Trinidad Carnival: back to the future

Traditional mas connects Trinidad Carnival to its historical roots. But can characters like the Midnight Robber, Dame Lorraine, Jab Jab, and Blue Devil survive as the festival evolves? Tracy Assing, Aurora Herrera, Mark Lyndersay, and Skye Hernandez meet four young masqueraders whose answer is yes

  • A young masquerader portrays a Fireman, a version of traditional sailor mas. Photograph by Maria Nunes
  • Fédon Honoré. Photograph by Maria Nunes
  • Nathaniel Charleau. Photograph by Maria Nunes
  • Ronaldo Alfred. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Ronaldo Alfred works on his Jab Jab costume at his family workshop in Carapichaima, Trinidad. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Steffano Marcano. Photograph by Maria Nunes
  • Steffano Marcano. Photograph by Maria Nunes

“I don’t play Midnight Robber — I am one”

The first time Fédon Honoré performed as a Midnight Robber, he forgot half his speech. But, as Tracy Assing discovers, words no longer fail him when it comes to defending the relevance of his family tradition

The first time Fédon Honoré donned a cloak and hat for the masquerade, it was to make the Midnight Robber “Textbook Bandit” mortal. The year was 1998.

“I remember being terrified, and forgetting about half of my entire speech,” he says. “The costume was pretty much recycled bits and pieces of my dad’s old stuff, and although I put it together myself, I was way too caught up in the crafting of my speech to worry about it.”

In Grenada, where Honoré spent his early years, there is no Midnight Robber tradition, and his first interaction with the character came during a visit to Trinidad. He watched as his father Brian Honoré, now deceased, donned full robber regalia and posed for a photo for the newspaper. Young Fédon had a cameo in the photo, menacing his father with a fake dagger. Although he was incorrectly identified as “Kedon”, his robber future was cast in newsprint.

“I was intimidated by the Midnight Robber as a character,” he says, “but I think recognising my father behind the costume always demystified it somewhat for me. My dad never sat me down and said, ‘This is how you do a Midnight Robber speech.’ His version of mentoring was more akin to throwing me in the deep end of the pool, and yelling, ‘Yes, you can swim!’ I think he recognised the affinity I had for oratory and words much earlier than I did, and that was his way of showing that.”

The elder Honoré cultivated respect as the foremost Midnight Robber of his day. “His entrance words remain for me the definitive Midnight Robber introduction,” says his son. “Halt! Drop your keys and bow your knees, and call me the Prince of Darkness, Criminal Master, for when I stamp my feet and gnash my teeth I can cause a grave disaster . . .”

Fédon Honoré has donned his hat and cloak almost every year since his father’s passing in 2005. He continues to be part of the Mystery Raiders Midnight Robbers band, founded by his father and Anthony “Puggy” Joseph — another Midnight Robber legend — in 1993.

Now twenty-nine, and a pedagogic co-ordinator at the Alliance Française in Port of Spain, Honoré uses his art in real life. “Carnival is one of the few times we let down our masks more than we put them on,” he says. “Therefore I’d say that I don’t play Midnight Robber — I am one.”

He continues: “More than most of the other traditional characters, it lends itself to transcending the forum of Carnival, and is notably an educational tool. I try to show this every time I make a public appearance outside of Carnival. I have done appearances to encourage children to read West Indian literature, to educate persons about the spread of HIV, the impact of natural disaster, and the importance of patriotism in building a strong society.” Honoré is also working on a novel aimed at late adolescents and young adults, using the Midnight Robber as its central figure.

He has learned a thing or two about “robber talk” speeches and costuming since his days as the “Textbook Bandit”. His current incarnation — “MOKO, the Master of the Killer Oratory” — sees a lot more preparation. “We usually do the bulk of construction of our costumes, speeches, and props in the period between January and Carnival,” Honoré says. “The actual process of costume construction has become my preparation ritual, hence the reason why I am always making last-minute adjustments minutes before going on stage or on the road.”

Like other traditional masqueraders, he wants his artform to reclaim a bigger space in the Carnival arena. “Midnight Robbers are not dying so much as being squeezed out of Carnival,” he says. “It’s being marginalised for the benefit of the ‘bikini and bead’ mas that the people are being encouraged to make, encouraged to want, and encouraged to play.”

With his fierce commitment to the family tradition he has decisively adopted, and his determined presence on the Carnival road, Honoré is a living rejoinder to the idea that the Midnight Robber is a thing of the past.

In a black costume — complete with cape and exaggerated sombrero — decorated with skulls and crossbones, brandishing pistols and announcing his presence with sharp blasts of a whistle, the Midnight Robber accosts passersby with an elaborate and threatening speech (“robber talk”), often incorporating references to current events.


“I like the stories behind the characters”

Nathaniel Charleau’s participation in traditional mas is a family affair, led by her grandmother. Aurora Herrera meets three generations of Dame Lorraines keeping one of Carnival’s oldest masquerades alive

At sixteen years old, Nathaniel Charleau is already a Carnival veteran. She made her Dame Lorraine debut when she was just eleven. “I played queen of the band two years in a row, 2006 and 2007,” says Nathaniel shyly, “and I got second prize in the school queen competition in my second year.”

For the teenager, like many young people involved in traditional mas, Carnival is very much a family affair — in this case, led by her formidable grandmother June Sankar, one of the best known contemporary Dame Lorraines. It began thirteen years ago, at the 2001 traditional mas competition at Victoria Square, where Sankar was in the audience. “I looked at those Dame Lorraines,” she recalls, “and I felt that I could do better.” She now leads an annual Dame Lorraine band, a bevy of women masqueraders in colourful, elaborate gowns, artfully padded to create a humourously voluptuous silhouette — costumes that Sankar designs, sews, and decorates herself.

She also works to develop the character by running traditional mas bands out of schools. And including younger members of her family is key to the plan. Sankar’s daughter Nadia is co-bandleader, and granddaughter Nathaniel plays a starring role. “If children get to do traditional mas, they will have a better concept of Carnival,” says Sankar. “Children being born now think that Carnival is just beads and bikini mas. The history of Carnival is also very important. We must pass it on.”

The Dame Lorraine has its origins in the eighteenth-century Carnival of French plantation owners, when high-society ladies and gentlemen would don elegant costumes for their night-time parties. As a form of mockery, their enslaved servants would imitate and ridicule their owners. Later on, after Emancipation, the satire moved out onto the streets, passing down from generation to generation.

“There are different versions of the Dame Lorraine all over the world,” Sankar explains enthusiastically. “There are versions in France, New Orleans, and Brazil, where it is actually the men who do the Dame Lorraine dance.” She’s determined to keep the custom alive. “The children nowadays think differently to us, the older generation, so if you want to carry on traditional mas you have to make it interesting for them.”

It’s certainly worked with her granddaughter Nathaniel. “I like the colours and the creativity of designing the costumes, and putting on the beads and decorations,” she says. “Every Dame Lorraine has to have her mask, gloves, bag, fan, umbrella, and hat. We have to make all of that. Playing the character is also a lot of fun.”

Growing up in such a creative environment has greatly affected Nathaniel’s life — she is also a budding artist. She draws, paints, and writes poetry, and recently her school honoured her for receiving the highest marks in art in her form. “I like the stories behind the characters in traditional mas,” the teenager says, admitting that the stilt-walking Moko Jumbie is her favourite.

June Sankar’s future plans are ambitious. They include taking the Dame Lorraine to more international Carnivals — she and her daughter Nadia have already portrayed the character at Labour Day Carnival in Brooklyn. Luckily, all the generations of her family are behind her — including the granddaughter who in 2014 will once again head the procession of brightly gowned and bewigged Dame Lorraines as they cross the Carnival stage.

The Dame Lorraine’s voluptuous costume, with her elaborate wig and fan, trailing gown, and comically exaggerated bosom and bottom, is a living parody of eighteenth-century French aristocrats in their plantation balls. Formerly portrayed by both male and female masqueraders, today’s Dame Lorraines are predominantly women.

“It’s a hard mas, but when you perform, the ancestors come into you”

For sixteen-year-old Ronaldo Alfred, Jab Jab mas is a family legacy he means to hand down to his own children. It’s also a ritual connecting today’s masqueraders to a spiritual past, he tells Mark Lyndersay

In short pants and a t-shirt at home, Ronaldo Alfred doesn’t look much like the colourfully clad yet darkly menacing Jab Jab character he plays at Carnival. Look in his eyes, though, and you’ll find a brooding seriousness that belies the lurching angularity of his fast-growing body.

Alfred is sixteen, a form five student at Carapichaima West Secondary School, focusing on business studies. But he’s been in costume for Carnival since he was a baby, making his first appearance on stage — as did his younger brother and sister — in a pram.

“Everything I learned about this, I learned from my father,” the young masquerader says. That’s more than just knowing the intricate braiding techniques needed to create the Jab Jab’s whip, and understanding the nuances of the sharp pull of the wrist that accelerates its tip beyond the speed of sound, resulting in a deafening crack as it breaks the sound barrier.

Alfred, the fourth generation of the family’s Original Jab Jabs of Carapichaima, has also been gifted with the secret knowledge and rituals of the group, including the special plants that must be gathered and blended into liquids to create the salves that treat the bruises and cuts their performances leave on the bodies of the band’s most dedicated players. At the peak of their performance, Jab Jabs whip each other in pairs, until one player quits the competition they call “the game.”

It’s a tradition that began with Ronaldo Alfred’s great-grandfather Alfred Bachu, who introduced the band sometime in the 1940s. Bachu’s son Winston Alfred continued the tradition, handing the band over to his son Ronald after suffering a debilitating stroke. Winston Alfred passed away in July 2012, leaving the family’s tradition in the hands of Ronald and his family. Seven-year-old Revaldo plays with the band and cracks a smaller but wickedly crisp whip. But the middle child, twelve-year-old daughter Renella, prefers to perform with her mother Shalima’s Red Indian band.

Ronald Alfred is currently the Whipmaster king, and his son Ronaldo is all too aware of the challenges he will face in continuing the tradition. The band has grown from twelve to a hundred masqueraders since he has been involved, but he admits frankly, “Nobody knows what the Jab Jab mas is about.”

In 2014, a friend his age will finally join Alfred in the band, but most are content with more popular styles of masquerade. “It’s only when my friends see me in the street for Carnival,” he says, “then they become interested.”

There’s no mistaking the resolve in the teenager’s keen eyes when he’s asked about his future in Carnival. “I learned something, and I want to carry it on,” he says. “It’s something I was born into, and I want to bring my children into it as well. Some people drop out to go and lime and skylark, but this is my life. I train all through the year.

“You go into it with a clean mind, a clean body, and a clean attitude,” he explains. “It’s a hard mas, but when you perform, it’s hectic, the ancestors come into you. Afterwards you feel the burn — your skin feels like it’s on fire.

“It’s a good thing to learn what Carnival is really all about, to know what the ancestors did and why.”

The Jab Jab’s colourful striped costume, embellished with mirrors, little bells, and swansdown, may look like a jester’s. But these aren’t figures of fun. (Their name is derived from the French diable, devil.) Rather, they are fierce warriors, armed with whips of plaited rope, to frighten onlookers and fight street duels that can shed real blood.


“You do things you wouldn’t usually do”

Most children are terrified of Blue Devils, with their loud hoots and whistles, their menacing dance. Not Steffano Marcano, writes Skye Hernandez. Growing up in the village of Paramin, he “always liked the feeling of the blue” on his skin

Many of us who grew up in Port of Spain can remember the sharp, blood-curdling screams, the whistles and the “pak-pak” of stick on hollow biscuit tin that announced the presence of “jabs” (devils) in the neighbourhood. They roamed the streets at Carnival time, sometimes even invading our yards to demand money. Only when we managed to “pay the devil” by flinging some coins at them would they run off to terrorise elsewhere.

The menacing jabs, all slathered in black grease, washing “blue,” or sticky red, and carrying crude wooden forks, were many a child’s worst nightmare. But not Steffano Orlando Marcano. The twenty-four-year-old comes from Morne Cyril in the hills of Paramin, an area in north-western Trinidad known for the growing of “seasonings” — chive, pimentos, thyme, and other herbs prized in local cuisine — and for the wildest, noisiest, and most terrifying jabs on the island: the famed Blue Devils of Paramin.

No one in his family had ever chosen that role, but Marcano must have been born to be a Blue Devil. His first solid memory of the jabs is from when he was four or five years old. “There were few children that never got frightened for Blue Devil,” he says with a typical Paramin inflection (many people there are partly descended from French settlers). “When the children would go and hide, I was one of the few who would want to go out and give money and dance with them. I always liked the feeling of the blue on my skin.”

Nowadays, the big Blue Devil competition takes place on Carnival Monday evening at Fatima Junction in the centre of the spread-out mountain village, but when Marcano was growing up, the jabs went from door to door, drooling fake blood, shaking their tridents, and frightening anyone brave enough to be caught outdoors.

“Long, long time ago,” said Marcano, “everybody would get together and form different bands. They would use the normal tracks around here. Times change, so they don’t go house to house anymore. They go on the road instead.”

What’s it like to be a Blue Devil? There is the preparation, the covering of the body in blue, which used to be done with household laundry “blue” and lard, though nowadays people use commercial body paint. You grease your body with Vaseline first, as protection for the skin, and attach whatever accessories you need to make the portrayal real — horns, whistles, heavy chains, a tail, an old “buss-up” pants or jockey shorts. But what really turns a regular person into a jab, says Marcano, is the rhythm of the “pan.” “The biscuit tin is the main drive to get the feeling,” he says. “It’s an excitement. I can say it brings out my inner child. You do things you wouldn’t usually do: roll on the ground, climb a tree, you bawl at people, because the scream would scare them. And that’s the main goal — to intimidate the audience and make them scared.”

Some consider Marcano one of the best of the new generation of jabs. “I’ll still leave room for others to stand up by me,” he says. “I’m not selfish with the spotlight.” He believes his dancing sets him apart. “I always like to be in a crowd, but to be different.” He’s a fire-breather, too, one of the most dramatic feats a jab can perform. His style is to make eye contact with his audience. “I watch them from far and come up. Who don’t like it, I don’t go by them, because not everybody likes Blue Devils.”

Once the biscuit tin rhythm (aided by overproof puncheon rum, some say) gets the Blue Devils going, some go so deeply into character that they can’t come out of it. “People say it has a spirit,” Marcano explains. “They forget regular things and do things with that spirit. Like they would climb a wall and the pan stop, and they can’t come down. But that has never happened to me.” He never gets that carried away: “I can control my behaviour and stay within the limit. To me it’s a character that you are performing, and that has nothing to do with your individual personal life.”

In his own personal life, though, Marcano has persuaded his two sisters — Shauntel, eighteen, and Shenice, sixteen — and his partner, Stephanie Bailey, to become jabs. “Stephanie, that’s my love. I taught her to blow fire last year. She never did anything like that before she met me. She plays devil and blows fire.” She’s the one who calls him “Handsome Devil,” Marcano says with a big grin. His family on the whole has supported his desires since he was a young child wanting to have a devil band.

The little bands of Blue Devils from Paramin — among them Kings of the Hill, Popo and Friends, Flat Boys, and 2001 Jab Molassie — are highly competitive. “We don’t know where [the other bands] dress. It’s very secretive. You don’t see the bands until they reach on the road. They all want to hide their identity. The main objective is that you don’t want people to make you out. That’s why jabs are so secretive, even about the band members,” Marcano says.

He speaks about some of the legendary Blue Devils, men like Morkaiser, Appetite, and Kellay. They were the first jabs he heard about. “They were the most vicious and entertaining group of Blue Devils, the ones who set the trend and made the name, made people fear them. They are old now, and they come to watch. The Paramin Blue Devils — we have the best reputation. Nobody else performs the way we do. I say ‘we’ because it’s the whole of Paramin.”

Marcano — a farmer, former model, parandero, and deep-sea diver, among other things — is proud to be keeping the Paramin Blue Devil tradition alive. “The old people can’t do it,” he says. “It’s up to us. We have to decide to keep it up or let it die. And I personally want to do everything to keep up my heritage.

“That’s why I am a farmer, too, planting chive. People say chive is Paramin people’s backbone. If you have nothing and you have chive to plant, you will be all right.”

A Blue Devil’s costume is little more than a coating of bright blue pigment, but combined with a rhythmic pouncing dance, blood-curdling hoots and whistles, and dribbled “blood,” it’s enough to transform a mild-mannered individual into an alarming spectacle. To escape the masquerader’s attentions, onlookers must “pay the devil” with a banknote or two.


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