The National Carnival Commission (NCC) is to be complimented for its efforts to recuperate so-called “traditional” mas from the outer fringes of the annual festival to where it had been callously consigned, even if the NCC is itself responsible for locating it there.
That said, the commission has much more to do if its efforts are to realise transformative rewards.
This will be the second year that the Commission will reserve the heartland Queen's Park Savannah stage on Carnival Monday morning for “traditional”-only mas portrayals. The State Carnival body has also succeeded in keeping the competition of surviving Carnival characters on the streets, the theatre most suited to exhibition of the intricate workmanship, intriguing interpretations and elaborate performances associated with these portrayals.
Through the Carnival Institute, excavation and documentation of the country's mas history, embodied in Carnival characters, has begun. Further targeted investment in this aspect of our Carnival, not only through the Carnival Institute, but through active support of those citizens whose creative commitment has endured for more than a century, should be an urgent consideration of the Commission.
We observe with optimism, too, the National Trust Carnival tours to Nelson Island, now in its third year, featuring steelbands, minstrels, moko jumbies, pierrot grenades and blue devils.
These initiatives foreground early Carnival characters, the country's concealed history of resilience, creativity, productivity and selfhood and contrast sharply with those aspects of the parade of the bands that empty the festival of meaning and interest. But to re-centre the foundation of our Carnival, the NCC will have to re-visit its philosophy, beginning with re-naming this aspect of its Carnival production.
What is known as “traditional” mas is in fact the heart of the masquerade, are modernised versions of historical characters, and are not stuck in time but rather are constantly re-inventing themselves alongside socio-political and technological developments.
The NCC must ensure that its efforts to rejuvenate our Carnival includes respectful interaction with early character performers through proper sound systems, intelligent announcers, application of relevant technology and adequate financial support to the mas-makers and their successful performers.
How the NCC crafts the interaction of this masquerade with spectators requires serious attention. Confining spectators to one tiny stand, behind elaborate barriers while being berated by police officers and far too many NCC badge-bearing officials will do nothing but further distance the population from what is, ultimately, theirs to own and also diminishing commercial interest. Mas exists to be seen, interpreted, enjoyed, quarrelled with, assessed and ultimately reflected upon. In this template, spectators co-exist and interact with the masquerade, an important but forgotten feature of early Carnival characters. Seeing spectators as interlopers to be pushed farther away from the mas rather than as integral elements of the mas itself is where the NCC philosophy is in desperate need of overhaul.