Tuesday 20 December 2011

Look the devil dey!

Somebody, I forget now who, once said to me that Jab Molassi (the Molasses Devil) came out of cannes brulées and was played in depiction of the worst thing that could happen on a cane estate: a person meeting his or her death by falling into a vat of boiling molasses. The molasses devil was the ghost of the cane estate.
Jab Jab, whip-cracking, mirrored mass decorated with red and green satin skirts, mauve moiré taffeta and orange stockings, is the father of the Dragon Band or Devil Band. This metamorphosis commenced in 1906, when Patrick Jones assisted by Gilbert Scamaroni prompted by a sacred picture, illustrating the exorcising of the devil from a sick person, displayed in a shop at what is now 65 Queen Street, prompted the organising of the first Dragon mas. Khaki and slate were the colours chosen, cow horns and rope tails were used. They wore flexible wings that flapped. The band was comprised of about 70 or 80 men and women, who carried long forks. There were presidents with even more elaborate costumes, covered with brass buttons and gold fringe, diamante spangles and gold cord. Everyone wore small face masks. There was one central character called Lucifer who wore a golden crown and was even more elaborately costumed. He was portrayed by Gilbert Scamaroni who used a large head mask imported from Germany by the firm Waterman Brothers of Frederick Street. Between 1906 and 1909, cowtails held upright by wire were added. In 1909, Patrick Jones, along with 'Skeedo' Phillips and the Valere brought out the "Red Devil Band". Patrick Jones was a man who loved to read and was able to put his hands on to an illustrated copy of Dante's Inferno, and as a result was able to add a host of diabolical characters to his already charming retinue from hell.
In 1910, Jones brought out a band called "Demonites" and introduced the character of Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies. He was enclosed in an iron cage and bound by nine chains. Beelzebub was made of papier mache. Fearsome in character, the entire contraption was carried aloft on poles. In 1911, Satan was introduced. His costume was similar to Lucifer's and Beelzebub's, but he carried a book and a pen in which to record sins. This was the year in which the Beast appeared for the first time, and it was portrayed by a man called "Georgie". This costume of the Beast was made of large fish scales and so constructed that they could bustle up or be made to lie flat.
Professor Gordon Rohlehr tells us a lot about Patrick Jones in his book "Calypso and Society". Jones, he says, was one of the earliest devotees to serious masquerades in the early 20th century. he was a pyrotechnicist and a calypsonian. Known as Chinee Patrick, he was "hakwi", that is, half Chinese and half African. As a calypsonian, he sang under the name Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, and his songs were in the tradition of Atilla the Hun and Lord Executor. He was a powerful calypsonian, so much so that his challenges were often hardly taken up by even the most significant aficionados of the art.
His daring to put the devil and his hordes from hell on the streets of Port of Spain created an enormous impact on the city, its institutions and citizens and on the calypsoes of the time, and was to be retained in memory and folklore, still imitated, albeit poorly, to this day.
Bruce Procope, from whose paper most of this valuable information has been gleaned, points out that by 1911 the main features of the Dragon Band were already established and were to survive more or less intact for another fifty years. Fresh characters emerged, such as the devil as "gentlemen Jim", who, together with his devil mask, wore a tail coat and carried a stick, behaving in a courtly manner with much bowing and kissing of hands.
Various theories have been brought forward concerning the devil band. Procope writes:
"The theory is that the dragon band is an ambulatory depiction of Satan and his horde cast from heaven ... he and his followers return to earth on the two days before the Lenten season commences in order to try the virtue of the faithful."
The people who played this mas had no reluctance in playing the devil and the forces of evil, although many felt a great excitement, even fear, to be associated with it. By the 1930s, Patrick Jones' band was big, some 200 or 300 people. The devil mas generated mixed feelings. As there was much delving into occult literature, looking for information to enhance the portrayals. Such books as "Hope and the Race" by Frank Patterson and the "Chronicles of Leviathan", an anonymous work, were consulted. This was a time when, not only in Trinidad, there was a great interest in the esoteric. Dealing with the devil in exchange for souls was a minor industry amongst both the unscrupulous and the foolish. The fact that it was frowned upon by the religious was sufficient to make it desirable. Others followed Jones' idea. Devil bands had tents, bamboo and carat affairs, where members met to build their mas and to practice their 'pass' or dance steps, and its 'chantwell' to compose songs. The Dragon's head was built in secrecy, so that when it appeared, it would astound even the band members.
The green Beast would have a movable tongue with an iron band around the waist attached to three or four iron chains, held in different directions to control the progress of the character. The dance of the Beast consists of a lunging movement as it strikes out attempting to bring down the horde of surrounding red imps, who would constantly goad him, sometimes there would be several Beasts in a band with one being the chief Beast.
There would be a king imp in red tights, mask, wings, a tail, attended by other imps who would carry axes, scrolls, horns, bells, dice, face cards and scales with weights. The showing of the face card was vital for the water crossing. One authority affirmed that there should be 42 characters in a devil band, some of these would be a gown man, expensively dressed with a mask imported from Europe, a Queen Patroness with her court, Lilith, Eve's mother, a Bookman with a large book and an imp to carry it. The character of Beelzebub would have a host of blue flies, sexy girls, buzzing about. All this produced an amazing sight, with the imps taunting the Beasts and dancing away with highly complicated steps, as other imps would dance, twirl and skip, maintaining a constant activity and providing interesting contrast with the noble mien and stately bowing of the Satanic characters.
Long ago, the fight of the Beast was a feature of Carnival. The corner of Duke and Frederick Streets, midday Carnival Tuesday: the great Beast Zatog the Invincible met and destroyed Azoth, Keeper of the Inferno. This challenge to combat occurred automatically when two devil bands met. Bruce Procope recalls:
"The combat took the form of the execution by the reigning Beast of various dance steps, which the challenger had to imitate. If he succeeded, he then had to demonstrate his own for the reigning monster to imitate. The one who failed was dishonoured. To be the reigning Beast was considered the highest honour."
"Mr. Jones says that the Dragon or Beast was suggested to him by a picture of St. Mark and the Beast which he saw at Laventille church," writes Procope. "Another of our informants, Mr. William La Borde (alias Willie the Beast) also remembers Georgie. Georgie was the reigning Beast from whom Willie captured the crown. The step that brought him victory was one which was shown to him in a dream. One night after practice at the tent of his band, Willie went home to sleep. He dreamt that a man came to him dressed in a top hat and tail coat. The man suddenly turned into a zandolie and started to wriggle on the ground. Willie awoke, told his wife about the dream and immediately began to practice a step in imitation of the movements of the zandolie. He perfected this dance and by it won the crown from Georgie."
With regard to the crossing of the water, Procope recounts the "coming out" or the "invocation", which takes place as the band is coming from the place where it has assembled onto the streets to parade. Led by the King Imp and his sexy quick-stepping horde, the music band blasting live music on their feet in the road. they would burst upon the streets, the Beast itself, green-scaled with its clawed dragon's feet straining at the chains held by the musclemen, barely able to contain it. As the Beast approaches the first drain, the King Imp or "tempter" steps forward, confronts him, and rings a big brass bell. He shows him a face card to bring him to a halt. The imps, in blazing red, their wings quivering, sequins sparkling in the noonday sun, show their "pass" and perform their play with cutesy antics and much teasing of the Beast.
The Beast, head rearing, claws slashing the air, attempts the crossing, feigning fear lest any part of his person should touch the water flowing in the street's canal. With the Beast "over the water" other characters blaze out, bats temporarily traveling with the band, big with black huge wings; zombies, a section of jumbies in black and red. Two robbers also moving with the ban enter Piccadilly Street, glowing, pulsating with human energy, Lucifer last of all, elegant, black satin cape lined in red velvet, dressed in the costume of a grand duke with scarlet sashes and jeweled orders, and ceremonial sword in hand. Before him, mincing and cringing, his court of sycophants. They mime a play that none but they can understand. A coffin carries a man. A live black cat looks out from the Queen's hair piece. They have real dwarves who are old men, seen dragging chains to which are attached souls waiting to be reincarnated. The performance of crossing the water is repeated. The teasing of the Beast continues. Small boys run up with slapsticks to make him jump, and old women throw pails of water before Lucifer to stop him - isn't that a tradition from Catholic Ireland, throwing water before a hearse? But he just laughs hideously and shows them a morocoy and two live frogs he has in a small black and gold box.
The Beast makes a bolt for it, catching the musclemen unawares - but don't worry, he's not going far - just for a cold Carib from his nennen in the planning!
Some lyrics of the day relfect the Red Devil Bands, but that was long ago. Now we are afraid of a weather vane on top the Red House - the old iron dragon. They should put it back!

"I am a monarch from heart and soul
Whenever I go I bound to control
I am guided by the three stars
Jupiter, Mercury and mars.
And if tonight I shall lose my name
Blood is going to flow from every vein
They call me Beginner the terror, the brutal conqueror
(Lord Beginner)

"Come into my den and there you shall see
Skeletons and bones of your family.
Your body shall be placed on a mountain peak
And there you shall say your prayers for a week
And after that dreadful pain you shall meet a hurricane
From the very first day that I was born
Men like Houdini started to mourn
Monarchs wept and princes cried
When they saw this new star up in the sky
Astronomers in my horoscope state
He'll be proud, grand, illustrious and great
And they named me Atilla, the terror, the brutal conqueror
Master Mi Minor."
(Atilla the Hun)

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