On Becoming a Warrior of Huaracan

You eh see nothing until you see a man pull feathers from a dead cobo. That trip to Icacos on Sunday was a lot more than I had bargained for. 
About two years now I’ve been singing a song about how I want to play a Black Indian mas big big on Tuesday, because sometimes youse have to go back to the root to move forward. Anyway it so happen in the way that only Esu could manage that powers align and next thing you know it having a band called Black I and we wanted to link up with ‘real’ Black Indian to get a sense of the tradition to build on that and help inform the mas we, the Vulgar Fraction, going to play.
It was a rough journey. Andy who responsible for the band Warriors of Huaracan talk for the whole road. And I listen with a mixture of horror and fascination as he would be talking and then scream from a place that has no name and then break into a chant and then go back into a story about the clash of Indigenous beliefs, Congo magic and Orisa practice that then came to live in this Black Indian masquerade.
I had to walk away as he pull out the cobo feathers. And it took me a few days to realize that mas, like life is about ability to take even death and make it beautiful.
Mas is beauty and horror. Mas as a whole can’t and shouldn’t be a version of reality that edits out the blood and pain. 
I real excited to be becoming this mas this year. I real excited that this evening at 6 in Belmont I get to listen to the great Nari Approo talk about mas and all that it could possibly be. Come nah, if you able. 

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.

Walking the Talk

jouvaywillah

I come from the land of chance
Where man does do dey dragon dance
And cross the waters of destiny
Builders of a legacy
Out of nutting
They still dared and dreamed to be something
Shining bright for the world to see
Everyday we walk
Where these giants walk
Everyday we walk de walk
But still we can’t walk de talk
—Giants, 3Canal

It is midday on Carnival Monday and I am only just walking home from the best J’Ouvert ever. Hoping if I stayed out to wring all the possible enjoyment out of the morning. In the stark light of noon I imagine I look like a misplaced jumbie who has lost her way back to the other realm where no one minds if your face is a mosaic of mud and purple blue green. I am at my freakish best, but it’s Carnival and the road is for everyone now. I do not combust under the stares of the pretty mas girls who jiggle past me, their beads making shh shh noises. The mud and paint make a pasty moustache with the obscenely expensive coconut water. But I don’t mind. Because I have just had the best J’Ouvert ever and nothing else matters as I try to savour every memory of the hours before dawn.Walking into the sunrise and feeling that electric connection to everything and everyone. You forget fear and your uncrunched abdominal muscles.
There is no separation between sacred and profane. Everything is everything. A wine is still a wine and between your friends and the strangers and the tourists and the vagrants you find your humanity. You too drag in the canal. You climb walls and find your balance. You jump and spin and catch an old familiar power. You shout into the coming dawn. Look mih! You have no mirror to see your state. You imagine you look like the people around you. Absolutely stink. You fall in love with Trinidad and yourself again. It is perfect in its grossness. Like birth. Magical and horrible at the same time. Essential and unavoidable. It is midday on Carnival Monday and I am thinking already about how long I have to wait to be in this place of bliss again. And I wish I could do it all over again on Tuesday morning, but this is not to be so. More than one J’Ouvert might send the country more mad.

I walk through the Savannah. Listening to Carnival living around me. Past tired. Past happiness and misery, in a J’Ouvert state of mind. I am still thinking about Monday morning on Tuesday, on the streets, playing a protest mas. We are playing contemporary cow mas, walking on familiar roads with new swagger. My placard says there is too much at steak. We are enough to distract spectators and revellers from the endless waves of feathers, beads, silicone, high-heeled boots. We are enough to make people smile and want to take pictures with our absurd placards. We are going for the title of Best Unregistered Band because Carnival brings out our competitive spirit. We moo and stampede at will. There is no rope around us and we make our own music.  steak
We are liking ourselves in our little band. Because I guess we all end up playing ourselves at Carnival. A bigger, brighter version of ourselves. How we imagine we would be if we had the vision and the fortitude. It is the time when we actually manage to walk our talk. Walking across the Savannah on Tuesday night, past the traffic and the sound of Carnival dying all around, I am thankful for the opportunity to walk my talk. To take this idea of myself a little further. At midnight the silence comes, covering the Belmont Community Centre where Rasta bredrin and sistren begin to skank on tiptoe. No more frenzied feting sounds. No more pan sounds. No more late night speeding up the avenue hoping that no-one followed you home sounds. The Carnival is over and now the sleep that I was avoiding, does not want to come. So I lie in bed and I listen to the 3 am nothingness. Wondering how to walk my talk without having to wait another 365 days.

The Bacchanal Now Start

They cah stop the bacchanal

They cah stop the festival

Nutting cah stop the carnival

Because tis the season to wine

Hold someting and wine

Hold somebody and wine

I telling yuh

Wining Season, Machel Montano

Who needs to play mas when there are people playing it on TV for us? A big big mas. Even before Carnival Monday and Tuesday. This kind of mas is the one to beat all cockfight. This kind of mas is even more exclusive than all the bikini bands with rope around them charging more money for a miniscule piece of cloth than most Trinbagonians stand to make for the first three months of the year. Only certain people could play this kind of mas. Big, high people playing a big big mas they call the Commission of Enquiry. And the rest of the country like burrokeets, getting ridden through the badly paved roads. The rest of the country could only play a donkey mas while their money jumping up like so many soca fans in a big fete. But who needs Carnival in this place where leaders could play mas with democracy? Watch the whole thing unfold like a Minshall tableau on the now gone Savannah stage. Watch the whole thing move in slow motion with high falutin’ Pierrot speechifiying in big English accent. Watch lawyers carré, dance a big dance with your money. Hear the Professor dreaden them like a King Kootoo doing a bluest devil jook. This is a big big mas and you don’t even need the jackass costume they give you. All you need to do is sit down and watch. Because this is real mas in all it’s mind boggling shiny splendour. This is mas in yuh masses. And sometimes you have to look twice because you not sure if it is a masquerade or mass hysteria, or masturbation. You not sure if to laugh or cry at how your leaders wining down on your right to know what they do with your money. You not sure if this is serious or just more entertainment. You not sure if you’re supposed to get vex and start to riot or hold your head and wine down low, lower than the price of oil. You not sure if all this bacchanal and long reports on the nightly news is just to distract you from the fact that we now have a budget deficit and we not getting anywhere near the proper royalties for natural gas. This big mas and noise come like last Carnival when the big sequins band push the 90-year-old blind Midnight Robber out of the way. Because this mas is the mas to beat all cockfight. Meanwhile Alcoa reported a 929 million US dollar loss and pull up brakes on several of their smelter projects in Iceland. Environmentalists breathing a sigh of relief that the economic decline has saved them from more unnecessary destruction of Europe’s last remaining wilderness. Meanwhile they just laid off 250 bauxite workers in Jamaica, because the global price of aluminum has plummeted so drastically. Meanwhile Rio Tinto Alcan just announced the closure of their Angelesey smelter in Wales, the largest single energy user in all of Great Britain. 14,000 jobs gone there to reduce capital spending by £5 billion.Meanwhile a decision is expected in the case against Alutrint this month, which has been in court since October, without so much as a sideways glance from the media. But aluminum is just as much of a nice mas as Udecott. Definitely not as sexy. Environment and mineral resources and small communities being bullied off their land is not as sexy. It not ready for the big stage yet. Let that stay on the back burners. Let us focus on the bigger better, louder, shinier mas. Because this mas is much more important. This mas is affecting the bottom line of many people who thought they were going to be getting a lot more out of this government. This mas is about the elite—some black skins in white masks, some wild Indians, some foreign drunken sailors on shore leave looking for Jean and Dinah in the construction industry. And all of them want to protect their bottom line and their right to wine. Meanwhile the lack of investigative journalists means the government could continue to play mas with the global financial crisis and say what they want without anybody bothering to question their robber talk. The bacchanal now start. But from the look of things, this masquerade will never end.

Has Carnival lost its mojo?

I’ve been standing here
On Green Corner
Everyday of my life
I’m watching the masquerade
All them pretty colours
Them like soldiers on parade
So tell me why
Should I change my life
When everyday is a Carnival
Why should I rearrange
When everyday is a festival
Could you picture me in another place
When I’m in the heart of the bacchanal
Would you feed my fire
Would you my flame
The story goes on
Again and again and again and again
It feels good
This comfort nice
Carnival, 12.

It’s been that kind of Carnival. That I could have missed completely.
Everywhere I’ve seen people and they’ve said similar things.  They just weren’t feeling the Carnival feelings this year.
I don’t know what it was about this year that made me so completely uninterested in taking part in the festivities.
I guess it’s an overall disappointment.  Disappointed by the music, by the costumes, by the void left by Mr. Uncle Minsh that no one has bothered to fill.   Disappointed by the hurried paving of roads for masqueraders and promises of heightened security.
Excluded from the exorbitant all inclusives.  Left peeping over the fence at so many events that are ram crammed with people spending money that I don’t have.  Way too unsexy to dare put on a sparkly bikini.
I guess I must be really over Carnival.  It’s as if the greatest show on earth has been exposed to be little more than a five cents play in a badly lit community centre.
But maybe it was always like that I never bothered to notice.  I guess being in foreign you tend to exaggerate the value of something, pump up its brilliance in your own imagination as you try to find that thing that makes you special.
Funny I could be at home and feel like I’m in another part of the world.  A world where soldiers play a gun mas in down town.  And the noise of security helicopters disorients the jumbies.
For real, this Carnival has been an out of body experience.
I could be nearly in the heart of the bacchanal, pan and mas and fetes coming live and direct to my ears from the Stadium and not feel it take possession.
I felt something of the old excitement in Princes Town market on Wednesday night in the crush of people circling a gayelle.  There was something in the eyes of those stick men that made me know that I am still alive.
Back in town, St. James is lively under the film of stink.  Cockroaches dance round food vendors flanked by sleeping crackheads under the feet of drunk drivers.
Another Carnival, another string band of Carnival babies to hope for better.  To boost our population but not our potential.
Because we give birth to the same old newness everyday.
We enjoy this cycle of predictability that isn’t necessarily about upholding traditions.  It’s not about subversion or resistance or self-preservation.  It’s about added value to the lowest common denominator. Even those of us considered to be cutting edge settle into a comfortable pattern of outspokenness.  So even the resistance elements become formulaic and pandering to American phD students and French film crews and avant garde Japanese artists.
I’m seeking truth here, somewhere and find it lacking.  Everybody playing a mas, everybody in their section trying to keep up appearances.
It’s as if Carnival is a phantom limb.  A bit of our beauty and wholeness that’s been cut off but we still think it’s there.  We still go through the motions, for reasons of image or enjoyment or economics.
And we find a million ways to up the ante.  To make it bigger and brighter and louder.  Pave roads so that bad drivers can play midnight robber.  Convince ourselves that it really is the greatest show on earth.  Well I guess that’s what Trinis do best.  Show ourselves.  Play ourselves in front of the camera, skin our teeth and shake our Dexatrimmed backsides and our newly bought breasts.  Revel in the stench of our mediocrity, because what else do we know?  What else is possible?
The Merry Monarch steupsed and stalked past me. Left me standing on Green Corner hoping for a last minute reprieve. In the heat and silence of my aloneness, I’m not looking  forward to the walk home.