Rabs Immortelle was the name of the little Mas band from Belmont that my friends and I as young fellows would meet for what we in Trinidad call a last lap. After gallivanting through out Port of Spain on Carnival Tuesday we would make it our business to seek out and find the Rabs Immortelle revelers, so that we can get our last jump up for the season. We would chip to the calypso and Soca music from the truck all the way back to Belmont. All the while cleverly looking for young ladies to chip beside and hopefully get a “little last wine”. Wining (to gyrate waist intently), is and was a Trini thing, a carnival thing. It was way too convenient and perfect for us.
Carnival Tuesday marked the end of the Trinidad carnival season, and the following day was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Catholic Lenten season. And as good Catholics we were supposed to abstain from meat and our own music Soca for forty days. The madness. It was almost as if we were supposed to be repenting for all of the gay abandon and revelry that took place the days prior. I recall one time challenging my mother, who was a staunch Catholic and grounded in her belief about Lent. It seemed to me that the whole concept of us having to give up our own music for Lent suggested that there was something inherently wrong, something sinful, about our music, and moreso about Carnival. And this bothered me tremendously. How and why could something, so clearly an offspring of our history, so woven into our DNA, be deemed bad, unsavory and irreverent?
But the complex history of Trinidad’s Carnival, aptly named the Greatest Show on Earth, holds the answers to this and many other unknowns about why this carnival is what it is. I am by no stretch a historian or would even claim to be knowledgeable about our Carnival to any extent that would warrant notability. But as the year begins, the fervor and energy leading up to carnival ramps up. Having lived here in the US for more years now than I have lived in Trinidad, I have wondered about people’s real understanding of the event. Whether anyone really cares or understands what carnival is beyond the costumes and parties. Whether enough is being done to educate folks on what most of this all means and how we arrived here. All visitors to the country should be given a handbook on the history of Carnival, a glossary on the terminology, and an understanding of the colonial influences that dominates its expression.
“ TrinidadCarnival dates back to the 18th century, and the influx of French Catholic planters – both white and free coloured – their slaves, and free blacks in the 1780s. The white and free coloured both staged elaborate masquerade balls at Christmas and as a “farewell to the flesh” before the Catholic Lenten season, with each group mimicking the other in their masking and entertainment. The West African slaves of these planters as well as free coloureds had their own masking traditions, and held festivities around the burning and harvesting of the sugar cane (this was known as cannes bruleés, anglicised as Canboulay or Camboulay). For each group, masks and mimicry were an essential part of the ritual.
After the emancipation of slaves in 1838, Canboulay became a symbol of freedom and defiance. In response, the British colonial government outlawed drumming, stickfighting, masquerading, African-derived religions (like those of the Orisa faith and the Spiritual Shouter Baptists or Shango Baptists), and even tried to suppress the steelpan – but was never able to stamp out what has become a hallmark of Trinidadian identity.
This masking and mimicry merged over time with the calinda – or stickfighting accompanied by chanting and drumming – and rituals of Canboulay to become a jamette – or underclass – masquerade. After many a battle with the British colonial government, who kept trying to ban drumming, masquerade, and even the steel pan – the festival eventually found a home on the Monday and Tuesday before Lent, and was adopted as a symbol of Trinidadian culture during the independence movement.”
The Artists’ Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago aptly describe the two lineages of Carnival below:
“In the Trinidad Carnival there are 2 distinct traditions. The Mardi Gras tradition (like that practiced by white New Orleans to this day) is derived from the French Grand Ball tradition which itself has roots in old European carnivals. The Mardi Gras is elite, exclusive, mostly indoors, based upon drunken revelry, with an emphasis on role reversals (gender, class, etc). It is mask as frivolity and debauchery.
The other Trinidad Carnival tradition is the Canboulay which is African- but it has incorporated vital masquerade traditions of the East Indian and Amerindian. The Canboulay is inclusive, drum-music led, concerned with the vital African Oratory tradition, is about sacred masquerade, ancestral masquerade, satirical masquerade, and is revolutionary.
It is connected to dozens of Secret Society masquerade forms which hid and mutated their forms into all the things we call ‘traditional mas’- the Pierrot Grenade, the Midnight Robber, the Indian Masks, the Sailor Masks, the Cow Bands, the Devil bands, etc. Nearly every single traditional mas has an African masking precedent. In form and function.”
As a boy I grew up hearing about all of these characters that you would then see depicted in the parade. Some characters like Midnight Robber, Moko Jumbie and Jab Molassie would scare the living hell out of many youngsters. Others like the Minstrels, would make you wonder about the statement being made by these painted white faced performers.
The Trinidad National Library and Information System Library offers a required reading for anyone interested in learning more about this human phenomenon.
“ TRADITIONAL CARNIVAL CHARACTERS
The stories behind the traditional Carnival characters lend meaning and significance to these unusual portrayals. Often an individual plays one specific persona year after year and is familiar with the traditions associated with that role. The custom is usually passed on orally to family members or other interested persons. According to Elma Reyes, some of these portrayals were performed as “mas’ for money” (16). The masqueraders would offer entertainment in the form of humour, songs or skits in exchange for money. In some cases threats and scare tactics were used to coerce bystanders into giving them cash. Some of the best known characters are as follows:
The Midnight Robber is one of the most beloved characters in traditional Carnival. Both his costume and his speech are distinctive. His “Robber Talk” is extravagant and egocentric, and boastful. He brags about his great ancestry, exploits, strength, fearlessness and invincibility. This “Robber Talk” is derived from the tradition of the African Griot or storyteller, and the speech patterns and vocabulary are imitative of his former master. He wears a black satin shirt, pantaloons, influenced by the American cowboy tradition, and a black, flowing cape on which the skull and cross bones are painted. Also painted on the cape is his sobriquet. He also wears a huge black, broad-brimmed, fringed hat on which a coffin is often superimposed. In his hand he carries a weapon –either a dagger, sword or gun – and a wooden money box in the shape of a coffin. He carries a whistle which he blows to punctuate his tales of valour.
Black and white minstrels are based on the American minstrel shows popular around the turn of the century in which white singers painted their faces black. The local minstrels are black persons who perform with their faces painted white. Their costume consists of a scissors tail coat, striped trousers, tall straw hat and gloves. One or two minstrel bands still remain, entertaining audiences with popular old American songs such as Swanee River and Who’s Sorry Now. They accompany themselves on the guitar and the rattling bones played between the hands. They may sometimes have a dance routine.
Moko is a derivation of the god “Moko”, coming straight out of West African tradition. Moko is a “diviner” in the Congo language. The term “jumbie” or ghost was added by the freed slaves. It was believed that the height of the stilts was associated with the ability to foresee evil faster than ordinary men. The Moko Jumbie was felt to be a protector of the village. This mas is well-known throughout the Caribbean. It is an authentic African masquerade mounted on sticks. The stilt walker plays on stilts 10 to 12 feet high. His costume consists of a brightly coloured skirt or pants, jacket and elaborate hat. He would dance through the streets all day, and collect money from people on the upper floors and balconies. His dance was similar to a jig, and he was often accompanied by a drum, flute and triangle.”
Read more here
Check out this NY Times video about the Moko Jumbie
And Mas pioneers such as Harold Saldenah and Wayne Berkeley, who hailed from my hometown Belmont, along with the legendary Peter Minshall, whom I had the good fortune to have played in one of his bands, were revered oftentimes more so than even the Prime Minister. These people among many others brought amazing creativity to costume design, elevating the form to something beyond theatrical. They have created and continue to create a visual spectacle for thousands of masqueraders to revel in for only two days through the streets of Port of Spain. Creations have made it to the world’s stage for Olympics openings and other theatrical appearances.
Our steel pan, the only musical instrument invented in the 20th century, plays a major role.
“Panorama Held since 1963, Panorama is the premiere steelband competition of the carnival season.” – NALIS
PS.This is not your cruise ship type badly tuned tenor pan. See video below.
“J’Ouvert, also known as jouvay, is perhaps one of the last modern Carnival festivities that most reflects the origins of Carnival – in particular, its origins in masking and in Canboulay processions.”
French for ‘ Grand Sunday’ or ‘Fat Sunday’: Dimanche Gras is the Sunday before Carnival Monday. The Calypso Monarch Competition and the Carnival King and Queen Costume competition are held in the Savannah on Dimache Gras night. – NALIS
The truly mind-boggling and amazing thing about this, is that this is done every year. Every year thousands of costumes are made by hundreds of Mas bands. Trinidad Carnival is much more that a two day parade of scantily clad masqueraders. The history is proof, the evolution has been unending. I have only scratched the surface here as there are so many more elements to our carnival.