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Tracey Sankar-Charleau Traditional non-conformist

Sunday, March 12 2017

Tracey Sankar-Charleau is traditional… but not in the most fundamental sense of the word. For the past four years, Tracey has been bringing traditional mas characters to life with deep, spiritual, and powerful portrayals as an individual competitor.

She _ rst started her journey in traditional mas many moons ago, playing the Dame Lorraine alongside her mother, June Sankar. But this portrayal was only the seed of the sapling. “I found it was too passive. At the time, I wanted something new so I extended over into the Jab Molassie where that in itself evolved with a crossbreed of the Fancy Jab,” she says of her interest in darker depictions of mas.

In 2016, her characterisation of the La Diablesse went viral in media outlets and the online community – her costuming included a hoof so tall, she says her height was near comparable to that of one of her sons’ who wore Moko Jumbie stilts.

This year, her portrayal of the Lagahoo, traditionally a wolf-like shape shifter, extended to the representation of women scorned and abused – a woman with vengeance. Her costuming inspired awe and stirred feelings of discomfort among onlookers, and was widely shared on social media with many praising her aesthetic and traditional portrayal. Her son, Jude, also portrayed another character etched into our folklore alongside his mother: the Douen.

“The Douen really ‘sprung up’: we were to incorporate Peanut (her family’s nickname for Jude) under the bustle of the skirt of the Lagahoo but in the last month before Carnival, he had a growth spurt,” she says of the organic (and zany) way Jude’s portrayal of the douen came about.

There were even makings of method within his portrayal as Tracey says he is unbaptized. “He took on the manifestation well; as soon as his mask went on, he embodied that character,” she says proudly.

Tracey describes her artistry as high mas – mas where the subject is entangled spiritually, mentally, and emotionally with their character. She says the Lagahoo, much like her La Diablesse, was borne out of “a personal mas”. Her La Diablesse was given its genesis in the aftermath of her husband’s death; the couple had been married for twenty years and had four children together.

“My ladies are now evolving; it’s taking a personal note due to the male individuals that have been in my life within the last two years,” she says of the inspiration behind her recent mas characters.

The Lagahoo, she reveals, was pulled out of her through “a very personal friend” for whom she has deep admiration, respect, and love.

Originally, her plan for 2017 was to play a Burokeet (or “donkey-man”) but Tracey says, as with life’s situations and human connections, her art is in a state of constant evolution. “It turned into something really macabre; I had no idea what was going to happen.” She describes the process of her brand of mas making as exhausting: “I have to prepare spiritually and mentally before, and when an idea comes, it keeps changing over a period of time.” She says the process includes a bush bath before her performance (“We blight and obeah still dey, yuh know!”) to protect her from “bad eye”. She refers to the spirits as an entity that guides her creation as well.

“Sometimes the spirits want something else put on, the cloth must be different, they want something up, something down,” she enacts. For her, her faith (which she prefers not to divulge) in_ uences every aspect of her costuming; it is a spiritual and ritual experience that brings her closer to the spirits of Carnival.

She also felt the story of her Lagahoo needed to be told. While she does not reveal the exact narrative behind her portrayal, she believes our indigenous stories and folklore – ingrained pieces of our culture that continue to haunt us – are there to be shared.

“Any story is there to be told. My women characters all take on a manifestation of my folklore. It’s not as if you put a costume on and you palance – that has its time and place. But as with any other mas – whether it is my friend Rosy playing the Bat or my mother playing the Dame Lorraine or my sister or my daughter, the characters all have backgrounds that must be told,” she says of her belief that high mas and traditional mas are deeper invocations of histories and cultures.

Her passion for mas is not lost on her children.

She says all four are highly involved in different iterations of mas and she hopes to pioneer a return of mas as family-oriented; art that all members of the family can portray, partake in, and learn from. Her hopes for next year are to acquire funding for a traditional mas-only section in a Carnival band that will not only allow persons to don the costumes but become entrenched in the rich stories and associations the characters hold in our country’s history.

“I hope that when children in school open the papers [on Ash Wednesday], they will see their history in the characters and identify with them.

‘The woman with the big breasts and bottom’ – who is that? Half of TT is woman with big breasts and bottom!” she says with a straight face. “What is the character called? When did it start? What is behind the tradition?” she continues with her reasoning behind keeping the characters and their portrayals within a context that marks it as exclusively indigenous – whether to our shores or motherlands.

“I always had my hand delving in the arts,” Tracey says of her long history with creation. She _ rst started making mas in the 1980s with Trinity Carnival Foundation, a far cry from the mas that she makes now for he rself and her children. “My kids are all very artistic. Even my Jessie, who is autistic, we all push for doing something artistic.

“I push them to express themselves, whether it’s in writing or theatre. When you have your kids well-grounded in something to express themselves, you allow them to be,” she says of the support children need to extend themselves to their fullest potential. She also speaks of her own passion for performance art, likening her mas characters to such.

In the future, she would love to become a lecturer of Carnival Studies and is in the process of reviewing this _ eld with Studio 66. She also hopes to have an exhibition of traditional mas characters later this year, once she is able to secure the funding. She hopes this exhibition will also encourage other mas players to come out in their portrayals to show others the personal side of mas – the mas that sees the person and their character bonded into one.

“My whole house is upside down. My section in the studio is upside down. And I love seeing my mas out,” she says of the artistic chaos her work takes up in her life. And after every performance, she sits down, “with my pipe”, and meditates on what is to come.

“What is behind the mask?” she asks mysteriously, referring to the deeper connection mas has with its subjects. “It’s a very deep and macabre thing; when you put something over your eyes to block out or to see – whatever it may be – you are not doing so through the eyes of the mask. To those who are spiritually grounded in the mas, they would understand. The ‘mask’ is something that prepares you for the character you play. My son was deep into character [of the douen] and he was allowed to see and become once he put on his mask. ‘Becoming’ is a very personal word to anyone playing Traditional mas.

You don’t play the character, you become the character.” She says over time, many persons have spoken about her portrayals in both positive and negative tones, but the commentary does not affect her art.

“People will talk, people will bad mouth but you come into this world by yourself and you will leave by yourself,” she says irreverently.

Her advice to persons who may consider High mas for its deeper connotations is to detach from the words and thoughts of others and hone in on the need and thirst to portray the mas as you see _ t.

“Don’t do other people, do you,” she advises, although it seems that this may be her own personal mantra – impertinent, self-preserving, and independent.



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