I sat on my bleacher at Viey La Cou yesterday with a joy and relief and excitement to be near some of the roots of Trinidad Carnival, but an intense ambivalence about where Trinidad Carnival and its global offspring are today.
It’s not a unique ambivalence. A lot of people are concerned, or horrified, or disgusted; others celebrate the fiscal and sexual excesses of the season. Some are resigned to the fact that change must come; others lament the cost (both fiscal and cultural).
Any preservation of our cultural traditions I think is mandatory, and however it happens it must happen. Trini culture truly is at a critical juncture right now, where some of the longest practitioners of the mas have already begun to pass away, and with them stories, perspectives, and even knowledge of the location and contents of any photo collections they have, archiving a bygone era. So capturing these people any time anywhere doing their thing or talking about their thing is vital, and urgent.
So I can then take the robber speeches and Pierrot spelling and Black Indian rantings through a sound system in front of food and merchandise tents. Ah could handle that. The grounds were vast, and the tourists done already don’t understand our accents. Ah could handle that.
But what ah wasn’t too sure about was something that happened toward the end. The thing is, Mas’ has a real distinct origin. Iz jamette mas, jamette culture. Iz street theatre. Iz dutty, not pretty. And while the spectator, both through the camera lens and in a live “performance of culture” setting is in a position to observe and be entertained by what is going on…the mas is not about the spectator. It’s about the people playin’ the mas, and the impulse to play the mas.
Jab Molassie mas is probably the dirtiest, most “hellish”, wildest, most interactive and confrontational traditional mas that we play. And it often is the one that the new generation takes to most readily. It is supposed to frighten the living daylights out of you. You are supposed to want to run away, or pay de devil before you get dragged into hell with them. Otherwise, dey eh playin’ de mas good!
And the jabs from Paramin yesterday were playin’ de mas real good. Dey didn’t even have to dance – live frogs were the bargaining tool for patrons to run de cyash while others breathed fire and rushed cameramen and select onlookers.
And then all of a sudden, a whole section of people on the bleachers scattered. One of de mud men was slithering and gesticulating on top the seating. I don’t blame the tourists for scooping up their children and vacating their area. I get up and run too.
But just then, there was an announcement, one that followed an instruction to put out some of the flames that had started kicking up on the lawn of the grounds. The instruction was for the mud man to take it down, with the repeated admonition that “we must not discommode the patrons”. Dat come to me like how people who pay to play mas in a band are the bandleaders’ “customers” rather than their masqueraders, as Wendell Manwarren of 3Canal pointed out in an interview the other day.
So traditional mas is a spectator sport now? It has already lost the impulse and urgency and context that produced many of these carnival characters and archetypes. Bikinis have already overriden the streets. Many are saying Calypso – what has been on par with the newspaper and with literature in Trinidad for its content, topicality, and service as a document of the mood and the events of its time – is in crisis, being eclipsed by its more commercial and more energetic soca offspring. And now when we give our ole time mas characters a forum, they have to further dilute their mas so as not to discommode the patrons?
Ah frighten’. And I wish it was just the unadulterated fright when confronted with a live frog and a jab jab breathing fire.