Post 273.

Minshall mas was an iconic meeting of national colours, the red confined to the band’s massive banners while all else was the white of sailor mas combined with deep blackness of God’s omniscient eye. Who knew that white and black pared down to absolute essentials could feel so epic in a sea of multi-colour? Who knew a Burroquite, derived from the Spanish word burroquito, could play the immortal, winged Pegasus from Greek mythology, as if the little donkey of traditional mas could aspire to be a stallion, like Aldrick and his dragon, just to cross the stage?

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Hurrying from a fete to the Savannah to see Exodus competing at pan finals with moko jumbies and Minshall’s banners hovering overhead, I thought about the headiness of the stage. Hard to define, but like music, when its vortex envelopes you and that wind coming down from the Northern Range hits your skin, it’s like you feel no pain.

If you don’t play Carnival, you don’t realize how much beauty there is to miss. The heart of the moment remains with traditional mas and with small brilliantly creative bands. Like with pan, our best cultural values are practiced in traditional mas making, their outcomes worn on the body like sacred thread.

Mas making involves intense commitment to long hours of hard work, community-building and collective happiness. It involves grounded theorizing as highfalutin as anything found in a museum, and political clap back through direct satire or alternate envisioning for nation, history, ecology and dignity.

It involves immense skill. You might think the same thing is being repeated every year and fail to see the nuanced experiments with weight, beadwork, painting, colour, rope-making, wire and cloth that characterize a lifetime of work with art.

Besides sacred threads, the high mass of jouvay brought its ethereal bliss right when the sun begins to rise over the hills and your pores raise with indescribable gratitude that religious orthodoxy doesn’t have a stranglehold on all that is holy, for the separation between the sacred and profane is merely one form of social order, and it’s possible to feel fully alive and free and God-given while dutty and in old clothes and keenly aware of how much of the world is a hell we should turn upside down. So much is going on as you move through town, you can see how Lovelace couldn’t limit himself to short sentences for a spirit seems to fill the streets like words jumbieing a full stop.

With 3 Canal, and against the backdrop of the Laventille Rhythm Section, there’s a haute couture that you’ll never see on any Vogue runway. People paint, weave and sew masks, veils, jackets, dresses, headdresses and produce home-made devil horns of every beautiful kind. Someday someone’s going to build a career on documenting the specific aesthetic of jouvay high fashion.

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Photo: Elliot Francois

As he does every year, Stone made me a standard, this time with the Eye of God, to play a Monday mas, to ironically position it watching police as they watched me, and to remind that mas doesn’t have to be a big production. Just a bamboo stick, box for cardboard and some paint.

Review of the road this year must mention the power of messaging about a culture of consent. I saw the women of Womantra with their signs. I saw a renegotiation of body politics and permission, significant considering how many men come to town ‘for woman’. I watched ‘Bishops’ girls’, sing their school song, now as hardback, jamette-style flag women. Profound shifts everywhere.

Finally, Ziya’s calypso competition song, which earned second place, “Pencil cases in the air!” gave Stone and I chance to experiment; going full Iwer, throwing in a Destra-style bridge and adding memorable hooks for school children everywhere. Calypso will only survive if people can’t stop singing its refrain. Tents may be dying, but in children, calypso traditions may rise again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunday night. Monday morning

Post 223.

For Jouvay, I was Death playing mas in Trinidad. Roaming the road, sharp silver scythe in hand, culling those closest to the ground, and knowing neither law nor sin.

I was also Woman, entangled in a long skirt, made of shredded, black garbage bag, for those used and discarded, refused, their pains mere abandoned detritus in the wake of killings. Carrying death’s scythe as a sign of its shadow overhead, like a cross to bear.

Such is the schizophrenia of living in Trinidad and Tobago. Grieving amidst violence, with more than one murder a day, and historically-familiar rhythms of dark-night mourning, where women birth the lives that death takes away.

Lest we forget. Three boys in particular were on my mind. Jodal Ramnath, Denelson Smith, and Mark Richards. Jodal, six years old, killed within minutes of the New Year by gunmen shooting with high-powered rifles from the roof of a nearby school. Real life midnight robbers, missing poetic license. Then, judged by a population which hypocritically ropes off pretty mas for those with money, as if little Jodal’s photos of dressing up in gold, like a King costume, excused the coast guard, the police, the political parties, the shotters and the drug men from their responsibility to prevent harm to our children.

Later, Denelson Smith and Mark Richards killed in their school uniform by devils who come out for pay. Imps terrifying the young, with neighbourhood crossroads like judging points with scores counted and winners declared.

As Death continues to stalk through region and town, in now year-round fetes with dames, tiefs and dark souls in glittering clothes, Justice seems to have taken to an armchair, like many others watching the macabre dance on TV.

For the insight it offers, post-Carnival, I want to hail out Jouvay’s mirror to darkest ourselves, and its metaphor for restless hope for a new day. For, when else could I or anyone else express freedom and pain, in public, in the dead of night, while passing the walled yard of sacred graves, wondering if it is still possible to save ourselves, heart beating hard at how, for some, it is already too late.

Jouvay’s mas and masking traditions often get eclipsed by the ‘pretty mas’ of Monday and Tuesday. Beyond standard images of muddied revelers, Jouvay’s mas, which is as political as it is personal, as transgressive as it is stylish, is least likely to make it into Carnival magazines, for grim commitment to mixing anger with splendor isn’t easy to package, sell or consume. Yet, here one can find stories of iron meeting iron, hardship meeting creativity, contradictory realities meeting the next step with no easy resolution ahead.

This was evident in 3 Canal’s band, Blk.Jab.Nation, where it was clear that many played a mas they individually imagined. Amongst women, there were hand painted masks, translucent cloths top-knotted and then slung over women’s faces, and mesh veils sewn, like brides’ own, to hang from men’s bowler hats, in a runway of women’s masking on parade. To see masking re-emerge is to witness a counterpoint to the contemporary focus on cosmetics for Carnival. As more and more women get their makeup professionally done, masking becomes more important to see and be seen on terms that the male gaze cannot easily penetrate, or get access to without consent.

Among women were also those bare-chested and covered in black paint. One woman in nothing but a regular panty, defiantly taking back the night in a world where women’s sexual safety relies on them covering their bodies in fear and shame, where consent means too little without an end to all sexual vulnerability and violence.

Lest we forget, there is history and richness of masquerade in Jouvay that prettiness cannot encapsulate. This haute couture ruins an aesthetic of colourful sequins, opting instead for a different language with which we can work out what it means to be brown and black bodies negotiating darkness, womanhood, motherhood, beauty and community in pursuit of our humanity.

Crick. Crack. Having played its mas, may Death now tire and offer respite, leaving Woman, already entangled with too many aching memories and stories, to tend to her days of unaccustomed strife.

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Post 138.

Every parent can identify with my joy at Ziya’s first time in a Carnival school show. Morning was filled with traditional characters, limbo for the children, a parade of the bands organized by the theme, ‘To protect and to serve’, and old time kaiso.

Zi played in the clearly ironic mas section, ‘The Flying Squad’. Her class’ lyrics were, ‘We have to learn our ABC, but it really hard you see/ We try to look at the news, but dat giving we the blues’ and later on ‘It have de UNC, PNM and ILP/ We hear about CIA and then they say is DEA’ and so on, ending with ‘sans humanite’.

Look music, politics and picong in our national curriculum. It needs to be said, bless teachers whose labour of love helps our children to love learning, themselves and each other, and who provide those moments that you revisit when your baby has grown up, hopefully to be a better person than you.

That dusk, on my way home, I picked up my neighbour at Mount Hope Hospital. She was rightfully fuming about the $2 million dollar soca and chutney prizes, and about her friend whose husband has been having seizures and can’t get an appointment for a MRI until April. 2015. By then, he could be worse off or dead. My neighbour was planning a fundraiser after the fete spree was finally over, and was hoping they would make as much as $3000, not enough to fully access private health care, less than the cost of some mas costumes, but an act of love and a help. My neighbour’s heartbreak at her friend’s weeping was a reminder that the tragedy of ‘sans humanite’ isn’t only an old time refrain.

On the road for Jouvay, I thought I heard the same melody drift over our heads while 3 Canal’s Laventille Rhythm Section carried me to daybreak. It returned me to reflection about how the light of morning can be turned to the dark of evening by the injustice of our inhumanity. Unlike the prettiness of Monday and Tuesday, Jouvay is a time for contemplation of, indeed confrontation with, our darkness, the jostle of devils and jumbies, repression and resistance. As I meditated, yes in the midst of the mud mas, on the way ahead come Ash Wednesday, I saw two women chipping joyously with their children in the band.

All these police in riot gear like we really at risk of revolution, all this terror and mistrust, and here these mothers are, fearlessly, lovingly, relentlessly teaching their children about music, politics, picong and people, about making sure that we can all be together and okay in the bass-heavy dead of night, pressed in between the hammer of iron, unprotected by the apartheid of rope, and surrounded by bodies of every kind, practicing freedom in every form before soberly washing it away.

This is how dutty mas can restore our faith in ourselves when hospitals fail to be places of safety and caring while Jouvay bands fail to be places of danger or crime. Where do we find our humanity and where do we look for community when we are left without? If grinding pressure is our daily struggle, when are those moments when we turn the whole world upside down? How can we teach our children both the ABC and to do better than us with their love, their words, their money, their institutions and their freedom? We want them to get more than the blues from the news, and to do more than just sing out against the true meaning of sans humanite.