Ritual and revolution in the mas

Culture Matters

Power to the People

THERE ARE those who say that George Bailey did not do the proper rituals.

In 1957, at only 22 years old, this visionary mesmerised the country with his portrayal of Back to Africa. Aldric Bailey commented that the band “gave the impression that what the crowd was looking upon was the greatest bandleader that Trinidad Carnival had ever been fortunate to see.”

George Bailey’s portrayal indicated a sophisticated approach to consciousness about African identity. It also opened a space for the exploration of ethnic identity through Carnival and theatre arts, long before the concept of Black Power was articulated.

As the 20th century matured, increased consciousness about African Caribbean identity became part of regular discourse. Intellectuals and academics such as CLR James, George Lamming, Franz Fanon, Claudia Jones and George Padmore discussed the contradictions of colonial rule in international fora.

Fanon from Martinique analysed the impact of generational racism. Barbadian Lamming used his prose to reconcile the contradictions between colonial identity and Caribbean self-expression. From TT, James and Padmore emerged as leaders of the Pan African movement which advocated greater unity of African peoples across the globe.

In the United Kingdom, TT national Jones channelled her passion and ideological connection to Pan Africanism into creating the Nottinghill Carnival. She saw cultural expression also as a form of political activism.

In the US, WEB Du Bois emerged as one of the African American voices that gave clarity to the issue of racial politics.

Dr Eric Williams had already published Capitalism and Slavery which brilliantly exposed the link between enslavement of Africans and the enrichment of western powers.

At home, Audrey Jeffers used her passion for social work to advance African empowerment and the development of women through the Coterie of Social Workers.

So there was context for the mas. For 15 years, George Bailey consistently produced Carnival bands, from 1957 to his passing in 1970. Interestingly, three out of his six winning bands centred on African themes – Back to Africa ,1957; Relics of Egypt, 1959, and Bright Africa, 1969, when he also won People’s Choice.

In the years leading up to 1970, other bandleaders dabbled with a focus on Africa. Interestingly, two members of Desperadoes steelband, Donald Steadman and Wilfred Harrison, placed third in the 1963 Band of the Year competition with a presentation of Land of the Zulus and second in the King of Carnival competition with the individual King Shaka of Zulu Land.

The year 1969 saw an intensification of positive focus on African history through the mas, for example, the third place winner in the Queen of Carnival competition – Queen of Ethiopia.

Something else happened on the streets in 1970, this time in the J’Ouvert. Lennox Toussaint, one of the key people behind the presentation Africa: Then and Now, says he and his group of friends decided to use the national forum of Carnival to address and correct misconceptions about people of African heritage.

For them, it was more than a mas band; it was about continuing the ideological reshaping of minds and emphasising that the history of Africa did not begin with enslavement. I will share more on this fascinating piece of our Carnival heritage next week, but for now I want to come back to Bailey.

It is said that his band Egypt was so realistic that it was as though he had reached into history to create it. I am told that in the mas camp objects moved on their own and spirits could be felt, watching over the workers. “Like a Trinidadian version of the curse of King Tut, various members of the band fell ill that year, or suffered mysterious calamities...”

My view is different. I do not see what happened as a curse, but another signal that Carnival is powerful energy, much of it located in African spirituality; much of which we have yet to understand.

Born in 1935, Bailey transitioned to another realm in 1970, at the age of 35. According to one scholar, “in ancient Kemet (Egypt), the number seven represented completion.” There are several examples of Bailey’s connection to this number. Coincidence? Perhaps.

We speak lightly about Carnival jumbie and the spirit of Carnival without fully appreciating that every year we summon the energies of powerful ancestors. Disrespect towards Carnival practitioners disturbs this energy. Fifty years after Bailey’s passing not enough of us understand this. As we remember 1970, perhaps that is what he is trying to tell us – that mas is spirit, mas is ritual.

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

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"Ritual and revolution in the mas"

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