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 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.

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.