N Touch
Saturday 24 August 2019
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Editorial

Getting our traditional mas right

Culture Matters

Behind The Mas

OVER THE past weeks, I have written about the jab jab and pierrot masquerades. The signature feature of the jab jab is the whip, while the pierrot stands out by his costume featuring strips of colourful fabric; this we linked to the egungun masquerade of West Africa that commemorates ancestors.

This week, name confusion is the focus again, as we explore differences and similarities in our traditional masquerades – namely the pierrot, pierrot grenade, jab jab and jab molassie.

Although today we use pierrot and pierrot grenade interchangeably, it appears that at one point they were two distinct portrayals. Indeed, there were similarities between the two – both featured strips of colourful cloth in their costume, and both used speech.

However, according to Prof Hollis Liverpool, pierrot grenade “dressed in a costume made from oat bags (called crocus bags in Trinidad)...he carried an assortment of tins, boxes and pebbles which took the place of bells...”

Conceivably, the term “grenade” would have crept into the mas after the 1783 Cedula of Population. This law opened up Trinidad to immigration by wealthy planters and their enslaved from French-controlled Caribbean islands such as Martinique, Guadeloupe and, yes, Grenada.

The dominance of French culture after 1783 eventually influenced even our language. For ordinary people this was patois, a combination of words from African and indigenous languages, as well as French creole. It is said that the pierrot grenade’s use of patois was a form of resistance to English or even formal French as practised by the upper classes.

He also employed the very African call-and-response technique by involving the audience in his game of words, spelling, storytelling and humour. He was not really given to audacious speeches as in the tradition of the pierrot or midnight robber.

Over the decades from the 1830s to the 1890s, other versions of the portrayal appeared, often centring on African royalty or their prowess as a speaker. But the pierrot grenade remained a more humble version of the pierrot masquerade. His distinguishing characteristic was that he focused on the rejection of the upper classes, through his use of patois and earthy, simple costuming.

That spirit of resistance is ever present in the portrayals of the jab jab and jab molassie. The jab jab, fully costumed, cracks a whip across his back, while the jab molassie emerges at dawn, covered in oil or other black material, wearing as little as possible.

It is said the jab molassie emerged as a way to remember and express disgust for the brutal way in which Africans were treated, and that his particular portrayal recalls the horrifying death of enslaved who fell, or were perhaps pushed, into a boiling vat of molasses. This would have been an essential aspect of the rum-creating process, the end product of the lucrative sugar-based economy.

One writer documented the commentary of a white man looking on: “The maskers parade the streets in gangs of from ten to twenty, occasionally joining in procession. The primitives were Negroes, as nearly naked as might be, bedaubed in a black varnish. One of this gang had a long chain and padlock attached to his leg, which chain the others pulled. What this typified I was unable to learn; but, as the chained one was occasionally thrown down on the ground, and treated with a mock bastinadoing, it probably represented slavery.”

Observe as well that integral to this mas in TT are the screams, the writhing on the ground, demanding money – essentially terrorising the people looking on. In the early days of the masquerade, the onlookers would have been the elites observing this display in horror, naturally from a safe distance.

An important point about words should also be made. Notice the descriptions used by the white observer – “primitive,” “gangs,” “Negroes.” All of them negative, condescending and, of course, racist.

In many ways, we have internalised these unfavourable views of our festival. It may be seen in the way we continue to promote the “pretty mas” of the elite over traditional masquerade, by the ongoing threats about returning to work and school after creating the very Carnival so loved by the world, or even in the delay of distributing funds to Carnival bodies and practitioners less than two weeks before the event.

So, in the spirit of resistance, I prefer to close by pounding my biscuit tin and using the cries of the jab molassie rather than the eloquence of the pierrot – who is the devil? Jab jab!

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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