Jab molassie mas historical, spiritual

Tobagonian mas practitioner Antonia Thomas breathes fire as part of her portrayal of a jab molassie.  -
Tobagonian mas practitioner Antonia Thomas breathes fire as part of her portrayal of a jab molassie. -

“Long ago in Tobago, the Carnival wasn't so, no/Was plenty jab-jab and devil/They came down to Les Coteaux/They came from Culloden, horns on their head/One name is Vixen, eyes always red/One Abyssinia, a hero of man/Portraying Lucifer with a fork in his hand.”

Shadow’s lyrics in Pay The Devil, released in 1994, show the devil mas has been a part of Tobago’s culture for decades. Errol Hill, in his 1972 book The Trinidad Carnival, said the jab molassie mas had been observed in Trinidad in 1848. So many people were surprised that a fuss was made over the appearance of a jab molassie as part of Tobago’s presentation at the World Trade Market in London between November 6-8.

According to the National Library and Information Service (Nalis) said the jab molassie costume consists of short pants or pants cut off at the knee, a mask and horns, chains, locks and keys, and a pitchfork. He may smear his body with grease, tar, mud or coloured dyes (red, green or blue). The jab molassie wines to a rhythmic beat that is played on tins or pans by his imps.

Traditionally, the jab molassie also screams in counterpoint to the beat.

The version seen at the WTM, according to an 11-second video consisted of a single performer in a black body suit, partially covered in black body paint, and with no props, screaming at bemused attendees.

THA Minority Leader Kelvon Morris questioned the place of the mas in Tobago’s tourism strategy, and said the jab molassie is not something seen in Tobago daily.

In a WhatsApp video, Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) political leader Watson Duke castigated the presentation.

“Nowhere in the history of the countries that have been to the WTM, we find people portraying primitive men or men that are unsocialised, uncivilised.

“Here we are, in 2023, in the age of AI (artificial intelligence), displaying a character that is screaming to the ears of would-be visitors, cold running down his beard and he is looking wild, uncivilised."

THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine said the character represents protestation against the enslavement of people of African descent, and invited Morris to learn more about the character.

Tobagonian jab molassie practitioner Antonia Thomas said part of people’s rejection of the mas might be a misconception of what the character should look like.

“Tobagonians have a very idealistic version of what a devil should be, reminiscent of what Abyssinia used to portray, but it’s not the only way to portray a devil. People were expecting to see the horns, the chains, the whistle and everything they’ve grown accustomed to over the years: but it’s not something that is required to play the mas.

“I think people have also grown accustomed to us beautifying our culture to showcase outside, as opposed to just presenting it in its raw state. I don’t necessarily believe we have to put on a filter on our traditions for it to be acceptable.”

She said the mas was not related to the Christian concept of the devil, but was seen as such by many people in Tobago.

Former minister of culture and education for Tobago Dr JD Elder (who was an anthropologist), she said, “talks about the lengths the church went to during the post-colonial period to dissuade locals of Tobago from practising their own culture.

“The mas is actually a protest against the demonisation of black people. The exaggeration of the blackness of the skin is a protest, and having the characteristics of looking like you are being possessed by a demon is also a protest against people saying black is evil and anything black not good.”

Thomas said the mas is a therapeutic and spiritual experience for her and other practitioners.

“It allows you to confront topics that you’re not necessarily comfortable showing up as yourself with. It offers the masquerader an opportunity to deal with things that they may not necessarily have the agency to deal with in everyday life.”

Calypsonian Georgia “The Messenger” Charles-McIntyre’s wrote a thesis for her UTT Carnival Studies master’s degree titled: More than Just Oil: Reclaiming the Mas from a Non-Judaeo-Christian Perspective of the Molasses Devil. In it she compared the Trinidadian jab molassie to the Grenadian jab jab.

Charles-McIntyre, born in Grenada and raised in Trinidad, encountered the jab molassie first as a child in Trinidad, and the jab jab in Grenada as an adult. She said she wanted to look at a non-Judaeo-Christian reading of the mas, and her research confirmed the mas is rooted in African retentions and practices and goes back to slavery and expressions of freedom.

Charles-McIntyre spoke to practitioners in Grenada and in Trinidad, who, along with other researchers, said the mas began as a form of protest. She said there were a number of reasons the mas was not played as much in Trinidad as in Grenada.

“One is the same response you’re getting, about it being primitive. Another reason is that the masquerade no longer serves as a symbol, because the old systems have gone away and we have freedom of expression now. People could now come out and say what they want – which is what the masquerade did then. So the masquerade is seen as of less importance in making a statement about what is going on in the society.

“You have religious ideas that speak against the mas; the way we have been socialised into thinking about the mas; and there are people at the administrative level of Carnival who don’t understand traditional mas and the devil mas, so that there’s no real enthusiasm to go out and retain that cultural aspect of the carnival, to see it as important and encourage our young people to understand it.”

Charles-McIntyre said playing the jab molassie gave participants a sense of freedom and liberation.

“When you talk to a practitioner of the jab molassie, they will tell you once they put on that oil, it’s like a baptism, and a change comes over the individual.

“It is a mask that covers the public self and allows the individual’s inner person to come out. You could be who you would not be under normal situations in front of your friends and family, so the behaviour is different, you can behave as you really want to behave without criticism, because you’re covered in oil.

“It also acts as an equaliser. During slavery and post-emancipation, (when) random acts of violence may have been done, it also prevented the slave owner from identifying the perpetrator of the act, as everybody was covered, and it acted as a shield.”

She said there were ritualistic elements to the mas.

“When we talk about devil mas uniform, we’re talking tattered clothing; they must have some type of pigment, either oil, tar, chocolate, mud, something; and then there’s the process of having to prepare the body before they put it on: they shave their heads, they prepare food, etc.”

She said many people did not understand the significance of the mas, so many of the comments made about it came from a lack of understanding, which translated into fear.

“Jab molassie is not related to any satanic worship.

“It pays homage to ancestry, it’s a symbol of cultural identity, and it’s a voice against oppression. Even the chains used are a symbol of freedom. Practitioners tell you they walk with the chains to show that we were in bondage, we have broken them and now we walk free.

“The grotesque presentation is a response to slavemasters saying anything black is evil, so let us show you how evil we can be.”

Charles said in Trinidad, blue devils had overtaken the jab molassie in popularity, even when searching for jab molassie online.

“Even with the blue devils, the mas is dying. It is alarming and it seems no one is concerned.

“It has significant historical and spiritual relevance to us as a people, especially people of African descent in Trinidad, and I don’t think we should let it fall by the wayside.

“If we allow the jab molassie to just die and it’s no longer on the Carnival landscape, I think it will be a really great loss.”


"Jab molassie mas historical, spiritual"

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