Mama this is Mas! – The Traditional Masquerades of Trinidad’s Carnival

There are three distinct features of Trinidad’s Carnival and they are the masquerade, the calypso and the steel band. In Trinidad, there is a demarcation between “masques” and “masks” as the former refers to a band which wears costumes based on a particular theme whilst the latter refers to the covering of the face or head, by the masquerader. Carnival in Trinidad has been celebrated for over two hundred years and as such it has evolved, leaving many traditional carnival portrayals forgotten in the annals of history. Let us take a look back and discover some of these now traditional masquerades of Trinidad’s Carnival.

One of the oldest traditional characters that has vanished from the Carnival landscape is that of the ‘Negre Jardin’ This character was representative of an enslaved field labourer and was usually played by those of the upper class. This was such an ancient character in Trinidad that in  1860, Trinidad Sentinel reported on the 2nd February of that year that, “… princes and lords of the land paraded in the sooty disguise of the negre jardin … even the residents of the Government House mimicked the garden niggers.” The shift in the popularity of this masque can be accredited to Emancipation in 1838. After Emancipation the formerly enslaved Africans were free to join in the masquerade processions. However, Daniel Crowley notes that, “Later this aristocratic masque was adopted by the battoniers or stick fighters as the appropriate costume for ‘kalenda’ or stick fighting.”

The Piss-en-lit is also one of the traditional characters which has become extinct. The Piss-en-lit, also called the pizali and pizane, translates into stinker. This street masquerade was usually played by men who dressed as women. Some would wear transparent nightgowns with ribbons and lace whilst others would wear little except menstruation cloths stained with ‘blood’. They also engaged in sexual horseplay and their dancing and singing was deemed obscene, Hollis Liverpool states, “One band called the Beka Boys was famous for tossing not only foul smelling handkerchiefs but bits of make believe menstruation cloths into the faces of respectable women while using foul language.” This masquerade was deemed objectionable by the ruling elite and as such by the early twentieth century they had stamped out this particular masquerade.

One traditional masque which has been found throughout the West Indies is the cattle or cow bands. This is a traditional character was also found in Trinidad’s Carnival. It was first played by workers of the abattoir in Port of Spain. These workers were of Venezuelan origin and came out of the Tozi yard at number 44 George Street Port of Spain. The masqueraders would wear dry plantain leaves tied around their bodies from their neck to knees and cow horns fastened to their heads by head ties. These ‘cattle’ would charge the ‘jenel’ or bullfighter who wore ordinary clothes and would wave a flag to enrage the bull. Their faces were heavily painted in lieu of masks and the masquerade was extremely energetic. They would threaten the bystanders and made loud mooing noises and clattered their shoes on the pavement whilst the jenel would collect money from the bystanders. As Daniel Crowley noted however, “These bands no longer appear in Port of Spain but are said to come out in a few country villages.”

One of the least known traditional carnival characters is the Pai Banan. The Pai Banan or banana trash would usually appear in Carnival celebrations in rural districts. The masqueraders would wear dry plantain leaves to cover their entire body and their faces would be covered with a brown cloth or papier mache mask. The head piece would be fashioned out of a white cloth with two long antennae sticking upward or two cow horns. The purpose of this masquerade was to go about scaring individuals. This masquerade has all but become extinct in the twenty first century. Other lesser known traditional characters which have all but disappeared include fishermen who threw nets over their victims to extract money, trained bears and their trainers, tailors who measured their victims for clothes and then extorted payment as well as snake charmers with real snakes.

These traditional Carnival characters have all become extinct. They are no longer a part of the yearly celebrations and not many know of their existence or the impact they had on Trinidadian society. Visit the National Archives for more on Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival.

 

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Work Cited

Crowley, Daniel J. “The Traditional Masques of Carnival.” Caribbean Quarterly 4.3-4 (1956): 194-223. Print.

Hill, Errol. The Trinidad Carnival; Mandate for a National Theatre. Austin: U of Texas, 1972. Print.

Liverpool, Hollis “Chalkdust” Rituals of Power and Rebellion: The Carnival Tradition in Trinidad and Tobago, 1763-1962. Chicago, IL.: Research Associates School Times, 2001. Print.

Pearse, Andrew. “Carnival in Nineteenth Century Trinidad.” Caribbean Quarterly 4.3-4 (1956): 175-93. Print.

Trinidad Sentinel. February 2nd, 1860.3.

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