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Inside the Heart of Carnival

By Sunity Maharaj

 Before they’re pushed completely off the side-lines into oblivion, we need to devote some time and attention to the future of what is loosely referred to as traditional Mas characters, both inside the Carnival and out.

Obsessed as always with numbers, we’re inclined to throw all our resources into Carnival’s big showpieces: the Parade of bands, Panorama, and music monarchs of all variety. 

Increasingly pushed to the margins is the parade of Carnival’s characters of jab jabs and jumbies, other devils and dragons, bats and burrokeets, bookmen and baby dolls, midnight robbers and minstrels, cows and clowns, Indians fancy and black, dame lorraines and pierrot grenades.

At almost every Carnival event, they feature as an afterthought, corralled to the purpose by an official attitude that reeks of tokenism and condescension.

Nothing speaks more eloquently of their value to Carnival’s authorities than the sums of prize money that can barely cover the cost of transportation to competition venues. And yet, it is these characters of the mas who attract the greatest attention of the cameras that come to cover T&T Carnival and make us scream with delight and run with terror. It is in them that the Carnival retains its authentic role as a space for subversion, resistance and defiance, no longer against Captain Baker’s pistols of 1881, but against our own exploitation and marginalisation of them.

In the midst of Carnival’s euphoric mass amnesia, Carnival’s original characters exist as a reminder of the elemental forces running loose among us, terrorising and tricking and bringing down wrath and damnation on the deserving. 

Peter Minshall’s genius has been in his ability to tap into these forces and catapult them from the margins of our existence onto the biggest stage of Carnival, in forms we understand and exalt, channelling them like a medium, across the ages right into the 20th and 21st centuries.

Though the big parades belong to all of us, Carnival’s soul-force is held in safe-keeping for us inside the imagination of extraordinary individuals around the country. There, it lurks under a veneer of normalcy among people like the group of youths featured in the current edition of Caribbean Beat magazine: midnight robber Fedon Honore, son of the legendary Brian; dame lorraine Nathaniel Charleau, grand-daughter of the irrepressible June Sankar; whipster Ronaldo Alfred, successor to the Alfred dynasty of original jab jabs of Perseverance, Couva and the fearsome blue devil Steffano Marcano from the famed hills of Paramin.

Our obsession with the Carnival economy as something related to the expenditure on big fetes and big bands blinds us to the far more powerful potential of traditional mas for creating sustainable sub-economies rooted in the imagination and innovation of individual enterprises and grounded in communities across the country. The original jab jabs of Perseverance offer but one example of the possibilities.

With their small band of just over 50 members, this award-winning band is a genuine centre of excellence that gives Couva’s Carnival a unique distinctiveness.  In a dying tradition, the original jab jabs are in a growth mode, attracting increasing numbers of young people from the community who are willing to surrender themselves to the highly disciplined, physically gruelling and deeply spiritual artform. In Perseverance, they talk about living the jab jab life, not playing the jab jab mas.

Even if the rest of us are not interested, they have taken their commitment seriously enough to have assembled enough jab jab archives for a community library and museum dedicated to their slice of the mas. Before Port of Spain rushes down to grab these materials and lose them (again), let us consider some sustainable socioeconomic possibilities for this group and their community, many of whose members are unemployed youths. 

The world inhabited by the jab jab combines art, craft, sport, agriculture, herbal science, spirituality, memory and, of course, organisation and management. 

If we could open our eyes to the idea, we would see that the original jab jabs is the nucleus of a potentially powerful endogenous enterprise that will not depend on foreign exchange to survive and thrive. Indeed, it might very well become a net earner of foreign exchange from academics, tourists and foreign media who have long mined its value. 

Viewed as a socioeconomic unit in the cultural industries sector, the jab jabs of Perseverance could be transformed into a permanent, year-round multifaceted enterprise that includes an art and craft workshop for manufacturing and training; a performance space; a library and museum for visitors and students; a gym for training people interested in the art of the whipfight; and an agricultural estate for growing the plants used in the Mas. 

These would include the lash vine used in making whips for mas and medicinal plants that toughen the body against pain and heal the skin from whip wounds. Many of these plants, whose locations remain secret to them, are disappearing at a rapid rate due to urbanisation and industrialisation. 

With the grant of some Caroni land, and start-up investment, the original jab jabs could be transformed into an enterprise that strengthens the mas, provides year-round employment, adds value to Couva as a cultural, research and tourism destination and diversifies the national cultural economy. Not to mention strengthening the self-confidence of a people. The only thing to derail such potential would be self-serving politics.

In general outline, the blueprint could be applied equally and with relevance to others including the Blue d evils of Paramin, a place rich in history and culture and with strong potential as a cultural destination, occupying its own unique place in the socioeconomic mosaic of T&T. 

This is the economic model in which we need serious investment so that those who have created value in the Carnival could, as an act of justice and logic, also reap its rewards. For this, the State must switch its support from those who appropriate value without investment in creation.  

When that day comes, we will no longer need Carnival for escape but for celebrating, finally, our real emancipation.

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