Thursday, February 22, 2018

Carnival before soca and pretty mas



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Carnival of long ago was a unique manifestation of folk creativity. Steelband music, soca, chutney, or organised calypso competitions had not yet arrived on the cultural canvas.

The characters who made the celebration possible were jab jabs, devils, burrokeets (portrayal of half-human and half-donkey), ole mas, and masqueraders parading on the streets to the beat of the tambour bamboo.

First to appear on Carnival Monday was the ole mas character. With his face covered with a mask made from the asphalted covering of the Christmas ham, and a cocoyea broom in hand he went from home to home besieging neighbours to allow him to sweep their yards for as little as six cents or at most a shilling (25 cents).

Later in the day, when the ole mas disappeared, individuals and bands took to the streets to entertain their audiences with picong, weird dancing and loud music.

The emergence of the age of bikini and glitter was yet to come.

As the day advanced, the clowns, large bats, minstrels, midnight robbers, pierrot grenade, moko jumbies and other characters converted the streets into an outdoor theatre displaying the creativity and spirits of their ancestral past.

Traditional mas lasted for almost one century until Carnival was revolutionised and became the greatest show on earth.

Historians believe Carnival had its beginning with slaves on the plantations who gathered in their slavemasters' backyards to mimic those who took part in Carnival balls held in the great houses of the plantation owners.

Another version states, "It was a celebration to commemorate the end of slavery and two days set aside for slaves to enjoy their freedom. "

There is still conjecture about the date on which Carnival celebrations started in Trinidad. Some historians believe that organised Carnival celebrations started in 1839, the year following Emancipation, while records show that as early as 1833 a number of people were arrested by police for parading on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. The police had deemed the practice as desecrating the Sabbath.

The Port of Spain Gazette of January 1833 reported, "On Sunday afternoon, an attempt was made by Mr Peake, assistant Chief of Police, to check the shameful violation of the Sabbath by the lower order of the population. Those taking part had their faces covered with masks to create disturbances on a Sunday."

Peake's enforcement of the law created a furore, as masqueraders later stoned his house for interfering in their freedom to practise their culture.

Street parades were slow in coming. When the slaves were first allowed to celebrate their own Carnival they were restricted to the slave yards in which they lived, and were not allowed to venture out on the streets.

The free blacks, however, defied that restriction and paraded on the streets.

Organised Carnival celebrations up to the middle of the 19th century were a combination of weird portrayals, street parades, and dancing in the streets to the beat of the tambour bamboo.

This form of musical accompaniment was introduced when beating African drums and blowing conch shells and horns were illegal.

Musicians at the time were forced to resort to the use of percussion instruments such as stamping tubes. The tubes were made from pieces of bamboo trunks of varying lengths, which produced different sounds.

The longer pieces were struck on the ground while the musicians paraded. The melody was improved later when a tough four-cornered bottle was introduced. It emitted a very high note when struck with a tablespoon.

The tambour bamboo and bottle and spoon played an important part in the development of Carnival music.

Calypsoes were an integral part of the celebrations. This art form predated Carnival celebrations, as Rafael de Leon, known in the calypso world as The Roaring Lion, pointed out.

"When calypso was brought to Trinidad, there were no slaves. Calypso arrived before Carnival." He contends that "calypsoes started as folk songs in France by Guillaume de Machaut in 1295."

Initially, calypsoes were not a very popular art form, but they gained popularity through the intervention of Gros Jean (Big John), an African slave working on an estate owned by St Hilaire Begorrat of Diego Martin.

Calypsoes became an integral part of Carnival and the poor man's newspapers as well as the driving force behind the celebrations. It was defined in the following words:

"Would you like to know what is calypso?

It was sung at Carnival time by the creoles of long ago.

It was danced by African drums in bamboo tents.

And was sung in patois for amusement"

Up to the early 20th century, calypsonians were not a recognised group and suffered from financial embarrassments. Their living was earned by singing in the tents at Carnival and selling their written compositions for as little as a penny per copy.

Children of school age were not allowed to sing calypso in public. They were expected to attend school on the two days of Carnival. Failing to attend, they risked the ire of the schoolmasters and others in authority.

Christian churches also distanced themselves from the celebration, deeming it a pagan festival.

The annual celebration was vastly different from what obtains currently.

In the old days, each village or town had its own festival centred around popular rum shops or savannahs.

Devils, bats, clowns and other portrayals paraded the streets soliciting money from spectators to offset the cost of their costumes. Midnight robbers with a toy revolver in one hand and a small coffin in the other threatened spectators with the expression "Money or you life" The money was collected and placed in the coffins.

In every village, spectators lined the streets waiting for a glimpse of individual mas or large bands.

The large bands were accompanied by music from members of a brass band. The trumpet or saxophonist led the parade, followed with the king or queen of the band and, finally, the followers.

Sailor bands were popular. By the end of the First World War in 1918, the number of sailor bands had increased.

Coming out of the African mythology was the moko jumbie or stilt dancer.

The jab molassie with its whip was the greatest fear of little children, and even some grown-ups. Devils paraded to the beat of a monotonous empty biscuit tin as they threatened spectators by promising to daub a sticky black substance on their clothes if they failed to pay them money.

Those were snippets of the magic of traditional mas which gradually went out of existence around the mid-20th century.

During that period, Carnival celebrations were being revolutionised. Steelband music replaced the tambour bamboo and brass bands, historical bands replaced many of the traditional presentations, road marches by calypsonians became the rhythm of Carnival, children's mas competitions were introduced and the national celebrations shifted from the hamlets to the main towns and the city of Port of Spain, leaving behind a reservoir of a colourful culture and memories of the past.