Carnivals and the Sea

Even if the costumes are beautiful, Carnival should remind us to be afraid. "If your mas not saying ting or frightening small children or making old men bawl for obeah, what are you even doing?”* according to the facebook post of mas-maker Robert Young. Pat Ganase comments on some features of 2017 Carnival. This was first published in the Tobago Newsday on March 9, 2017

How many times have you played sailor, plain whites or long-nose, fancy with elaborate headdress, or seen a band depicting sea creatures so fantastic that you are certain that they could not exist, and never even thought of the sea? Well, like the ingenious carnival bat costumes that emerged from the rabies outbreak in Trinidad in the 1930s, all carnivals of the sea now need to be cautionary tales, asking us to pay attention to the plight of the waters around our shores, the ocean from which the health of the world as we know it ensues. We are islands after all, and have always looked to the sea for sustenance, relaxation, inspiration and as a means to expand influence if not territory.

Carnival reminds us of what we fear, even as we take on the fearsome persona. Photo courtesy Anjani Ganase

Little Blue Devil at Paramin. Photo courtesy Anjani Ganase

But the days of carnival bats to frighten and urge people to take precautions against the outbreak of rabies are long gone. Most of the frightful characters of yesteryears’ mas are now regarded as droll and old, relics of times past: the baby doll/child mother, jab jabs with rope whips, midnight robbers, devil and dragon mas.

The year is 2017. Most Carnival presentations stick to the big band pretty mas genre that has become our habit in the recent decades; bikinis, beaded and feathered. A few small, independent mas-makers keep to the tradition which Robert Young's Vulgar Fraction band claims.

*Ayanna Gillian Lloyd, Young's associate, says, "If your mas not saying ting or frightening small children or making old men bawl for obeah, what are you even doing?”

Vulgar Fraction’s production this year is The Caribbean Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a sailor mas:
“Where are we…who are we…the same…
caught between the devil and the deep blue sea…
And here we are caught between…
Adrift at sea as sailors in uncertain times…”

Cat in Bag Productions, organized for four years running now by Ashraph Ramsaran, Nicholas Laughlin and Georgia Popplewell, was very specific with their Washed Up band: "Ready to swim with dead fish and dead crab? Ready for the octo-pocalypse? When the sea level rises, you have no choice. We thought we were flushing away all our mess like so much garbage. But the sea don't want our trash, and all that stinkiness coming right back..."
Washed up, a Cat in Bag Production, features Seahorse played by Amy Deacon. Photo courtesy Sean Drakes

Washed up, a Cat in Bag Production, features Fish played by Nicholas Boodram. Photo courtesy Sean Drakes

It was Minshall however who might have given us most to think about this Carnival. His Spiritus Mundi, cobbled to the Exodus steelband’s “Sailors on an Exotic Isle” is past, present and post-apocalyptic. Youth on moko jumbie stilts lead the band. Your gaze is pulled up. To banners and headpieces featuring screaming skulls like ghostly jellyfish above the all-in-white-cotton anonymous players. For those who have seen bleached coral reefs, it was a bleaching of the colour carnival: the spirit of the world.
Minshall-designed Spiritus Mundi moko jumbies take a rest. Photo courtesy Lawrence Carrington.

Lukas on stilts in the Minshall-designed Spiritus Mundi. Photo courtesy Lawrence Carrington

In 1979, Minshall produced Carnival of the Sea. The king was a Devil Ray. Those costumes and characters celebrated life. Spiritus Mundi portends death, a death of the world. And we should be afraid.

Be very afraid! This is the message of most of the mas characters that have endured the decades. And we take a tack away from the main centres of mas in downtown Port of Spain. Up the steep slopes of a little French creole village above Maraval, the tradition of devil is kept alive. The blue devils of Paramin who haunt the pre-dawn hours to J’ouvert, are featured in the Djab Molassi Festival on Carnival Monday.

The devils come out as the sun is going down. They jab pitchforks, spew red-laced slime from their maws. To get them out of your face, you give them a dollar, “pay de devil” (a custom that has been frowned on by the authorities fearing the loss of visitors). The tak-tak rhythm of their procession is provided by percussionists on biscuit tins. You’ll have the fright of the season from people who, unmasked, are the most civil, courteous, mild-mannered, villagers of Paramin and elsewhere. Now, what they need to do is invent a plant-based non-toxic dye, so they won’t be washing petroleum based paints into the waterways.

Now that Carnival is over, runaway shiny beads and feathers reach the seas and lure fish to the glimmering bait. When are mas-makers going to regain their positions as conscience and commentators on society: like Vulgar Fraction to use natural or recycled materials in the mas; or like Cat in Bag to warn that we must be “ready to swim with dead fish” in our carnival of the sea!

Bleached coral at Okinawa. Photo courtesy The Ocean Agency/ XL Catlin Seaview Survey


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