TIME TO TAKE BACK WE MAS….AGAIN

I was going to just write this about De Blue Boys and the sorry state of Ole mas in San Fernando J’Ouvert. But after attending an informal panel discussion on independent mas on Tuesday night in Belmont, I realise the problem runs deeper. I think we need to invoke the spirit of ‘Bubolups’; leh she walk into certain bands and offices and start to mash up ting from a fucking side, cause this starting to get out of control now.

I knew there were issues with Traditional Mas (who with an interest in it doesn’t know that?); since the 19th century there has been a constant pulling and tugging between the “Mardi Gras” pretty Mas and the darker, more political “jamette” Mas coming out of the depressed and marginalised communities of the country.

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                                  Jamette Mas in downtown Port of Spain circa 1920s

       (Photo courtesy of Angelo Bissessersingh’s Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago)

But over the last few years there were little pockets of resurgence such as the University of the West Indies’ DFCA annual ‘Old Yard” presentations. These were enough to show that there is a place for it as there is quite a lot of interest in traditional Mas. But self-contempt and petty insecurity runs very deep in this society, often increasing the higher up you go in certain institutions. And when you connect that with slavish adherence to “bottom line” financial gain, you have a very toxic mix.

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Moko jumbies, part of the portrayal of traditional characters at DCFA’s annual “The Old Yard”  (Author’s photo)

 “Ole” mas, which derived partly from the “jamette” mas of the barrack yard slums where African and later on Indian labourers were quartered, was the means by which they expressed their innermost feelings. It was one of the less destructive ways they channeled their rage over the inhumane living and working conditions and the unscrupulous payment practices they were subjected to. The beauty of ole mas was that one could make a statement without uttering one word, or holding one placard and the masses did just that. Mixing African ritualistic masking tradition and humour, the women of “loose morals”, the “brigands”, “savages” and whatever else the allegedly respectable people in the society chose to call the labouring class from their lofty positions, masqueraded, derived enjoyment and at the same time made social statements about the pretensions of higher morality of their social betters. In essence, it was and remains our purest democratic tradition: in a sense everyone could be brought to the same level.

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Two forms of Ole Mas considered objectionable: the piss-en-lit and the Blue Devils, derived, most likely from the Jab Molassie (author’s photos)

Perhaps that is why it has to be stamped out. One of the things the society has held onto since the time of Dr. Williams was what Lloyd Best used to call Maximum Leadership and what others term a messiah complex. Either way it meant slavish deference to authority figures; their words were law and were beyond questioning and challenge. That of course stemmed from a more rigid authoritarianism of the colonial period. In such environments gaiety and humour were at best tolerated so long as the humour did not extend to persons in authority. Public figures who represented the maximum Leader – and of course the Maximum Leader – could not be the subjects of ridicule no matter what they did as that was seen as undermining their authority.

The jamette mas of the barrack yards were definitely seen as subversive, not to mention disgusting as the masqueraders, many of whom were domestic servants on the estates, used the opportunity to put on display the filthy habits and dirty secrets of the “better” classes. To counter this, aside from the implementation of restrictive laws, institutions like the Trinidad Guardian newspaper began to give out prizes for the prettiest costumes. Over time, although Mas designers like George Bailey still found ways to inject social consciousness into their bands (such as “Tears of the Indies”) the mas of the barrack yards began to fade.

Well it appears that some people in San Fernando and Port of Spain might very well be students of history…but for all the wrong reasons. We seem to be back in the 1930s again. In recent years, as part of the “drive” to make T&T Carnival more presentable to international tourists and responding to “market forces,” coupled of course with an (intentional?) ignorance of the importance of retaining certain traditions, some officials seem intent on “cleaning up” all aspects of Carnival, including J’Ouvert. It appears that some of these anointed…sorry, appointed managers of the Mas, harbouring juvenile loyalties to public officials, are doing their best to phase out the more socially conscious aspects of Carnival. Just a couple years ago it was reported that some calypso judge wanted less “Chalkdust”-style kaisos. And to those who are familiar with the style of Dr. Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool, jump and party is not his thing.

So too with traditional Mas and J’Ouvert. Over the last few years in San Fernando it has become apparent that some people had taken serious issue with the way public figures close to them (or perhaps they themselves) were subjected to open ridicule in Ole Mas presentations. De Blue Boys, formed in 1982 and holding the record for the most number of wins in J’Ouvert (28 times) have been consistent in humourous portrayals and interpretations of topical issues and public figures.

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                                        (Author’s photos)

So, whether it is in the form of very long delays in presenting prize money (Blue Boys won last year and to date has not yet been given the prize money), or instructing that the portrayals be submitted to the organisers days in advance – reminiscent of the Theatre and Dance Halls Ordinance of 1934 – the message seems to be one of exclusion. And how is it that in 2017, with only two ole Mas bands among the dozens of bands registered, one of those bands was not even placed? How was the judging done? Were the new “jersey”/bath suit bands classed together with Ole Mas portrayals?

Similar stories can be found in Port of Spain judging from what was said in the discussion on Earthig Road. There is already the major issue of how the NCC implemented this thing about licensing and copyrighting – Mark Lyndersay did a very important piece on that once and if one reads it and then compares it to Prof John Mugabe’s essay on intellectual property, one would see why we need to be extremely cautious about how we go about implementing Western style ideas into non-Western celebrations.

It doesn’t appear that among the intellectuals there is much interest either. The recently held symposium on Carnival – ironically called Memory, Politics and Performance – had an entire day of presentations, all sorts of fancy papers and themes. But not one single discussion was held, not one paper was presented that looked at J’Ouvert and Ole Mas in the context of grassroots social and political commentary. DSCF2074

Typical of the J’Ouvert bands that paraded the streets J’Ouvert Morning in 2017 (Author’s photo). Compare with this image of a dressed up lorry from a Carnival of the 1920s                  lorrymas1       

      (Photo courtesy of Angelo Bissessarsingh’s Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago)

Calypso Fiesta and the Dimanche Gras are already torture tests of hymns, wails and laments as it is. Is that the fate of J’Ouvert too? Perhaps we really need to go back to history, the history of the panmen who just decided no one is going to define them but them. And if that means creating their own space…or fucking up the ones that were being bourgeois-ised, then by all means fuck it up.

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But it’s time to take back the Mas before we lose it for good.

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