FEW THINGS better exemplify the main tension of Carnival – between the festival as a money-making machine versus cultural expression – than the fate of our traditional mas. The mas is not getting enough funding, stakeholders say, and regional mas is dying. We must attend to these warnings or risk losing Carnival’s heart and soul.
The cries are not new. Every year there are gloomy forecasts that the pierrot, pierrot grenade, midnight robber, jab jab, jab molassie, moko jumbie, baby doll, bookman, sailor, dragon will all go silent, close their books, descend from their stilts, put away their whips. And yet this narrative of the traditional mas’s imminent demise is challenged on the ground by practitioners who report otherwise.
“People say that every year and they are very wrong,” says Junior Bisnath, founder of the San Fernando School of Arts, Sports, and Culture. Passion for the mas runs high even in Tobago, with more than a dozen events taking place.
“People in the arts, whether it’s mas or calypso or whatever, they are passion-driven, so they will do it come what may,” notes Junia Regrello, mayor of San Fernando.
But no amount of passion can mask the regional distortions in funding that have emerged. Not only is traditional mas affected by cuts, it’s also subject to a deepening regional bias, inappropriate venues, and a disturbing cultural phenomenon whereby it is denigrated as merely decorative rather than being central to the festival.
As commentators such as Newsday’s Dara E Healy have noted, a worrying elitism now venerates so-called “pretty mas” over the traditional, a problem that is rooted in historical prejudice against black culture.
The issue, therefore, is two-fold. It is not just that traditional mas is not getting enough money, it is also that we feel the extent of our obligation is money and money alone. As Pearl Eintou Springer, the director of the annual Canboulay, asks: Where is the research? Where is the story of the people in the barrack yards who started Carnival being told?
“Carnival is more than wine and jam, it is resistance,” she says.
And yet, the academy is not likely to be traditional mas’s saviour. Only people – on the ground, in the streets – can save it.
The mas deserves more than a conversation about money. It demands a deeper engagement with its ideas and democratic principles. This means even the makers of “pretty mas” must realise the debt they owe. For instance, Peter Minshall has frequently made a point of saying his designs can be traced right back to the bat. It also means traditional mas must open itself to change, even as we seek to retain its hallmarks.
Political will, on the part of all stakeholders and not just the State, is therefore required in order to place the mas where it belongs: centre stage.