Behind The Mas
“Halt! Drop your keys and bow your knees and call me the Prince of Darkness, criminal master! For when I snap my teeth and stamp my feet, I can cause a great disaster...Stop, you mocking pretender! Tell me! Who authorise you to put on dem clothes and call yuhself Midnight Robber?”
– Brian Honoré as O’Cangaceiro, a Midnight Robber
IN THE TT Carnival there are masquerades that talk. Their purpose is to speak, to make pronouncements and exhibit prowess through their speech. These masquerades are called the midnight robber and the pierrot, and they are integral to our celebration.
Felix Edinborough, veteran pierrot masquerader, is one of them. “... spelling is my favourite game, but I do not spell words letter for letter, oh no! My method is a thousand times better. You see, every word for me is a story, and sometimes I even use allegory. And according to the situation, from time to time, I will shorten it into pleasant rhyme.”
But why do they speak? Think about most other masquerades, whether from TT or other carnival traditions. They dance, twirl in their appealing costumes, maybe even carry a prop – but speak? No, they do not. Similarly, where do their costumes come from?
As researchers delve into the origins of both the midnight robber and the pierrot, more information is emerging about the complex mixture of influences from African and European cultural forms.
Key to the question of speech in masquerade is the concept of the griot from West Africa, or as it is said in the Fulani language, gawlo. In ancient times, the griot was a powerful member of the community. He could advise kings and royalty, would be the keeper and dispenser of information, and was said to have a direct connection with the ancestral realm. So in a very literal sense, words were the source of his power.
The midnight robber speech quoted in the opening paragraph is relatively mild in comparison to other speeches that exalt the powers and prowess of the performer. We were taught in school that this character is inspired by cowboys from American wild-west mythology. But what of his hat, the fact that his face is covered and that he blows a whistle? A cowboy speaks, but never with the eloquence of the midnight robber. Indeed, part of the allure of the cowboy is that he is a person of few words. And a cowboy almost certainly would not dance.
My own investigations have led to the discovery of fascinating linkages between aspects of the speech and costume of the midnight robber and spiritual practices from Africa. The biggest surprise is the broad-brimmed hat which is the exact replica of that used by devotees during the Eyo Festival of Nigeria. Moreover, the fringes hanging around the outer edges of the hat relate directly to royalty; the festival itself is held to honour the passing of a chief or king.
The pierrot is another masquerade that superbly demonstrates that mix of cultural traditions. Today we see the masquerade as genteel and proper, uttering Shakespearean phrases. However, it must be remembered that the urban community that gives birth to the mas comprised stickfighters and, increasingly, Africans directly from the continent. Pierrots were therefore cultural warriors, emanating from the reality of stickfighting, African cultural norms and resistance to oppression.
So the pierrot may have retained the painted face of the French pierrot and the speech of the British, but it is clear from the costuming that the Yoruba Egungun masquerade that celebrates ancestors is very present. “Many Egungun masqueraders, at times maskless, wear layers of cloth and multiple lappets to protect themselves from observation.”
This layered costume may be found across the Caribbean. The pitchy patchy of the John Canoe masquerade in Jamaica use full-face masks reminiscent of those from West Africa. In Barbados, the costume is seen during Crop Over and is said to represent African healers.
The costume is also found in the rara carnival bands of Haiti. Here, masqueraders carry a short-handled whip made of wood and rope in their hands. Interestingly, Prof Hollis Liverpool documents that the TT pierrot battled each other verbally, and also with whips.
The notion of ancestral memory is thus central to deciphering our mas. Next time, I will discuss the pierrot grenade and explain the differences with the pierrot. As we continue looking behind the mas, more memories will be uncovered. Halt what you doing I say, and listen to me, your mas storyteller!
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN