Every year as Carnival Monday and Tuesday approach our local culture – as seen in the letter pages and commentaries of local dailies – is full of voices sharing Aldrick’s sense of loss as people lament what Carnival once was to them.
There is little doubt on one level this sense of loss is real and tangible. In Port of Spain, bikini and beads pretty mas has drowned out and in many ways forced off the street the old-time traditional mas characters.
The Bats and Sailors, the Robbers and Dame Lorraines, the Fancy Indians and Dragon bands, amongst many others, all with their variety of rituals and unique quirks of character have been removed from the road.
During the main festival in POS we now only see a sprinkle. Yes, the odd band of traditional characters still woos lucky onlookers but their central role on the streets of our capital is vastly different from the past.
Of course away from the main parade in POS old-time characters still live on in various spaces. You can find them in Viey la Cou or in various towns and villages across Trinidad and Tobago. Earlier this week for example the Guardian ran a story on Couva mas and the organisers’ desire to focus on Jab Jab presentations.
In many ways it is at such smaller regional Carnival celebrations around the country where with the support of locals and schools, where younger masqueraders get involved with the craft that the traditional characters continue to survive.
So we might say yes, on the roads of POS, old-time mas characters are few and far between, but this doesn’t mean they have completely vanished. Nor should we be surprised that Carnival changes. Its forms and presentation have always been a reflection of the ever-shifting socio-cultural and economic contexts of the island.
As historian John Cupid of the National Carnival Commission once told me in reference to the old-time mas, “People don’t play this for the money.”
Anthropologist Dr Gabby Hosein described a similar sentiment in her column two weeks ago when she explained what many old-time carnival commentators and practitioners, alongside Lovelace’s Aldrick, all know; that making and playing mas was once a yearlong relationship between the person and the character they played. As the saying goes, prick an old-time mas person and they bleed Bat, Dragon, Jab Jab or whichever character from the old-time collection they played.
Yet times do change. And transformations across eras in the global and local circumstances within which Trinidad and Tobago Carnival exists changed the festival.
This is not to say today’s tradition of pretty mas does not contain elements of originality, artistry and design; it’s just that the function and significance of such things is culturally different, and economic considerations more central than in the past.
Today POS Carnival is about the profit motive. Carnival’s role as a driver of national unity and community as politicians wanted it to be seen in the run up to Independence and then into the 1970s has been transformed, much as the society itself has been transformed since then. Commercial pressures now overrule any cliché of national unity.
But before we think these changes mean our old time mas styles are long gone we should perhaps remember that with time traditions can often become a part of everyday culture.
And so for example, in the bombastic style of some of our politicians and the bravado of so many of our street corner limers we might say boastful Robber talk lives on. And in the playful teasing, scolding and dishing out of picong by our tanties and matriarchs the Dame Lorraine continues to laugh at us. Or how in using our everyday linguistic ability to invent words and sayings we mock each other just like a Pierrot Grenade once did. The list goes on.
So to those who lament annually a loss of tradition, craft and “authenticity” from our Carnival it’s worth mentioning that yes, on the streets of POS the old-time mas may have vanished; but it lives on in new ways.
As new contexts and pressures transformed Carnival, old-time characters, their styles and habits became part of our living culture. Our old-time Carnival friends then, through us, in our culture, and at smaller regional Carnivals continue to live on these islands.