This week, I experienced my first taste of Carnival traditions, as tourists flock to Trinidad and Tobago, and the celebrations begin to climb toward the Mas frenzy on Monday and Tuesday!
On Friday, we ventured into Port of Spain for the Dragon Festival and a small traditional Carnival performance. The whole concept of Carnival and “playing mas” or masquerade is about an elaborate performance of mimicry and masks. Some say Carnival takes “time out of time” by emphasizing fluidity in the passage of time and releasing revelers and all participants from the pressing matters of real life. The characters seen in parades throughout the week are symbolic of the history of Trinidadian culture.
The Bookman (also, Gownman or Ruler) is a devil mas portrayal, surrounded by imps and beasts. He carries a pen and a book in which he writes the names of prospective souls for the devil. While I watched the Bookman do his waltz through the streets, I caught a glimpse of names in his book. Some I did not recognize, but the name “Christopher Columbus” was immediately familiar!
Jab “devil” Molassie “molasses” is one type of devil in devil mas. He carries a pitch fork and his body is smeared in grease, mud, or coloured dyes (in this case- blue all over)! His imps play rhythms on pan drums, while he wines and gyrates wildly, held back only by a chain.
The Dragon is the fire-beast from hell, bringing destruction to the streets. If the dragon comes across a pool of water in the road, the “holy water” being of Heaven leaves the Dragon frustrated. The imps taunt him and he must finally dance in submission and try with great effort to leap over the water.
J’Ouvert, a French word for “daybreak”, is the high-energy festival that officially begins the Carnival festivities. It starts with the first revelers parading in the streets, dancing to carefree soca, and throwing paint in all directions in the earliest hours of Monday morning. Bands ride on trucks with large speakers, blasting their music into the sunrise, with their hoards of dancers “chipping” in matching costumes.
Oil and mud are often used in addition to paint. These materials, opaquing people from head to toe, add to the feeling of freedom and anonymity in the dark hours of early sunrise. Time moves in a different way as you dance your way through the streets, collecting all the colors of the rainbow. While some people ventured out on Monday to watch the parades in Port of Spain, Trinidad, I recovered from a night without sleep. Monday is the day when the bands are focused upon, while Tuesday is the day of beautiful costumes, performances, and music!
Carnival has been a time for amazement and the removal of some misconceptions. I lost track of time in the pursuit of enjoyment. I truly began to understand some of the beautiful traditions in Trinidad and Tobago! I would return to celebrate these days in a heartbeat.