Put the Mask back in the Mas

Notting Hill Carnival in 2013 Brianna McCarthy Maker + Mender mask.

Notting Hill Carnival in 2013 Brianna McCarthy Maker + Mender mask.

One jouvay morning in Port of Spain a couple years ago, an Egun priest told me that the ancestors were upset because we were playing mas with our faces uncovered. This year for Jouvay I covered my face and at Notting Hill Carnival yesterday I made the transition back to a mask.

I had the pleasure of wearing a piece of art made by Brianna McCarthy, one of Trinidad’s most exciting young mixed media artists.

The politics of beauty in Trinidad is problematic at best. Look at any band launching event and notice that black women, dark skinned Indian or African women are virtually non-existent.

I am really excited about the ways that Brianna’s work confronts this.

Her website says:
‘Her work takes on the intricacies and dynamics of representing Afro-Caribbean women who are portrayed as being strong, long-suffering, exoticised and picturesque beings against a backdrop of poverty, hardship, abuse and/or scorn. McCarthy’s constructions and representations revolt against and subvert the stereotypical trends of representing the black body.’  

Once upon a time Carnival was a space for women to claim power. These days I can’t tell if Carnival is a space of power or – given the size of the costumes, the expense of the make up and increase in gym membership from October to February – a space where women are forced to seek approval under the gaze of a society that is male and judgemental. 

So the mask is part of that confrontation that needs to take place.  I loved the fear, awe, intrigue, attraction that the mask caused. Men begged me to take it off, children cried, old people smiled and bowed.

Culture should never be fossilized fragments. It should always evolve to serve the needs of the people who practice it. 

But we always need rituals. And performance as ritual – we’ve lost that from our Carnival with the loss of the mask.

And that is what I loved most about about wearing Brianna’s mask – it was a very contemporary take on a very ancient practice of masking – for the purpose of healing, for the purpose of transformation, for the purpose of liberation.

It’s a key part of the obeah that is Carnival and it occurred to me yesterday that half of the reason why the Carnival has lost its power is because of the removal of the mask.

London is the Place

 

I still smile every time I come out of the Brixton Tube station and turn left, and it’s like being in Africa and Asia and the Caribbean all at once. The incense man outside the supermarket is really from Barbados, though he pronounces “incense” like a Jamaican. A car passes, blasting the latest funky house summer scorcher, the unholiest of combinations of high life’s easy groove, dancehall’s driving bass, and soca’s call to wine.

 

Piece I wrote for Caribbean Beat Magazineon my ongoing love affair with Babylondon.

 

Vedanta AGM Protest. London August 28, 2012

Please join us for the eighth annual protest at British mining company Vedanta’s AGM on 28 August, 2.00PM at THE LINCOLN CENTRE, 18 Lincoln’s Inn
Fields, London WC2A 3ED

Vedanta plc is a London listed FTSE 100 company dubbed ‘the world’s most hated mining company’ which has brought death and destruction to
thousands. It is owned by billionaire Anil Agarwal and his family through companies in various tax havens. It has been consistently fought by
people’s movements but it is being helped by the British government to evolve into a multi-headed monster and spread across India and round the
world, diversifying into iron in Goa, Karnataka and Liberia, Zinc in Rajasthan, Namibia, South Africa and Ireland, copper in Zambia and most
recently oil in the ecologically fragile Mannar region in Sri Lanka.

* Vedanta is the second most tax evading mining company in the FTSE 100. Billionaire company chief Anil Agarwal is one of the richest men in
Britain with a £20 million home in Mayfair. His family own 62% of the company through various tax havens.

* At their Korba aluminium plant in Chhattisgarh, India up to 100 people are suspected to have been bulldozed into the rubble after a factory
chimney collapsed on them. Vedanta claim only 42 died but between 60 and 100 are still missing.

* At the Jharsuguda aluminium complex in Odisha, an estimated 10,000 people displaced by the plant are forced to live in polluted conditions
under constant surveillance rather than be rehabilitated.

* In Zambia Vedanta’s Konkola copper mines polluted the Kafue river so heavily that it turned green. 100 x acceptable levels for copper and 7,700
x acceptable levels of manganese were found in water depended on by 50,000 people.

* In Odisha, indigenous movements have opposed Vedanta’s bauxite mine on the Niyamgiri hills for seven years and so far prevented it. The whole of
the Dongia Kondh tribe would be affected detrimentally if the mine went ahead.

* Despite protests, environmental disasters and human rights atrocities everywhere the company operates, the British Government have continually
protected and supported Vedanta.

This is what it sounds like when boys cry.

It is an awful sound.  Guttural and raw.  A teenaged boy sobbing.  It is the worst sound and it twists my insides and I am fighting back tears.  Not for the boy these boys are weeping for. I did not know Zac Olumegbon.  Or more correctly, I do not remember him.  He was the little brother of my little sister’s best friend.  She had the most serious face, I remember. I always wondered why children here always looked so serious. Like they had the world of worries.  Perhaps they do, living in this corner of Babylondon.

And if I have run away from Trinidad hoping to escape the endless statistics of little black boys killing each other for honour, to regain their misplaced manhood, I have run to the wrong place.

Brixton, despite the gentrification and the nice gastro pubs and the belligerent foxes, is one of those London places where crime happens.  I don’t see the Eastern European whores in the park anymore and outside the Library they’ve made it all shiny and new.  But there are still old homeless people and young drugged up people and sad drunk people of all ages.  They do not go away despite the shiny new surfaces.

The sight of crying children is unbearable.  I guess because I take such a pragmatic view of death. It happens. It is natural.  Zac’s life as one of the speaker’s says, has been stolen.  Like a chain from someone’s neck.  Like the childhood of all these young people who have to say goodbye to a boy who has not yet lived.

They stabbed him.  Children stabbed him.  Children like him.  What can they possibly know of life to warrant killing a 15 year old.  What could they possibly be so sure of that they can take another life?

I look at the faces of my sisters’ friends.  They are young and old at the same time.  Too much living too soon.  I cherish my own sheltered childhood.  That I got to doubt myself and make believe and wish and dream and never once wonder if someone was going to deny me the chance to make mistakes.

My fought back tears are not for Zac.  They are rather for his friends and family.  Hundreds of them.  Gathered in grief on this bleakest of summer days.  There are long silences punctuated only by half stifled sobs and sniffles.

The police stay a respectable distance.  No profiling now.  No microwaving of leftover sus laws.

A young man read/raps Psalm 37 in the rhythm and truth of his Sath Landin twang.  The cheeky boys from the bus hold each other and cry silently, and then wipe the tears away as if they are angry with their leaking eyes.

My fought back tears are for them.  For their anger and grief.  For his mother and his sister and my sisters and all the young women here who will have to find a way to keep loving these men who are at war with themselves.

What war the Pastor asks. What war can they fight when they own nothing? What post code, what block belongs to them?  What property do they own when they live in state provided housing, are second generation immigrants? Where do they belong? Not even to themselves.

These children cry and my mother instinct moans helplessly.  There is no consoling for this kind of grief.  You can’t stick a dummy in the mouth of a generation that is becoming accustomed to burying their own.

I leave before it is finished.  Leave his mother reading the mountain of tributes.  Leave behind  Zac Olumegbon, who was the little brother of my little sisters friend.  They hope he has not died in vain.  All these people who have come to weep for him.  They hope no more will have to shed tears like this again.  Still, sirens wail in the distance, louder than Zac’s mother, louder than the thud of a boy fainting from grief, louder than the shaky voices of his school friends crying out to Christ for mercy. On this bleak summer day.

Here and now
You free as the wind
You de earth
You de fire
You de song that I sing
You the beat and the feeling
The living proof that we in.

Here and Now, Andre Tanker

In the countdown to the new year I am in the centre of Babylondon meeting up old friends with their new babies.
In a way it is the best way to ring out the year. In the company of little ones, eyes bright and dancing and hopeful.
It wasn’t so long ago that we all lived here and love and marriage and babies seemed like distant far off things.
On New Year’s eves past, in the bite of winter cold in Babylondon we would get together and dream big dreams.
And then some of us grew up and got married.  I remain an avid resistor of this fate, much to the delight of my friends who imagine that at some point I will give up and turn into super mommy with a little dread string band dragging behind me all over the place.
In truth Micaiah and Kimani are ovary activatingly sweet.  They regard us adults with wry smiles.  Like they’re thinking, look at them nah, they think they know so much.
For all our growing up we are still over-excited and loud.  Still making a scene, oblivious to the scandalized stares of the nice English people who can’t make sense of our banter.
We revel in the familiarity of our newness.  Knowing that children are the continuation of dreams, the fulfillment of a desire to bring hope into the world wallowing in extreme hopelessness.
There is a wisdom in babies that I feel I have lost somewhere along the way.  In the loss of innocence and wide-eyed wonder at the world’s shiny beautiful things and people, I guess I miss that way of the seeing the world.  A way that isn’t tainted by bitterness and cynicism and too much knowledge of the wickedness of people.  They know nothing of heartache and betrayal, Kimani and Micaiah.  They know nothing of credit crunch or climate change or the disappointments of a life not fully lived.
We skirt the politics and the uncertainties.   This is celebration time.  This is regeneration time when we put aside the weight of the world for a hot minute to remind ourselves of why it’s so important to fight in the first place.
We hope that the next generation only gets the good things from us. Not our neuroses and our short-comings.  Not our occasional self-doubt and our frequent frustration for the place that we love that sometimes doesn’t love us.
That we all run from but must all return to. Because what are we if not cascadoo eaters, who miss our mothers’ mango trees and streets that hum with our own sense of rhythm.
All of these things we discovered on endless troddings.  Alone and together.  With the music and laughter and the memories echoing in our half-frozen ears.
We are reunited in Babylon-don on our way back home.  Knowing that home is as much in us as it is in Trinidad.  Home is where you set down your georgie bundle.  Where you open your grip bursting with red mango and Sookeo’s whole channa.
The new year is fast approaching and for once for the night I don’t feel a deep and silent desire to have my own bright eyed popo.  Because joke is joke but a sleepy baby is not to be reasoned with.
Neither chick nor child means I can head on to more parties with more friends.
We say our goodbyes in the Underground surrounded by drunken yobs and stoned chavettes wearing pink shifts and feather boas.  I head uptown and watch as the madness takes hold.  Remembering Kimani and Micaiah and the certainty of newness, the inevitability of change.
Thankful that this new year meets me surrounded by love and light and that I am constantly reminded that I have the power to create what version of the future I want to live in.

Babylondon calling

I know sun is shining
Somewhere across the sea
I know sun is shining
That’s good enough for me
No need to worry anymore
No need to worry cause I know
The sun’s gonna break through the winter haze

The Camel, Fat Freddy’s Drop

The instinct to hibernate appeals to me. In a way I suppose it shouldn’t for someone who was born in the sun and loves the feel of it on her shoulders.
The instinct to hibernate brings me to Babylon-don. To bleak skies and days so cold that I am rarely tempted to venture out. So I camp out in the kitchen warmed by jazz and bursts of cooking and listening to radio documentaries and dramas. My television is the kitchen door that gives me a view to the back garden, which is teeming with London wildlife: fat pigeons and kamikaze squirrels and the occasional fox. Funny that I have to come to a big noisy city to find some peace. To unplug from the haste of island life, the noisiness and the bright colours.
Even the rain whispers, like a conscientious nurse careful not to wake a sleeping patient.
Friends can’t quite understand why I’ve turned up now. In the midst of a bad winter, in the midst of a certain financial crisis. Friends who curse me for not bringing the sun in my pockets to lighten their days.
When the spirit moves me I leave the house to engage with the cold on my face, fighting its way through my layers of wool and cotton and the Tribe Called Quest I blast into my ears to steel my courage against it all. I am relieved to discover it isn’t as cold as I think it’s going to be.
It is the winter of discontent, the winter of few getaways. The winter of sales before Boxing Day. The winter of no new stylish winter gear, no ski weekend in the Swiss Alps. It is the winter of more men asking you for spare change on the streets.
I end up in Camden to check out a band called Spasm, a real callaloo of musicians from all over the place. They play a Kuti-esque percussiony funk with a good measure of Midnight Robber whistling from the lead vocalist, a Trini poet called Anthony Joseph. He bobs and weaves like a soca-soaked preacher man and sings a lament for his grandfather’s cutlass that was so sharp it could leave a mark in water.
Later a New Zealand reggae band with full brass and the most beautiful Maori man rock the Roundhouse. The sun is going to shine again, he sings in a surprisingly soulful voice that makes me so full of love for London. He sings into the middle distance for a place I know. He sings for all the exiles/ ex-isles in the crowd, white, black, indigenous.
He sings for me and my Londoner sistren, home and away, different and the same. Searching for meaning and feeling and purpose in a world driven to the brink by greed.
He sings for all the runners. All of us who have used our escape hatch. All the shape shifters, moving in and between forms like music moving from blues to dub to funk and everything in between.
He sings for all who can afford to run. Who can’t bear the stagnation that is familiarity. For the thrill seekers and the big thinkers who can’t be held in the box of their little islands.
I wonder on the bus back to Brixton, what would be my sanity level if I couldn’t afford to run.
If I couldn’t skate out when I got fed up enough and bored enough of state of things in Trinidad what would I do with myself?
Who would I be if I had to stay confined to an island for all the days of my life? Imprisoned in a way of living and thinking.
I feel no guilt anymore for running away. For riding out temporarily in the interest of my own sanity. For disconnecting from the BS in which I am so emotionally invested.
The thing you run from comes to meet you, greet you, shake your hand and squeeze your shoulders. On a bus in Babylondon blissed out on New Zealand dub and sweet Trini funk I can’t deny my own responsibility for the mess that Trinidad finds itself in.
My own mountain of questions for which I have no answers. My own insularity and lack of vision and my own inflated sense of rightness that stops me from really working with others.
It’s a relief in a way to have a chance to be critical of myself and my motives. It is not a luxury we allow ourselves on the island. We have too much invested in the mutual friendly society and then cut you down behind your back.
I return to warmth of the kitchen, staring into that midnight darkness of the back garden. Glad to return to my self-imposed exile, my self-appointed hibernation. There is no guarantee of sun, rain, snow or sleet here tomorrow and I find that unpredictability quite endearing.

Last B Wee plane to Piarco

December 31.  Last morning in London.  Last day of a strange year.  Last BWIA flight to cross the Atlantic.
Two hours of sleep and I’m up and ready to go. Heathrow on the M4. Road clear but winter late dawn darkness. No sign of fog, man on the Beeb says mild day today.
First in the line.  They forgot my veggie meal. Again.  No worries.  Waiting.  Again.  The flight’s delayed by an hour.
After 66 years, nearly flawless flight record. My first BWIA flight around 2 or 3 I asked my mother if we were going to meet Jesus. My first flight to London around 7 holding tight to my sister with one hand and my teddy bear in the next. Ears popping, numb boomsie, eyes puffy to leave behind my granny, flight interminable. Peeping through the window and seeing the boxy greenness of the English country side. Back home a year later, with my teddy still clutched tight and a bit of an accent. I clap with the other people when the plane lands in Piarco. Home. Safe.
More times. More travels. Beyond the BWIA boundaries. Missing the pan on the playlist. Missing the haughty, well made up BWIA girls. Missing the strange people sitting next to me. Excited tourists, bored students, old tesses going back home for the first time in decades, Trinis like me yearning for sun and wining and Caribbean Beat magazine.
Pass through security. First time I have to take off my shoes in Heathrow. First time I have to shove everything into one piece of hand luggage. First time I feel sad to be leaving London to go home.  img_0532.jpg
Proceed to Gate 19. Trying to keep up with speeding nephews. They stop by a window. Typical London bleak. They look at the plane. They speed off again. I look at the plane and suddenly I feel a little sentimental.
I try to get them to pose for a shot and they resist until I find something to bribe them with.
Exasperated, why do you want a picture of the plane? Because it’s the last time one of these will leave London Heathrow. Late. It’s the last time I’m sit here in one of these departure gates rolling my eyes because of the delays.
Inside passengers mill around. Flight attendants on the far side of the room. Some look bored. Some are bright eyed and perky. Some look like they’re sad to see the old tin cans go.
Bepping in Gate 19. The man says time to board. A snazzy looking Oma Panday sashays down towards the plane. A tired looking Silver Fox brings up the rear, smiling all the way. Some things never change.
Welcome aboard. Find seats. Pan on the playlist. Haughty well made up BWIA girls bringing me sorrel. I read myself in the Caribbean Beat and finally my nephews fall asleep holding my hands. Flight interminable, numb boomsie eyes puffy from wild nights in London. They find me a veggie meal. Sun setting as we fly west. Lower and lower almost there. Crane my neck to see the lights of the East West corridor, northern range dark and mysterious like the contours of a sleeping giant. I peel off layers. The tires hit the tarmac. A tear filled voice comes on the PA. Thanks for the support, thanks for 66 years of service. A smattering of applause. Gold toothed Indian behind me laughs a rum-soaked laugh and pelts some pecong behind the man who sounds like he wishes that BWIA could get a las lap. One more jump with a steelband down to Roxy roundabout. Usually I pelt out of a plane. Eager for real air, eager for that Piarco heat to hit me like a wall. I linger a little longer, saying goodbye to all the crew, feeling sentimental for a company that has vexated me frequently, that I have bad talked with gusto.
Wondering what this new company will bring. Wondering if it will inherit BWIA jumbies, if it will be a serious grown up version of this child that took 66 years to become an adult.
Piarco hasn’t changed. Hot and still looking like a cow shed. Waiting long for the bags to come. Amen aloud when we have them all. BWIA girls, make up still astonishingly flawless, sashay past. I give them the ‘alright’ head nod and smile.
I hope they lose none of their haughtiness.