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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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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Post 222.

Neither Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland nor modern day zombie flicks come close to the creatures that leap out from fantasy and hell as they take over bodies, turn ordinary neighbours into mythical forms and gorge on human life to reincarnate year after year, on sticks, in paint, within wire, emerging from embryonic, easily unnoticed rooms, defying us to acknowledge what we usually fail to see.

Moms morph into deformed folk like Erzulie the La Diablesse, with her cloven hoof, horns and complex sweeping spirit. Old men turn bat or Jab, like Carnival has full moon power, casting an overpowering spell, despite people’s poverty or pain. Young bredren oil down, revealing true selves in Devil blue and black skins, daubing each other with love, despite familiarity with anger.

In this magical place, even a bookish sort of child need only glance around to gather and store imaginative resources, meanwhile learning to be patient, to look carefully, to draw value from what others dismiss. While for most, traditional mas seems repetitious or cliché, I’ve found characters within traditional mas communities provoke a greater sense of humanity, deeper connection to land, and humbling appreciation for the beauty that people insist on making from their experiences of negation and oppression, near starvation and intimacy with horror. It’s these netherworld creations twisting through her home place that I want Ziya to learn to notice.

For little ones like her, Tuesday night’s Kings and Queens competition required sitting through many crossings of the stage that didn’t seize her sense of the truly inventive, but more importantly, there were those that did. I took her to see Peter Minshall’s King, ‘The Dying Swan – Ras Nijinsky in Drag as Pavlova’, for her to see how the stick legs of moko jumbies, instead of being hidden, might be seductively sculpted, as if on tip toe, and held in ballet shoes. Jha-Whan Thomas danced like a steelpan that plays classical scores in ways their composers never saw coming, in a way I understand as uniquely ‘Made in Trinidad and Tobago’. There is all this for her to know.

Such possibility is always present.  I wanted Zi to observe how vision means seeing the taken for granted anew. And, there are visionaries to learn from right here, making orchestras of whipped rope made from plant leaves, overturning devils’ horns to point at onlookers, perfecting thirty-foot-high mas that really does dance.

With Carnival upon us, with attention on bikinis and beads, and hot bodies, iced rum and deafening soca, my gaze as anthropologist, educator and mother is on the best of traditional mas, including the gigantic sculptures that embody their makers’ highest aspirations. Contemporary and breathing, these all provide lessons in art, design, family, memory and history, making Carnival a museum without walls, where artifacts handed down over generations are chipping down the road, stepping like sailors or rhyming like robbers, rather than encased in glass or hanging lifeless and still.

This handing down is a reminder that, beyond the materials assembled, Carnival makes people, who we often overlook, visible. And that is one of its truths. It matters that, this year, young Lionel Jagessar Junior and his partner Kareena Badall, both made it to the finals, as another generation making multiple crossings, not just on stage, for a band that has brought Indian mas to San Fernando for more than 35 years. It matters that a generation that comes after Zi might therefore still have access to their mas camps as an alternate space, if only under a shed, for education, stories, creating characters and representing moments in history, which no one has to fly out to reach.

All I can say for certainty is that, in this place that makes wonderland from damnation, as Ziya develops a sense of dreaming for herself, from Carnival dragons to rainforest guardians, her earliest inspirations won’t only come from mere books on a shelf.