Last April Ardene Sirjoo asked me a last-minute favour. And I found myself on the Hart St pavement outside the Library in Port of Spain MCing ole mas, thanking sponsors, improvising, putting meaning into words on papers thrust under my nose that I myself didn’t grasp, struggling not to betray my feelings about the judging results, and reminding myself of all the people I’d seen fall down in the role and sneered. My awkwardness was compounded by bewilderment about what an ole mas competition was doing in a literary festival anyway.
Last Saturday, on the opposite side of the same pavement, watching six bands and three individuals appear in the Bocas Lit Fest’s second ole mas competition, suddenly it made total sense, like it does as you round Cipriani Statue in a band with two rum in your head Carnival Monday afternoon. And I got really, really excited. About how much ole mas is one of our speech forms. How fragile it is, how specific and familiar its rituals are. How much it belongs in a festival of words and ideas. (Alongside the robber poetry Rhoda Bharath, Vahni Capildeo and I performed Friday—read Shereen Ali’s review Wednesday past. And Black Sage’s extempo masterclass.) How much the festival could nurture and revive the form.
So I’m not as worried as some of my friends in media about Bocas’s sense of place. I found myself moved from questioning the expediency of the festival’s engagement with Carnival art forms to a sense of magic about that.
Bocas partnered with the City’s Downtown Carnival Committee to recruit ole mas entrants, producing a mix of stalwarts of the dying artform and young innovators stretching it, parading before a panel that mixed a seasoned matron of Carnival judging with an international poet.
I’ve often mocked the shallow physicality of Caribbean stage humour, preferring other qualities to our wit, like the travelling Guyanese pantomime troupe spokesman explaining to their audience of Brooklyn residents at the intermission why the show had been re-scheduled from an earlier date. That they had not realised the need to apply for performing artist visas, believing they could travel on their B1 and B2 visitors’ visas. “You know, the ones that most of you in this room have.”
The room was silent. But during the show itself, our audiences will see the corny joke coming from a distance, voice the punch line in unison, then roll in the aisles in laughter.
But savouring a Hubert Rance St mas player, seated on the ground, lingeringly watch his (bottle of Mt Gay) eclipse go down, I rediscovered the grace of those gestures. Indeed it was his capacity to draw out the pun in its broadest strokes that eluded what I thought was the competition’s cleverest presentation, Shiphole by 1000 Mokos, a mas on the mas (or “shiptease”) that is the seabridge. Jumbling onto stage all at once, one lost the richness of the individual portrayals: the latrine labelled Tobago that no one sat lovingly on; the fancy sailor whose Galleons Passage headpiece fell down over his head, as he stumbled, his stoker turning into a cane. And of course there was a Party Boat. Witticisms like Waiting 4 Good-Oye! and Kick in De Benne Balls went undepicted in action, though the mokojumbie Is Best Ah Walk did its work effortlessly.
Some presentations pushed outside the form altogether. Competing as an individual, one of the band’s principals Joshua Lue Chee Kong walked on stilts with a black headpiece in the shape of Greyfriar’s church and holding a brick. It was an eloquently moving costume accompanied by delivery of a long sledgehammer of a eulogy, and was judged in last place.
Two of six bands responded to the national debate over LGBTI rights. Cherisse’s Peaces’ Side by Side We Stand used sometimes nuanced depictions of coarse puns like The Law Was Buggin’ Meh (a judge in gown and wig), Rights Now! Not In Weekes (with a brick house of a bosom), In Front My CongreGAYtion (a priest in mitre holding a Bi-Bull) and No Ferry Only Fairies (a whitefaced man in socks and slippers arriving in a plane); and—not quite on theme—KFC Does Rob Me D’ Wrong Way (a midnight robber in drag).
Taking a quite different approach was Powder to D’ People (yes: all over my pants and shoes), a Vulgar Fraction band produced by Amanda MacIntyre, a heroic depiction of Jason Jones knocking out Section 17 of the Constitution [huh?], planassing religious bigotry, repelling idiots. The band proceeded with Re Peelin D’ Law, unravelling a length of orange cloth from a calabash.
They and 1000 Mokos placed behind Jouvay Ayiti’s winning reflection on Donald Trump’s s---hole epithet, I Land Sweets.
I’m sorry I skipped the extempo workshop. Next year I’m going, and as well to the session Tony Hall conducted for competition participants on playing ole mas.