How many countries do you know with a festival where you and your friends can dance in the streets while “dressing up” in the finest old clothes you can put your hands on to make fun of someone? It could be anyone – a well-known personality, someone you know, maybe even yourself. And if you’re really good at it, you might even make them laugh at themselves or at least wonder if you were flattering them or…
Welcome to “Ole Mas,” a key component of the Carnival tradition of Trinidad and Tobago or Trinbago as the country is often called.
Trinbago’s Carnival festival is renowned for its glittering colourful costumes paraded through the streets accompanied by vibrant, infectious rhythmic music of calypso and soca, the party side of calypso/kaiso. Indeed, Carnival is Colour, according to an old slogan.
But like so many other things about our society, things aren’t always what they seem on the surface. One other thing for which Trinbago is well-known is its overly familiar culture; a curious irreverence towards authority that can sometimes be openly disdainful. In that realm the biting, often cringe-inducing lyrics of the calypsonian singing on social or political commentary flay in song abuses of power by those in authority.
Even that colourful splendour of the Carnival bands often conceals a hidden side of our “Mas” – as iconic Carnival designer Peter Minshall refers to it – where socially conscious street portrayals with messages about nuclear holocaust, historical massacres or environmental destruction are put on display with the most brilliant splashes of colour.
Outside of that large, and often expensive, Mas portrayal there is the “ole” mas tradition. People dressed in shabby clothes, rags, bags, pretty much anything that comes to the imagination, combine their shabby, often raunchy attire with good old “Trini” humour and playful butchery of the Queen’s English to engage in mockery.
An individual ole-masquerader, dressed in drag as if he was pregnant, walks through the streets of San Fernando lampooning the Minister of Finance, Colm Imbert.
To fully appreciate the significance of this irreverent humour, one must understand its historical beginnings in oppression. Trinidad Carnival, birthed in Africa over 6000 years ago as a fertility festival, evolved in this country maintaining the fertility theme but incorporating something else. In this country it also became a form of passive resistance to the violence and exploitation that stemmed from the incessant demands on labourers for increased production from the planter class and colonial administration during oppressive enslavement and then colonial rule. During the enslavement period the mostly European planters lived in constant terror of being overwhelmed if the enslaved Africans revolted. The Haitian Revolution sent shock waves all across the Americas, leaving deep impressions in the minds of slave-owners. Even after Emancipation the fear of revolt by the African labourers remained present in the minds of the European minority. In response, they attempted to create through the laws, militias, religious and schooling systems an aura of being all-powerful.
They also presented themselves as the models of morality. But, as historical records clearly show, that façade was often as hollow as a straw. Planters, governors, priests and other self-appointed elites frequently engaged in the same acts of “immorality” they condemned in the African men and women whom they considered “amoral.” Of course, the domestic workers were well aware of all these goings-on in the estate houses. Indeed, many of them were the ones being taken advantage of.
Having almost no means of legal redress, African labourers – and later Indian indentured servants – engaged in mockery, sometimes disguised as flattery (known locally as ‘mamaguy’), to highlight the hypocrisy of the elites. As part of that resistance African labourers incorporated masking and role-reversal traditions of West Africa with the fertility and traditions of playful mockery of the French influence where the Egyptian festival also diffused. Sexual themes from the ancient festivals that now disturbed European sensibilities were also employed to evoke feelings of shock and discomfort.
“LEE SING TAKING BOTTLE FROM THONG”
In this 2012 presentation, performers from the band De Blue Boys, using Trini dialect to play on words, hilariously interpret the controversial decision to ban all glass bottles in Port of Spain (commonly known as ‘Town’) by then Mayor Louis Lee Sing.
In mock versions of the masked balls held in estate houses of the French Creole planters, former enslaved Africans, now free but exploited labourers dressed up imitating the planters. In the run-down, overcrowded and insanitary barrack yards they were forced into after Emancipation, complete with a haughty maître d who announced the arrival of the “dignitaries” with mouth-twisting names, “couples” (often men dressed as women) walked in with features such as exaggerated breasts or buttocks poking fun at their overseers or the planters. This became known as Jamette Mas, from the French “diametre,” or “level,” which referred to the African working class – particularly the women – who the Europeans considered below the level of respectability.
Three forms of the Jamette Mas; the one in the centre represents the type most objectionable to Victorian “morality;” where women used to throw open their skirts and expose themselves to the white Creoles looking on in a mark of defiance.
This was the nature of the Mas for decades; it wasn’t “ole” mas, it was the mas, along with other characters like bats, imps, Midnight Robbers, sailor and soldier bands, cow mas and so on. As the Mas became more organised and more colourful as prizes began to be given out for “pretty” Mas – partly, some researchers say, to cleverly blunt the subversive aspect of the older masquerade – and evolved into what we have today, this type of mockery was found almost exclusively on J’Ouvert Morning, the pre-dawn opening of the Carnival festivities.
In San Fernando, the second city in Trinidad and Tobago, this tradition of playful mockery and “sarcastic” street portrayals found a firm base. Over the years it has seen mixed fortunes but it continues through the devotion shown by such bands as Play Boyz, the Merry Boyz and especially a band called De Blue Boys. This band has won the competition more times than any other ole mas band in San Fernando and is still going strong.
A reveler from De Blue Boys, with a “cabinet” in one hand and placards in another, expresses how he feels about the government’s 2016-17 budget announcement of price increases in food instead of cigarettes and alcohol.
Well-known incidents over the past year are humourously interpreted using clever plays on words to illustrate the point the masquerader wishes to bring across and evoke laughter (or make the targeted person cringe). In San Fernando, the golden rule is…anything goes. Any and all topical events of the previous year are held up to “scrutiny” by most of these bands and it does not matter what one’s political affiliations are, everything and everyone is fair game – including at times, the very Mayor who is looking on at the portrayals!
In 2015 the new Minister of Health advocated that people eat more cassava products and less flour-based products in order to combat heart disease and to buy local…except that in official functions government official splurged with all sorts of expensive foreign food and drinks. Here masqueraders from the “Play Boys” band express their feelings through phallic imagery at this hypocrisy.
It must be noted that this humour and mockery is much more than just juvenile humour or adults with immature attitudes – though some masqueraders may happily agree to that! As I tried to illustrate, this tradition of mockery, or sarcasm as Mr. Val Ramsingh, the bandleader for De Blue Boys called it when I interviewed him for a book on Blue Boys I hope to publish soon (yes, I promoting mih ting, ok!!), was and remains the easiest means by which working class people get to express to a mass audience what they think about the society and those who govern it. The culture of exclusion that characterised colonial society carried itself over, unfortunately, into the independent Trinbago; new elites joined old elites. So a lot of the laboring people who were expecting major changes in their lives found themselves as ignored and ‘mamaguyed’ as they were under colonial rule. They then dealt with it the best ways they knew how, one of which was through public displays of humour and mockery.
With a portrayal entitled “The Corn-Tree (read, ‘Country’) Can’t Take No More,” these members of Play Boys place on a dried corn tree placards with the names of the major scandals the former People’s Partnership Government have been embroiled in.
Those who are academically inclined could do well to study and decode this medium of political and social protest. Of course, that will mean using different sets of analytical tools, more organic tools so to speak. Far too often the ways former colonies deal with social issues like delinquency, crime, conflict resolution, economic and social support, adhere to Western rules of examination which are rooted in a foreign cultural background – and often come with racist and sexist preconceptions.
We need to look at ourselves through our own eyes and this happens to be one such way. So on J’Ouvert morning, come to San Fernando and be entertained with our brand of humour. Better yet, come in town J’Ouvert morning, find yourself in a band, as the late Lord Kitchener sang. Youths especially (because yuh getting to make fun of grown ups AND wear old clothes AND jump up in the road WHILE making fun of grown ups…what more yuh want?), join De Blue Boys nah or Play Boys or whatever other band there is that does Ole Mas….or better yet, make one of your own with friends and laugh at life. With all that has happened this last year alone, I know the question is not so much what can be portrayed, but what to leave out!!
More snapshots of our history as seen from past Ole Mas
Two different but related views. Because of his “get it done now” style former FIFA Vice President and government minister “Jack” Warner has been seen as a hero to many despite his constant controversies and legal battles. His fall from grace and the attempt to extradite him in 2015 was well recorded in 2016’s J’Ouvert competition as Play Boyz and Blue Boys show us.
In January 2010 former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday (“Bas” as he is often called) was unexpectedly voted out as leader of the United National Congress, the political party he founded. This Blue Boys masquerader, using another “staple” of ole Mas, the chamberpot (often called a “throne”), which was a feature in many homes before indoor toilets were commonplace interprets the shock of that defeat to Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
(Photo courtesy of Gizelle Foster)
As oil prices continued to decline, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley called for people to change their lifestyle and prepare to make do with less. To “ban (band or tie up) your belly” has for decades been a local expression to describe taking austerity measures. Here a Play Boyz masquerader in 2016’s J’Ouvert competition gives her interpretation of Dr Rowley’s advice.
Another masquerader, dressed in drag, from De Blue Boyz expressing the gloomy state of the economy.
(Photo courtesy of Gizelle Foster)
Rituals of Power and Rebellion: The Carnival Tradition of Trinidad and Tobago 1763-1962 – Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool PhD
Trinidad Carnival – Errol Hill
Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso – John Cowley
Parade of the Carnivals 1839-1989 – Michael Anthony
Ah Come back Home – Kimani Nehusi
Calypso and Society in pre-Independence Trinidad – Gordon Rohlehr
Trinidad Carnival: Cultural Politics of a Transnational Festival – educated by Garth Green and Phillip W. Sher