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Farewell to the flesh

Thursday, March 5, 2015
Pestilence, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation, presents a chilling spectre on the streets of Port of Spain in Peter Minshall’s 1980 band Danse Macabre. PHOTO: DALTON NARINE

Wine, women and song.

​That was the theme of the day when the Romans were introduced to the debauchery of Bacchanalia a few millennia before Christ himself was ushered in with pride, pomp and His own cultish circumstance.

Mystic as well as mythic, the explicit celebrations conjured up nude men and maidens, accompanied by masqueraders dressed in animal skins, and soused to the ears as they belted out bawdy lyrics. Theatre in the extreme, indeed.

They crowned a mock king but even he couldn’t control the euphoria. Later, early Christianity would blast Carnival as a despicable event. How times have changed!

Today, the tradition continues to celebrate its resurrection as mas, or masquerade, in T&T’s annual big do. At least what registers as mas. (Well, such interpretation certainly won’t leave conservatives in a wining mood). 

A good thing, though, happened during the mas some fat years ago. 

I chanced upon the Ghost of Carnival Past, who seemed to be disoriented by a strangeness in the bacchanal. For whatever reason, the Muse of mas had been sidetracked since Mancrab violated the Washerwoman, the theatrical ‘uptick’ in a sense bringing a downturn to the celebrations. Much of mas and its derivatives had become generic. Notwithstanding Minshall, Berkeley, Derek and a resurgence of traditional characters, the mas had gone mouldy. Turns out that the freshest path it had taken has been the fleshiest. A pervert’s view that, as artist Christopher Cozier hinted, curved away from the trajectory of the Mancrab/Washerwoman tra la la. The song, not the singer, having changed. Look how it come a lyricist’s dream—oil wealth anew, and wanton women by the grappe. Yeah, like Yankees gone and Sparrow takeover.

Anyway, our curiosity to justify relevance and integrity on hold, it behooved the Muse to take your humbled one back in time when mas lovers swore by the encyclopedia, the new Good Book—for it became a repository of thematic ideas. Even the library lured and lulled potential history buffs.

Off we went, then, through three side streets and around two corners, where we bounced up Nirvana. Who awaited us inside a small office at the Film Department of the Information Division. No, no! Ministry of Publicity and Propaganda? Ah-yah-yie-ah-yie! Don’t go there! Come with us as we peruse ancient clips of George Bailey and Harold Saldenha and Desperadoes’ Leo Warner and Wilfred “Speaker” Harrison, et al. Frame upon frame of pageantry, colours accentuating each other in Van Goghian bold, and daubing images of hordes of revellers as they magically transform National Geographic, Britannica itself and many a brave designer’s fancy into a mobile playhouse.

Here the dance of Sally’s Cree Indians of Canada as it snakes along the Circular to the Belmont competition; and, in a Bailey triad of historical significance, there the mystery of the Relics of Egypt, replete with chariots and Sphinxes; over by so, Somewhere in New Guinea beckons; and coming down Cipriani Boulevard Saga of Merrie England titillates.

To Hell and Back and Back to Africa; Primitive Man and Extracts from the Animal Kingdom; Imperial Rome; The Glory that was Greece; and a whole mess of sailor bands putting on a show, their risqué and comedic acts mimed to the rawness of steelband music, the only Nativity in our multi-culture, blessed and cursed alike, just like the mas. And fancy sailors, too. Fascinators, Syncopators and Desperadoes, jitterbugs all, strutting and peacock-ing headgear, such as clocks and cameras and sharks and elephants, and crabs from the Mangue, leaving Cito Velasquez up front to bogart attention with his Gulliverous Fruits and Flowers. 

Not to forget the real Mc Coy traditional mas, like the Dragon.

Restrained by imps, and brandishing a satanic sceptre that features a polished wooden snake (with marble eyes), wrapped around – as if copulating – a piece of bois rubbed down with coconut oil, this once-upon-a-time stick fighter turned ballet dancer, who just can’t resist crossing canal water just so without making histrionics, operating largely Behind the Bridge before taking his act downtown and to the Savannah, to preen and/or expatiate upon Beelzebub’s prance. It’s a routine as fiendish as that of the robber barons, who leave little children tethered to the hearts of their mothers, themselves palming off biscuits to shush a brokered peace with the bad man spitting robber talk mined from Shakespeare and Melody and the gang at the Calypso tent. Better to stuff his sow’s ear purse than have the young ones traumatised for the remains of the day. 

Not to forget, too, the traditional/original beads and feathers mas. Yes, ah Indian was ah Red Indian. Fashioned from Hollywood, though more illustrative than Tinsel Town’s treatment of the Native American. Here he comes, roaming through the gloaming, beads jingling and voice hoarse to a whisper. An ensemble that will move you like a classic Ruso, for its trey of disguise, dialect and dance. 

In olden times, the mas was all over the place because it felt free to play yourself, not free up, or wine down like rats in the sewer. Ha! God knows the rodents wouldn’t have tolerated such slackness. Indeed, thousands of them, unnerved by the mere notion, haul they tail and scurried across to French Street to sign up with Rat Race, Peter Minshall’s purview of the land and its lubbers. Lubbers, not lovers. Keep up with your humbled one or lose yourself in translation.

And nobody - no one - had ever translated stilled art like Wilfred Strasser, famous for The Penny and Simon Bolivar costumes, such verisimilitude eliciting oohs and aahs from the Carnival Sunday night congregation of mas worshippers [though Minshall’s La Pietà (Tapestry), Michelangelo’s 15th-century work depicting the body of Jesus on Mary’s lap after his Crucifixion, would later vivify Strasser’s ghost.]

Yet one shouldn’t dismiss East Dry River’s Worrell - as I, a young Casablanca masquerader, knew him in the late ‘50s - who paraded as an inky likeness of the symbolic soldier in Memorial Park, the selfsame cenotaph that ole mas-ters like Belmont’s Sheppy danced past on the way toward satirising (S)hitty Council and The Seven Ages of Man, everybody laughing at themselves, gil gil gil. Donkey years before Minshall danced the streets with his own mirror, for sure.

Yeah, the Sixties crowd would recall the identical statue that, in 1959, was moved to shout from its platform, “Oh, God!” to Desperadoes’ Noah’s Ark and Velasquez’s Fruits and Flowers as they limped to the Savannah following an attack on Charlotte Street by San Juan All Stars, whose war mas banner screamed Battle Cry, of course. And, in 1963, the soldier in the Park raving, “Oh tool, boy,” over Bats and Clowns, colour by Bailey, singular precursors, all, to the new phase in the Carnival that perhaps engineered the “Look at me” arty mode of mas. But Minshall’s time would come, and not a moment too soon, because the truth was ready to turn the corner, any corner. Just turn and it right dey.



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