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Dragons and clowns

By Terry Joseph
Feburary 17, 2006

Part II

Easily the most misunderstood component of Carnival, mas has historically been a soft target for anyone claiming high moral ground or depth of tradition, both camps insisting portrayals of the particular period spelt death of the festival, neither understanding the masquerade has been surviving doomsayers since the 19th century.

Happily, revellers have been spectacularly dismissive of unsolicited guidance from moralists, police and press, each flaunting its unique brutality, prematurely celebrating victory over perceived upstarts but soon surrendering in the face of advancing revelry that always determined its own direction; making clear masqueraders would rather fight than switch.

A February 1834 description of mas in the Port of Spain Gazette could easily have been penned last season. "Nothing can more decidedly mark the great change which has taken place within this Colony, than the want of spirit and we might add, deficiency of elegant bustle," the report said.

Continuing, the newspaper lamented the decline of mas: "We have traversed the town at all hours during the two days allowed for the exercise of fun and frolic and with the exception of witnessing a large crowd of idle negroes and little people, accompanying a party intending to represent the Artillery, we met no other in character deserving a moment's notice."

Four decades later, The Chronicle similarly scoffed at masqueraders: "This wild revelry, which grows coarser by degrees and scandalously so, has taken possession of the streets. As for the number of girls masked in men's clothing, we cannot say how many hundred are flaunting their want of shame."

The year 1881 saw what some continue to euphemistically describe as the Camboulay "Riots", a massacre of revellers, those intent on playing mas armed with weaponry of no greater calibre than sticks and stones, beaten to a pulp by supremely fortified police who, in one such confrontation at Princes Town, fatally shot a young man and critically injured several others after a magistrate, in precipitous response to a relatively minor infringement, read the Riot Act.

Early 20th century mas enjoyed a brief respite from attacks inspired by the elite and implemented by police, zealots then shifting their still myopic attention to calypso, which bards began singing in English (rather than patois), primarily to celebrate British victory in the Boer War, a language modification that meanwhile ensured more listeners understood uncomplimentary messages such songs contained.

By 1905, calypsonians were squarely in the crosshairs. Here is how The Gazette reviewed that season: "Although it is not expected that the effusions of the Carnival bards should excel in literary attainment, yet in many past instances, they have abounded with at least some degree of originality, which cannot fairly be said to have been the case with those under review."

As WWII ended, emboldened by Allied triumph, pan came out of its hiding places and the steelband and its players were immediately the new butt of censure (with accompanying police brutality and social reprimand) but soon became the primary musical driver of the masquerade, a berth it was forced to vacate in the mid-1970s as the new-wave and bikini-clad masquerader demanded a different soundtrack, inviting fresh blows from the moral majority.

Arguments developed in the late 20th century, many of which continue today, again attacked costuming and - quite separately - lewdness of women, not unlike those of the 19th century cited above. A number of uninformed but highly influential clowns exhumed demons of an earlier time to pillory women, who had suddenly become the major form and force in the masquerade.

After flogging the female behind for the next three decades, detractors added fresh arguments, turning most often to the architecture of the parade, the more ludicrous going the thoroughly illogical route of suggesting large bands should be mandated to split into two or three smaller groups which, the "experts" felt would ease congestion at the Queen's Park Savannah.

Of course, carving a 9,000-strong band into three entities would only take longer to travel the same route but it seemed an attractive option to those who remain blameless in the matter of common sense. In any event, as Poison bandleader Michael Headley astutely comments, if his entire band went back to the much-touted good old days and everyone played Midnight Robbers, maintaining cherished tradition by giving individual speeches, the band would probably take a fortnight to cross the Savannah stage.

Not for want of trying to convince detractors that the masquerade is evolving precisely as it should, perhaps we should try some of their suggestions next year.

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