Beauty and the Beast | Panorama

T&T Carnival may be the world’s greatest street party, but among the glamourous bikini bands and shimmering sequins, some traditional masquerades offer a defiant take on the darker side of our history

  • A masquerader from the band Yuma crosses the stage in a whirl of floating feathers. Photo by Dwayne Watkins Photography
  • As dusk falls, moko jumbie Kriston Chen of the band Moko Sõmõkow stalks down the steep road from the hilltop village of Paramin. Photo by Jason Audain
  • This Dame Lorraine, portrayed by Nathaniel Charleau, may be dressed demurely in white, but traditionally the character portrays sexual ribaldry and gender transgression. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • With its scales and horns, wings and fearsome eyes, gaping jaws and jagged fangs, the dragon — portrayed here by Junior Taylor — represents barely restrained brutality in a traditional devil band. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • The young revellers of Kiddies’ Carnival portray some of the festival’s most elaborate visual fantasies with innocent enthusiasm. Photo by Jason Audain
  • A fire-breathing jab molassie, Andishire Bernard, heralds the Jab-a-Mien devil band at the Old Yard showcase of traditional mas at the University of the West Indies St Augustine campus. Photo by Jason Audain
  • Moko jumbie and designer Alan Vaughn of the band Moko Sõmõkow is a regal vision of floating, shimmering blue. Photo by Jason Audain
  • Dwayne White of Jab-a-Mien has perfected the devil’s penetrating glare. Photo by Jason Audain
  • Surprised by an explosion of confetti, masquerader Kathryn Hill of the band Bliss pauses in momentary wonder. Photo by Jason Audain
  • Maswoman Tracy Sankar-Charleau has won a devoted following for her intense portrayals of original characters inspired by Carnival’s macabre traditions — like this Lady of the Night bearing a flaming coffin and accompanied by a prancing douen, Sankar
  • A Bookman, one of T&T Carnival’s traditional masquerade characters, with his book purporting to list the names of damned souls. Photo by Jason Audain

Think of the visual spectacle of Carnival, and what images come to mind? Acres and acres of kinetic colour, plumes and satins, beads and glitter? The sultry pleasures of barely-clad flesh on sensuous display? The elaborate fantasies of pretty mas? Yes, but there’s another side of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, darker, dirtier, sometimes even sinister, embodied in the forms of traditional mas. Consider the masked, pistol-brandishing Midnight Robber with his aggressive lyrics and black cape adorned with skulls, a projection of our collective fears of violence. Or the bat with his tunic of fur and quivering wings, recalling creepy things that approach in the tropical night. Or the varied taxonomy of devil mas: the Bookman with his record of damned souls, the rampaging dragon barely kept in check by his attendant imps, the blue devils and red devils, jab molassies glistening black, lunging with their pitchforks and spitting flame — like the enraged spirits of those who died enslaved on colonial plantations, returning to jog our memory.

Because, despite the best efforts of today’s profit-driven mega-bands, Carnival is not merely the world’s greatest street party — it’s that, but it always has been and still is a ritual of memory and self-knowing, a public enacting of tragic and painful truths, an assertion of resilience in the face of history. Indian mas reminds us of the centuries-long suppression of the Caribbean’s indigenous peoples, and their stubborn survival. Sailor mas is a mocking riposte to imperial hegemony — reducing a mighty military threat to the jokey dance of drunk sailors on shore leave. Towering high above us and moving with superhuman agility and grace, moko jumbies summon ancestral spirits from across the Middle Passage, protecting or admonishing in turn.

Like joy and regret, love and hate, reality and dream, Carnival contains — is even powered by — the contradictions and reversals of the human condition. There’s no better illustration than the work of Carnival’s two pre-eminent philosophers: the late calypsonian the Mighty Shadow, with his “bass man from hell,” and masman Peter Minshall, creator of Danse Macabre, Santimanitay, and the techno-mutant monster Man Crab — thrilling and chilling at once. Carnival is truest to itself, perhaps — as we are truest to ourselves — when the beauty and the beast meet in a dance of mutual recognition, each seeing each in the other, belonging forever together.

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