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Dear Editor: Ole mas, dissent, decency and the dangerous descent into meaninglessness

“For the large masses of working people in Trinidad, Carnival, particularly Jouvert, was always about subversion, defiance, sarcasm dressed up in deceptive hilarity. It was one of the very few avenues by which they were able to openly express how they felt about the unfairness of their lives, the hypocrisy of Victorian ‘morality’ (which is still very much with us) and the morality of those who governed.

“Someone found a way to purge the Mas of all that… Indeed, the creation of ‘pretty Mas’ in the 1920s was a way to de-politicise the deceptively hilarious, frequently raunchy aspects of Ole Mas—that Dr Hollis Liverpool, in his book Thoughts Along the Kaiso Road, said masked collective outrage—which is being allowed to wither away. They found ways to extract the gay abandon aspect and commodify that so that now we have Mas 2.0, sanitised duttiness.”

The following Letter to the Editor, discussing a perceived trend in Jouvert and Ole Mas over the years, was submitted to Wired868 by Corey Gilkes of La Romaine.

Photo: A group of masqueraders from Blue Boys highlight the hot-button issue of an increasingly scarce commodity during Jouvert in San Fernando on 12 February, 2018. (Photo courtesy Corey Gilkes)

I don’t know who was the person—or persons—who thought it was a great idea to isolate the party/fete aspect of Carnival and capitalise on it by making it the main feature of ALL aspects of the Mas. It may be someone who doesn’t have a sense of history or, alternatively, someone who does have a sense of history and is uncomfortable with what (s)he knows.

Either way, it spoke volumes that, for 2018, the veteran “Blue Boys” was the ONLY Ole Mas band to register and appear for Jouvert in San Fernando (down from two bands last year). Equally instructive was the sight of the near completely theme-less jersey bands, many of which had their revellers “fenced” inside ropes held by often burly security personnel. It was almost recalling a supposedly bygone era when the masqueraders incorporated the pageantry of the absurd into their messages of aloofness.

For the large masses of working people in Trinidad, Carnival, particularly Jouvert, was always about subversion, defiance, sarcasm dressed up in deceptive hilarity. It was one of the very few avenues by which they were able to openly express how they felt about the unfairness of their lives, the hypocrisy of Victorian “morality” (which is still very much with us) and the morality of those who governed.

Someone found a way to purge the Mas of all that. Like the co-opting and diluting of blues, psychedelic rock of the 1960s, gangster rap and reggae, indeed, the creation of “pretty Mas” in the 1920s was a way to de-politicise the deceptively hilarious, frequently raunchy aspects of Ole Mas—that Dr Hollis Liverpool, in his book Thoughts Along the Kaiso Road, said masked collective outrage—which is being allowed to wither away. They found ways to extract the gay abandon aspect and commodify that so that now we have Mas 2.0, sanitised duttiness.

Photo: A masquerader sharpens the focus on the education system during Blue Boys’ Jouvert presentation in San Fernando on 12 February, 2018.
(Photo courtesy Corey Gilkes)

Ironically, even that in one aspect is a form of subversive politics. Prof Carol Boyce-Davies informs us of this in Left of Karl Marx, her book on Trini-born Communist activist Claudia Jones, one of the leading lights behind Notting Hill Carnival. She points out that, in exploitative, authoritarian, industrial-centred societies where the incessant demands for increased production (intentionally?) fosters a sense of resigned despair, gaiety, humour and merriment are themselves political.

For the insecure, of course, any form of humour directed at them removed the facade of absolute authority they believed they had crafted and, as such, was/is intolerable.

As such, over the years the Mas has fast been becoming sterile, devoid of that original expressiveness that made full use of our dialect. For some, that is precisely the intent.

But be careful what you wish for. History has shown us time and again that, when you interpret voices of divergence as dissent and then proceed to stifle it, the result is that that built-up pressure comes back at you in ways you usually cannot handle.

It might be a good idea to encourage the people to express themselves.

Photo: The police come in for some praise during Blue Boys’ Jouvert presentation in San Fernando on 12 February, 2018.
(Photo courtesy Corey Gilkes)

About Corey Gilkes

Corey Gilkes is a self-taught history reader whose big mouth forever gets his little tail in trouble. He lives in La Romaine and is working on four book projects. He has a blog on https://coreygilkes.wordpress.com/blog/ and http://www.trinicenter.com/Gilkes/. Vitriol can be emailed to him at coreygks@gmail.com.

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11 comments

  1. When better can’t be done let the worst continue

  2. Says the man who played fancy Jourvert.

  3. And now I hear they want to ban paint!!! Seriously! !

  4. Well put. There’s so much to comment on and protest about, but Carnival seems to have abandoned its role as the voice of the people challenging authority, abuse of power and injustice. We need mas inspired by rage and rebellion, by humour and narrative, not just a desire to show off gym-toned bodies in a commercialised ‘mas’ of ever-skimpier beads and bikinis.

  5. Throw in some alcohol, nonsensical monosyllabic drivel and there you go, a canned Trinidadility.

  6. True. I too recently learned this truth, that the mass was a form of mockery and artistic dissent againgst the colonial masters and mistresses.
    That aspect has most certainly been lost by those who now use it as a status symbol to play in ‘certain’ bands around a ‘certain class’ of people to massage their self esteem. Especially as the writer said the case of the working class. Mental slavery? Or culture?

  7. If I interpret Chalkdust’s book Rituals of Power and Rebellion correctly, Trinidad has always followed two carnival philosophies – one that continued from the excesses and waste of the White and Coloured bourgeoisie and Africans rendering an interpretation of their environment to suit their rediculous circumstances. The Ole mas in the captioned picture above is a true representation of What to do with an empty space on your day off, but some distance from Jouvert Ole Mas on Piccadilly Street, long time.

  8. Excellent commentary.I have long stated. No one external is killing the mas,Certain pockets of organized groups are doing that well in T&T, while the paying masses are to blind to see. What someone told me “you don’t understand innovation”. I concur I sure don’t, particularly the justification by some for the changes over the last decade. Reality…..tourist numbers have fallen and people don’t bother to go to the Savannah, Soon it will be only masqueraders on stage and empty stands. What else is left in T&T for Trinis to kill.” We doh like we own”, We are imitators.*Brazil mas, nakedness, at least they have huge floats