Post 238.

Mas may have mostly left the masses now that bikini and beads revelry runs the road, but the public still comes out in the hope of seeing art take to the streets, to come to them as witnesses, and in homage.

For, mas must come to people and be for them, exciting something in spectators’ waiting and watching hearts in their next intake of observation and breath.

Anyone who has ever played mas that embodies design, skill and character knows this public love for mas portrayals which turn ordinary materials such as chicken wire and cloth or nondescript beads sewn into intricate patterns into otherworldly representations. People are hungry for public creativity and Carnival is when they line sidewalks and crowd corners hoping to catch sight of a moving figure that releases all our pent-up imaginations.

Tuesday found me amidst revelers and spectators, carrying on my shoulders a swollen white skull, connected to dragging tendrils, its mouth open in silent screaming horror. As our small swarm of post-apocalyptic sailors moved through the streets, people repeatedly stopped us and asked, ‘Which band dis is?’, nodding knowledgeably when we told them it was a Minshall mas with Exodus Steel Orchestra. Minshall had said as much in an earlier interview, hoping that this mas would “make a lot of old folk feel very good inside with a sort of satisfying sigh. ‘Ah, yes, well at least I see that again before I dead’”.

Just outside the hospital in town, a woman named Germaine with her little boy, Harmony, stopped to instruct us to play our mas on the stage for her. People were appreciative and discerning, evaluating our portrayal as they stood in front of us, mobilizing familiarity with art history and technique as it has appeared again and again in mas making.

‘Are you a ghost?’, one little girl asked as we waited interminably in Memorial Square as rain fell, sun shone and rain fell again. Indeed, as dystopian ghosts, or spirits of an imagined place of unhappiness, fear and injustice, our towering figures combined sailor mas with robber mas in a band of the dead. We could only be described as a dread mas for dread times, whether because of economic despair, ecological devastation or the recent election of Donald Trump to global dominance.

As we walked, our cloth trails became muddied and stringy, and lengthened out into disgusting tentacles navigating the endless garbage of every kind. I kept wanting to cut them off and return my costume to its opaque whiteness.

Just as I was about to ask veteran mas maker and one of the band’s leaders, Kathryn Chan, she turned to me and said that she loved how soiled they had become and wished she had made them longer. I kept quiet and recommitted to carrying the mas with the authenticity its makers had envisioned. After all, we were rising from the grave, stained by the detritus of humanity, to show an “ominous, empty, vaporized future passing you by” in the present.

Called ‘Spiritus Mundi’ or world spirits, we moved like a whisper of truth through the noise, like a collective soul of the universe containing the memories of all time, somehow both ethereal and material, light and white, yet sodden and unclean.

“No jumping up and dancing on the stage”, Kathryn shouted at us above the cacophony of trucks as she directed the children moko jumbies and flag bearers. We were to properly play our collective character in this theatre, and to show the sobering suffering of the world as a giant mesh representation of the planet rolled ahead of us and a rainbow crowned the hills of Laventille behind.

Minshall himself was sitting in front of his television, impatiently waiting to see another generation of Callaloo Company turn his drawings into life. Just as we stepped on stage, the stations switched to San Fernando, leaving him bereft from an ill-fated director’s decision.

He was inconsolable about missing our enactment and, so, should know that, for those of us that were there, this beautiful and macabre mas was an epic gift, weightless on Tuesday, despite the weight of the world that is our burden now that Carnival has come and gone.

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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 136.

I’m not a bikini and beads kind of girl. In the few times I’ve played mas, it’s been with Minshall’s Sacred Heart and Ashraph Ramsaran’s Snake in the Grass in Port of Spain and the Jagessar family’s Fancy Indian mas in San Fernando.

One year, we even had our own mas band. We, being just three of us friends.

Conceptualized on Carnival Friday, we called our three-woman band Rage of the Goddesses. There was a water goddess, an earth goddess and a wind goddess, and we were vex. The water goddess, me, was vex too bad about the water wasted at too many wet fetes. The earth goddess was damn vex about how Carlos John paved the savannah. The wind goddess was rightly vex about all the pollution.

On Carnival Saturday, we hit Queen Street cloth stores and Samaroo’s in town, and changed our telephone message to say that the caller had reached the Rage of the Goddesses Mas Camp and we were sorry that we missed their call. You could tell we were young, idle and had ketch a Carnival jumbie.

We figured out how to make backpieces from the leaf spines collected in a cocoyea broom. They were strong and supple, holding sheer material glued to either side, looking like large leaves of a lash plant, but in shades of blue, earth and green tones, and white and silver respectively. I made a long skirt with layers of blue hues, crunching white cotton along all the edges to look like the foam cresting the ocean. The earth goddess had a brown dhoti, vines with green handsewn leaves dangling from her arms and a turban, and the wind goddess had a short skirt of white feathers matching those in her hair. We had face paint too, of course, as one must when one is a minor pantheon of nature spirits on an urban warpath.

On Carnival Monday, after scrubbing off the black paint of Jouvay with 3 Canal, we finished decorating our large flags which each said the name of our band and which goddess we were.

On Carnival Tuesday, along with another friend who, for religious reasons, didn’t play Carnival, but who was curious enough to accompany us and who we nominated to be our ‘security’, our motley crew got in a maxi, making the surreal look normel normel, as happens every year.

We had no music so we jump with every truck and pan side that pass, people appreciatively, jokingly asking us if we were the whole band. At judging points, in the space between bands, we jumped with abandon in front of amused judges. The sweet-talking security of one big band even said, doh worry, we go hold back de band for all yuh nice woman. Dat was story for the rest of the week.

And when we encountered Peter Minshall’s M2K, we emerged sprayed down with black and white, having passed through art in the making, living and breathing work beyond anything non-Caribbean Jackson Pollack could bend his mind around. Catching sight of us while he rolled ahead on a van, Minshall looked at us and touched his finger below his eye, indicating recognition. Better than entering and winning any competition, dat was story for the rest of the year.

Finally, flags waving, we crossed the stage, playing weself euphorically. Dark would find three dusty goddesses, vexation unapologetically expressed, tiredly walking home. How could I possibly buy a costume made in China after knowing creativity, celebration and critical consciousness made from scratch? All yuh understand now why I could never just play a bikini mas?