Behind The Mas
IN A YARD in Couva, two masters battle.
At first read this may seem to be an ordinary statement, but on closer examination of the battle one realises that one of the masters is fighting with a stick typical of what is called a bois and the other, a whip.
The whip cracks and the bois shoots forward as the boisman parrays. Eventually, they lock together in a familiar ritual closure of battle – each with his weapon of choice behind his back. Further, the master with the bois is African in origin, while the one with the whip is East Indian. How could this be?
“Bois and whip used to fight together in the early days,” says boisman Rondel Benjamin. Indeed, some of the earliest references to bois also include descriptions of whip fighters or jab jabs. These would typically have been East Indian, although elements of their costuming such as the protective mirrors were also present in African stickfight attire.
The presence of the East Indian in Carnival is hardly surprising. Between 1845 and 1917 almost 144,000 East Indians migrated to Trinidad under the system of Indian indentureship, introduced after emancipation. The vast majority of East Indians who came were Hindus, while a smaller proportion was Muslim. “Despite the trying conditions experienced under the indenture system, about 90 per cent of the Indian immigrants chose, at the end of their contracted periods of indenture, to make Trinidad their permanent home.”
Immigration certainly had an effect on the content of Carnival, as this period also saw an increase in indentured Africans, people from other Caribbean islands, Portuguese and even Americans as official records show. However, East Indians comprised the largest group of new settlers. Prof Hollis Liverpool notes in his book Rituals of Power and Rebellion that their presence in the Carnival began to be felt most noticeably around the 1880s.
It would seem that the participation of East Indians in the masquerade also contained an element of resistance, as they started to protest the unsanitary living conditions in their rural barrack yards, as well as unfair restrictions on personal movement and dehumanising legislation enacted by the colonial government.
For the Africans, the devil mas or jab molassie masquerade was one way to recall the trauma of enslavement, when sometimes the enslaved would fall into the huge vats of molasses used in the production of rum. The jab jab masquerade was another form of “devil mas” played primarily by East Indians and not to be confused with the jab molassie masquerade.
Author Laurence Maharajh recalls a jab jab portrayal from the 1940s; note the names of the masqueraders: “There were Rajah, Sumair and the rest of the gang from Lopinot Road who stood up as representative jab-jab characters of Arouca to the out-of-district challenging players. They were well padded in their colourful close fitting costumes with faces protected with wire mask as they demonstrated fantastic skills using a rope whip, cracking and striking from a distance.”
Not surprisingly, the various ethnic groups began to assimilate traditional masquerade and cultural forms from each other into their Carnival portrayals. For instance, jab jab costumes feature the stockings and three-quarter pants with suspended bells from the stickfighter’s costume, as well as the heart-shaped addition on the outside of the costume on the chest area, the “fol.” But perhaps the most striking example of assimilation is the fact that the jab jab “carried whips made of plaited rope with which they beat one another as the Igbos of West Africa did...”
The whip-master from the battle is Ronald Alfred. He is on a mission to ensure that the practice of the whip at Carnival time does not die. In the lead-up to Carnival, the whip-men fast, use herbs to cleanse and protect their bodies and abstain from alcohol and sexual activity. They warn that this ritual is essential, and tell stories of whip-men who broke the rules and faced the consequences of their disobedience.
The day before Carnival is the final test when the whip-men face the lash of the whip without protective clothing, on their bare skin. Those who are able to withstand the pain are honoured by playing whip during Carnival.
Whip-masters say “if you can’t take lash don’t play.” I cannot help but think that this pre-Carnival test is a metaphor for cultural practitioners who are still waiting for better treatment from the powers that be. But we have already proved that we can take lash; to protect our culture, we will continue to withstand the pain.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN