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Mas, ah know yuh

By Terry Joseph
February 01, 2003

Among yesteryear Carnival sideshows was a game between masked reveler and spectator, in which the latter threatened to expose the disguised person's identity, dismantling the charade with the classic challenge: "Mas, ah know yuh."

At the time, costuming for elaborate bands included mandatory face-masks, deliberately designed to hide recognisable characteristics; a handy deception if the inevitably tipsy player did something scandalous.

Quite naturally, everyone in the band wore masks, from decorated domino or lorgnette to painted wire mesh, graduating in intricacy as rank ascended. To increase obfuscation, male royalty added wig, beard and moustache, while his queen relied on ludicrous coiffure, vanity mole and excessive makeup.

Bats and Dragons wore oversized papier-mache headpieces, while Jab-Jab and Pierrot Grenade framed their faces with close-fitting fabric. Tribal mas used skin painting, long-nosed sailors favoured white merinos with cut-outs for eyes and mouth. Folksy portrayals by individuals (Tailor) or couples (Police and Thief) often settled for cardboard versions, held in place by elastic bands.

All masqueraders therefore enjoyed immunity from reliable spectator accounts of their Carnival day conduct, many celebrating anonymity by pushing the envelope, adding a tad more flourish to hip-swinging, or stealing sneaky sexual adventures even as the band proceeded.

Even after masking was outlawed, the reckless abandon it once hosted remained a festival fundamental, society conceding certain liberties in exchange for free-entertainment. Interestingly, as the face mask disappeared, a number of other developments conspired to produce a dramatic gender-shift in the Carnival configuration (circa 1975), ushering in a new round of morality arguments.

Active elements of change included women's liberation, the fitness craze, widespread use of mind-altering substances, faster rhythms from infinitely more powerful music sources, increased disposable income and the consequent birth of supersized bands; which offered another kind of concealment for sexually-oriented initiatives.

But all of this is truly Trinidad Carnival. And it has always been this way, steeped in sensuality, from nuance to outright exhibitionism and engagement.

The Port of Spain Gazette of March 9, 1870 called upon the clergy "to put an end to the obscene and disgusting event to which the population devotes itself during the two days and nights that precede Ash Wednesday".

This was, of course, well before the advent of the bikini and beads brigade, so "vulgarity" in dress and dance have been a noticeable part of Carnival for at least 130 years. It is not something today's young women invented.

In 1883, just as the use of the word "calypso" was easing itself into our language, The Gazette noted: "It is common during the Carnival for the vilest songs, in which the names of ladies of the island are introduced, to be sung in the streets and the vilest talk to be indulged in."

Three years later, the same newspaper commended "...a determined effort by police to put down every attempt at immorality and obscenity whether in dress, speech or song". Even into the early 20th Century, newspaper editorials complained indignantly about transvestite costuming and sexual innuendo.

Which is why I remain confused by relentless targeting of today's female masqueraders, particularly when such protests come from people who claim they know mas. Carnival is-and always has been-about wiggling bottoms and jiggling breasts, a feast of the flesh, one last gigantic excess before addressing the stricture of Lent.

In comparing today's street-dancing with "the good, ol' days", references are seldom honest. Of course there were regal presentations. History's best known characters roamed Port of Spain's streets on Carnival Tuesday, dressed in real metal armour and dragging miles of plush velvet capes behind them.

There's no denying the grandeur of Valmond Jones, replete with weeping-cup as he played "Nero in Ancient Rome", or the art evident in Helen Humphrey's "La Reine Diablesse", particularly when coupled with Peter Samuel's "Midnight Robber"; both products of Peter Minshall's Danse Macabre (1980).

Deities and majesty gracefully swinging and swaying to music from an acoustic band, even as tribal figures argued in native tongue of the portrayal were all delicious Carnival aesthetic but the festival never did dedicate itself exclusively to educational or morally uplifting portrayals.

Indeed, there was much of the opposite, with institutionalised Bad-Behaviour sailor bands whose bravest members did homosexual mime, jamettes in all their glory and at Jouvert, from Dame Lorraine to Baby Doll often were padded parodies of the female, some opting for such outrageous presentations as the curiously popular piss-en-let, a full-colour portrayal of a menstruating woman.

This, then, is another side of the history of the masquerade, hardly an ecclesiastical convention at any point of its evolution and not likely to become sanctified in the predictable future. It is, after all, a carnival.

For the conservative spectator, nothing beats a parade of majestic mas.

However, to the majority of today's masqueraders, cape, crown, orb and sceptre are no longer en vogue. Most bandleaders will tell you designs for fully-clothed females are the last to get attention. Give the ladies nice frilly skirts and see the same costume Carnival Tuesday morning, relieved of all fabric intended for points south of their bottoms.

And since it is they who are spending money to entertain us, it seems to me that freeloading watchers have little or no justification for continuing complaint, given the option of making a personal statement on Carnival day.

If yuh know mas, you will also recall that in the much-touted "good o' days", lots of people did precisely that.

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