By Michael La Rose
Satire, mockery, irony and comedy dominated the themes of the masquerade, or mas, of the early Trinidad Carnival. The newly emancipated slaves celebrated the end of slavery but also threatened retribution in song, dance and mas. This was signified by the presence of devil costumes called Jab Jab (jab is Creole for devil). These costumes represented reminders of the evils of slavery and warned that it's perpetrators had been noted. Another similar type of mas was the Dragon Mas that included tormenting imps and lots of chains, Lucifer, Book Man and Gown Man.
There were a great number of Mas and each dealt with different subjects and themes. The Damme Lorraine was a Mas depicting the slave owners' wives. It was grotesquely exaggerated and a man usually played the character. Another mas was the Negre Jardin, which depicted whites pretending to be blacks in Carnival. There were mas about the local Native Americans or Amerindians, Caribs and Arawaks that were called Wild Indian.
There were lots of African influenced mas like Moko Jumbie, Cowhead, JujuWarriors and Grass and Straw Mas. Contemporary masquerade in Nigeria, especially the Engungun masquerade, bears amazing but unsurprising similarities.
Military mas was a reflection of the soldiers and sailors of the colonial and post colonial armies and navies that came to the island. During every Carnival the colonial authorities would put the local militia on alert and anchor a warship with reinforcements in the island's waters.
After emancipation, a new cultural influence entered into the rich tableau of Carnival art. This was the arrival of indentured slaves from India. They developed another type of masquerade from their Hosay Festival that consisted of a procession of elaborate and colourful mosques and half moons accompanied by the powerful Tassa drumming. The Hosay and Carnival became the cultural bridge between people of Asian and African descent.
All of these influences can still be found in the mas of Carnivals today. Mas bands tell a story through the theme that they choose for their costumes. It is important to know the theme of a mas band to understand and judge how creative the costumes are. Each theme is divided into sections of costumes that depict an aspect of the overall theme. There are also elaborate costumes in each band- the king, queen or individual costume and there is freedom in creativity and design. Themes include the historical and cultural, the natural world, the world of visual media and literature, politics and religion, myth, legend and romance. Mas today can address serious and comical issues from life and death to good and evil. These are epitomised by costumes that still include clowns or devils.
Carnival bands are a feat of great organisation. There is the designing and making of the costumes, organisation of the masqueraders, food and drink, hiring of the music section and organisation of how the band will look on the road on Carnival day. This is usually organised by a committee of people who are based in a temporary or permanent building where costumes are made called the mas camp. This is the working, social and cultural heart of the band. Financial management, artistic creativity and social organisation are crucial ingredients for the organisation of a Carnival masquerade band. Plans and preparations start 9 to 12 months before the coming festival.
Large bands of over 300 people developed in Trinidad in the 1950s. Today in Trinidad there are bands of over 3000 people. In Notting Hill Carnival, mas bands average 80 to 150 masqueraders. Each band decides it's own theme and style of masquerade. As in all art, there are many styles and traditions to follow.
The Carnival itself consists of competition between Carnival mas bands, steel bands and sound systems on the road to win Band of the Year, best Carnival mas band; Road March the most popular calypso at the Carnival, judged by peoples choice and the tune played by most bands at the judging points; King and Queen of the Bands the best male and female individual costumes.