Building bridges through mas

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This article by Shereen Ali appeared in Trinidad’s Guardian.
From Black Indians to First Peoples, Unconquered explores the potential of mas.

“We miss the point if we see ancestry only in terms of blood,” said Sunity Maharaj on January 22, speaking at The Cloth Propaganda Space at the event Unconquered, part of a series of informal talks on mas and T&T Carnival traditions as expressions of identity.

Ancestry, ethnic heritage and race are major shapers of our culture in the islands, especially in T&T which is so ethnically mixed. Yet apparently, there haven’t been too many open, tolerant talks about all of this, talks which help us to connect rather than divide. Yet many generations ago, the language of love found a way to unite Africans and Amerindians, giving birth to the first of many mixed races in Trinidad. It was a mixing of cultures as well as blood that’s a part of much change in the wave of new blends of people, influences, beliefs and ideas in our common island space.

The Unconquered talk session reminded us of some of our earlier peoples and traditions, notably the Amerindians, and later, the so-called “Black Indians”, offspring of Africans and Amerindians.

Black Indian mas

Unconquered began last year, led by writer Attilah Springer and fashion designer Robert Young. Springer said her research into mas band leader George Bailey inspired her to explore other masquerade traditions. George Bailey (1935 -1970) was the man whose magnificent African costumes gave a sense of pride to many T&T citizens who had never before seen such realistic historical mas applied to African heritage. Bailey in the early 50s formed a group called Unconquered; so Springer pays homage to him, and artists like him who used art as a form of social activism, by adopting the Unconquered name.

The first Unconquered session last Carnival prefaced the launch of the mas band Black I, produced by Robert Young’s mas group Vulgar Fraction. Black I was a collaboration of modern and old-time Black Indian mas, which is a mix of Amerindian and West African masking rituals that exists in Trinidad, Louisiana and South America. These masquerades involved special dances, songs and even language, explains Springer in her blog (https://tillahwillah.wordpress.com), as mas warriors would use their own Creole expressions based on Aruacan, Yoruba and patois to yell out and reenact their playful warrior mas.

This year, Springer challenged the audience to “consider our space unconquered—by greed, by stupidity, by dotish politicians’ complacency.”

A tall order, given the fact that our space has in fact been politically conquered, many times over, by many peoples and through many forms of technology—from the sword to the gun to the television set. Her challenge was spiritual—the unconquered resilience of the survivor—but only a handful of people came to hear it.

Ole talk and J’ouvert play

The actual session was like an open mike night of improvised talk mixed with a little philosophy, cultural history and some J’ouvert play. It meandered in parts. Maybe that was the point: to just start us talking to each other.

Speakers at Unconquered 2015 included Christo Adonis, the peyai or shaman for the Santa Rosa First Peoples community; Anderson Patrick, leader of the Warriors of Huracan mas band; journalist and Jouvay Ayiti convener Sunity Maharaj and Nari Approo, a veteran 87-year-old mas player.

Springer spoke of the lack of connection to the mas for many people today, in an era when you can just click online and get your costume in a box. She said part of the journey of Unconquered is to understand the value of ritual. For her, she said last year her mas involved harvesting her own black cobeau feathers at Icacos, from the found body of an unfortunate electrocuted vulture, to be part of her costume: she found it traumatic. She reflected that perhaps the personal act of making beauty (whether it’s making a costume, or creating a j’ouvert ritual) out of sometimes brutal conditions, is the secret of a good (meaningful) mas.

Peyai Christo Adonis said true spirituality knows no boundaries across different cultures, and that in his own traditions, indigenous people would use masks of birds and other animals for certain rituals. He said he saw J’ouvert as a form of play and good humour. On how he felt about the historical brutalities of colonisers against first peoples, he said: “…We have to heal….and if white people want to hold us around dey throat, or we want to hold white people like an albatross, I ent toting that load!”

Mas as a tool for change

Journalist Sunity Maharaj spoke of the idea of mas as present in our lives, not just at Carnival; it can be a potent form of expression, she said. Through the Jouvay Ayiti mas camp, started in 2011, she’s been involved with J’ouvert as a tool for education, protest art and transformation. Jouvay Ayiti won the small band J’ouvert category in 2012 and 2013. This year, it’s playing a mas called Arandara Ponahara—Land of the First Peoples; it is the first part of a trilogy about reparations.

On Caribbean ancestry, she said: “If I am Trinidadian, if I am Caribbean, my ancestors are First Peoples….We miss the point if we see ancestry only in terms of blood, only in terms of biology, because there is a civilisation here….Once we can jump over the wall that the colonialist experience has created here and told us—you are in the Great House; you are not in the Great House; you are in the barracks, this is your place…..Those walls have survived so intact in the 21st century that people can live in a small island like this, and know nothing about how the other lives.”

The masquerade of unity

“What we have mastered is masquerade,” said Maharaj, “where there is a space in which we are all talking and we believe we are sharing with each other and that we can get along with each other—and then we go behind the walls where we really live, nobody (else) is inside of that.

“So a critical role that the Lloyd Best Institute sees for itself is really bridge-building. It’s discovery, it’s opening up ourselves to each other….That is part of the liberation aspect of (not masquerade but) the mas… I want to challenge people to make the distinction between biological ancestry and cultural ancestry.

Because immediately you see yourself as a Caribbean person, and you see Banwari as the mother of your civilisation, nobody is going to stop you”— from reaching out to truly learn about your neighbour’s way of life.

Maharaj then spoke of the network of indigenous knowledge from all cultures here that we can learn from, in folk medicine and other areas. And she commented on the divisive nature of state funding for ethnic/cultural events, where money is given to Divali Nagar, for instance, or to Emancipation, without any requirement that the celebration embrace the national community, and have a component that expands understanding for those not directly involved in the celebrations. She said recognising different cultures is not enough, because you’re then just recognising separateness.

The “action man”

But the highlight of the night was easily the elderly “action man” Nari Approo, who’s played all kinds of mas, from robber to imp to fireman to sailor, along with his fellow mas player Anderson Patrick from the Warriors of Huracan band. Sliding on the ball of their feet, dropping to the floor in an acrobatic back-roll, rolling and then leaping up, giving blood-curdling shrieks and yells, and chanting in their own strange creole Afro-Indian tongue, the two men’s exhuberance startled and delighted the audience.

“I like action, I is de action man. If I don’t have action, I can’t play mas, you know,” said Approo.

Approo’s eyes were bright with remembrance as he reminisced on the mas he has played most of his life—a martial mas where you could never just “jock yuh waist and wine”—far from it. These veterans had to know (and rehearse) the ritual moves of their character; know specific call and response chants; be in full character on the road while they had fun and at the same time claimed their free warrior selves.

“Long time, everything is practice, you know. You playin dragon, you playin robber, you have to practice, and talk to defend yourself…. You had to pray for protection before you start… ‘Heee-gooah-heee goooahh— okaaaae-na-woooe-…’ (chanting an invocation) ….When you goin up de road, is war you know! ….(sings a Black Indian chant of challenge) …If you can’t talk and defend yourself, you can’t come on de road, you know! Coz I lick you down with a piece of wood—a sword, but is wood!”

War—but a playful kind of war, involving proud hand-made costumes, ritual challenges, call and response chants, fighting talk, nimble acrobatic moves, specific dances for each different kind of mas, and sometimes, depending on the mas, makeshift drums made from old cheese boxes with goatskins on top, which they’d beat to different pounding rhythms down the road.

Now dat is mas.

For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.tt/lifestyle/2015-02-01/building-bridges-through-mas

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