineages and spiritualities scattered and settled? What community, masculinity and economic models spring up around them? What forms of women’s leadership do they nurture? What relationships to bush, to the phases of the moon, to language, to art and to history are being handed down?

As with Rose Kuru Jagessar and many other women, Sherrie Alfred is also a bandleader.  She sews the costumes, and without her no band would be on the road. She also plays her whip, battling with skill, just as she sews, cooks and mothers. Mama, this is mas!

Not just the leggo and freedom, but the discipline and labour. Not just bought over a counter or on line, but made next door by many hands. Not just drunk and disorderly, but skilled and serious. Not just playing yuhself, but working the mas.

Generous with his knowledge, Ronald Alfred and his Couva Jab Jabs reminded me of a commitment to culture that transcends profit and the kind of creativity that cracks through the noise of foreign-used approaches to defining who we should be. Though called traditional mas, these forms are models for making our own modernity.