Friday, 6 January 2012

STOP! You imperfect speaker!


As we all know, Carnival is a barometer, the mirror of the society. The tempo, the feel of the mass, reflects the society. Art imitating life imitating art: evolving through the centuries, Carnival has at times provided the means for various styles of self-expression and a ready vehicle for confrontation, which could be played out between the competing revellers themselves or against the authorities.
Carnival bands were by their origins aggressive, led by chantwells who encouraged the stickmen, who were, in turn, enervated by the music, which, together with the heat and the rum, also drove the crowds, both members and onlookers, into a frenzy.
Carnival for the outsider is often unnerving in its disorder and abandon. To the European of the 1880s, the dancing was nothing but the most disgusting obscenity, "being an imitation more or less vigorous and lustful by the male and female performer of the motions of the respective sexes in the act of coition".
The contemporary writer goes on to add that together with the rum and the excitement, "performers and spectators then disperse with their passions excited to go and put into immediate practice the immoral lessons they have been greedily imbibing." Ent.
Undoubtedly, there was a grain of truth in this observation. But there was more to it than that. The portrayals expressed the grandeur of the imagination of a subject people, yearning for the "other". Let's go and look at mas in 1937.
Dressed in several textures of black, his shoes replicas of coffins, his very wide-brimmed hat a castle of crossed destinies, armed with cutlasses, knives and pistols, his face painted white like a skull, his whistle rings loud above the surrounding noise, his prey embarrassed in their uncostumed role of spectator grin sheepishly, trying to edge away, but already a small crowd has gathered and they now find themselves as a part of street theater, protagonist, antagonist and audience -

"STOP! You imperfect speaker! Stop!
Drop your keys and bend you knees,
and call me the Prince of Darkness, Criminal Master.
I have no compassion. In this time of execution,
Master of Masters, King of Kings,
man who can compel men and women to die,
I following the star of the unconquered will,
which makes me inexorable and unbeaten still,
as a burning diadem upon my breast,
invulnerable and calm and self-possessed.
Now my fabulous verses will befuddle your dunce head.
I will have fun and I will give you rocks for bread.
So stand and deliver all the "King's Head" (pennies)
that jangle in your pocket or I will blast your tail like a rocket!"

The crowd, much larger now, applauds. The undisguised shuffle and pay up. They seek to escape, for another robber is on the way, dressed from head to foot in red with tiny silver mirrors sparkling in the brilliant light of noon. From the distance, loud cracks like gunshots. The crowd shout and scatters.
"Jab Jab!" shouts a boy. "Look they coming from Erthig Road!"
In the clearing crowd appear three tall, strapping men dressed in red and yellow tights. Golden hearts cover their chests, and they wear jester's hats like horns, tipped with bells. Their trousers' ends are also sequined with bells, and bells surround their waists. They wield 15 foot long bull whips that crack the sky. Their eyes are wild. Men, women and children flee before their impertinence!
Now what's that smell? Oh Lord no! I thought they would stay in Jouvay. They must have slept out last night - it's a Pissenlit band. these dreadful people have soaked nighties in urine for days or weeks and are wearing them. Run, they coming to rub up on you! Run, quick!
"Look, look what is that?"
It's bats - a bat band on roller skates, all dressed in gray and brown fur, huge wings catching the breeze. Look, one little boy bat! He is jumping, trying to fly. How fantastic! Their masks so real, like bats.
Moko Jumbies always have a dwarf with them to make them look even taller, stalking on stilts 15 or 20 feet above the crowd, dressed in striped pants, a wide skirt and a colourful shirt. They wear torshon for a hat and carry a small umbrella. They collect money from the people in the upstairs windows, but have to be careful about electric wires.
Oh, how cute! Look a baby doll band, all dressed in pink and blue with lots of fru-fru and baby powder! How sweet - what that he's drinking from his bottle? Rum! And look that one, it look like curry running down his legs out of his diapers. What's that he wants to show you? A shilling to see Cain and Abel - well, there it is in a little black box, a piece of cane and a bell.
Carnival is something else again, yes. Oh, look a truck disguised as a radio full of pretty girls! They all work at Rediffusion, Radio Trinidad, you know.
Come let's go and see what Mr. Strasser playing this year. I hear he's coming out from Victoria Square. Last year he played a penny, a huge thing about 12 foot high. No one could see him until he stepped out from where he had formed a part of Britannia.
Look, there is something coming - it's Strasser. Everybody say it's Strasser. What is that - a stamp? Strasser playing six-pence stamp, a huge red stamp depicting Raleigh at the Pitch Lake! How real - look the detail, perfect! It's made of painted cloth with black and gold appliqués. Where is Strasser? He must be there - oh look, he's climbing up onto the float and he's gone, he has disappeared the moment he walked past it, he just stopped still and vanished - how fantastic! I want to see the Seven Ages of Man, they coming out from by Norville's drugstore. That so far, come go.
We go take a drink by Crown Lion Bar. Ah hear they have stick fight tonight!  Look, Mahalle. Eh, Mahalle, give us a drop! - "Not in this car, it not for hiring, it's a private vehicle," he said, slipping into first and driving off his invisible car just missing the orange man.
Patrick Jones and them fellers playing Beelzebub and the Forty Thieves. That is devil mas! They have a Satan with a face, almost as big as you. Eleven devils chained together in the everlasting darkness. Gilbert Scamaroni is plying the beast from the apocalypse, chained to female imps dressed in red with shimmering wings. They have a dance - very sexy. Look skullboxman, bookman, keyman and bellman, and Lucifer the Demon straight from hell. Shiffer Fabien father is play that. They does meet in Lapeyrouse to practice that mas every night for nine nights before Carnival! They collect dead dogs and boil them till they get the bones. Look he have a dog's skull round his neck and look that one have a cowfoot. Take care, they will throw the water they boil the dead dogs in on you. If that hit you, you blight for life!
Look the Belmont tram coming. Let we go by Crown Lion, ah could take a beer.
And several years later:

"Invaders beating sweet - ah ha
Coming down Park Street,
Tokyo coming up, beating very slow
and when the two bands clash
if you see cutlass
never me again to jump up in a steelband in Port of Spain!"

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