Making the Caribbean with mas | Panorama

Carnivals abound across the region at this time of year. Marvin George explores both their differences and their common threads

  • A Jab Molassie breathes fire in the streets of Port of Spain, Trinidad. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • Baie-Mahault Carnival, Guadeloupe. Photo by BONAL971/
  • Wanaragua (aka John Canoe) masqueraders in Stann Creek, Belize. Photo by JC Cuellar/
  • Jonkunnu in Jamaica. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
  • Masqueraders at the Dominican Republic National Carnival. Photo by Mario De Moya F/
  • Carnaval in Jacmel, Haiti. Photo by Quentin Gustot/

In almost every Caribbean territory, the carnival season culminates in an explosion of “mas”! Mas itself is the Caribbean term for processional masquerade and revelry “out in the road” at carnival time. And while carnival might be described as a festival of festivals — mas, music, fetes, and more — the term “carnival” is used almost interchangeably with “mas”.

The lyrics to some of our classic and contemporary carnival songs (in English) illlustrate this association between carnival and the mas ritual — and its centrality to Caribbean culture.

Aldwyn “Lord Kitchener” Roberts uses “masqueraders” in “Rainorama” (1973) to describe participants with Bacchic energy “turning beast on the street” when they heard they “go get the carnival”. Austin “Superblue” Lyons sings about carnival possessing a “spirit” in its “spell” that invokes and invites traditional mas like “Moko jumbies, Jab Jab, and clown” to come to town.

In more recent soca from this century — the Destra Garcia and Machel Montano hit “It’s Carnival” (2003) — Destra sings that we need carnival “like we need blood in we veins”, and that carnival itself is a ritual of “marinating under the sun” where “we does all come one”. The image is of masqueraders’ bodies en masse, in mas.

And even more recently, from Nailah Blackman and Skinny Fabulous — in their popular ode to carnival “Come Home” (2023) — there is the promise to jump, wave and wine like never before after the Covid-19 restrictions. It both references mas in the streets and Caribbean people’s deep connection to the festival.

Looking closely at costumes and mas performances across the region unmasks striking semblances and resonances, regardless of geography or language. It is on this basis we see mas as the “lingua franca of the Caribbean” according to Rawle Gibbons, and use mas as the point of entry for reading carnivals across the Caribbean.

A masquerader blackens their body with molasses or motor oil — beyond the darkness of their own skin. In this most sensual smearing ceremony, s/he disappears. When complete, not a spot of the body is recognisable as theirs.

With horns, a fork and a tail — and another soot-coloured masquerader restraining her at the waist with a soon-to-be sullied stainless steel security chain — they start to wine to percussion, whistles, and screams as musical accompaniment.

In the “jukin” of the waist, the tail begins to move. An audience of children screams, trembles in fear, and runs away, as the band of masqueraders draws near. The children declare, “Look de devil dey!”

In Trinidad & Tobago, this mas performance would be called Jab Molassie (molasses devil). It unmasks at once a most terrible and liberating narrative of enslavement and resistance. This is the inescapable history of the Caribbean and the Americas — the context for this whole “new world”.

In Haiti, this black-body mas (without the tail) is called Lanse Kod; in the Dominican Republic with palm branches applied, it is Los Tiznaos; in Dominica, it’s Darkie; in French Guiana with red loincloth, Nèg Marron; and in Guadeloupe and Martinique, Nèg Gwo Siwo — “siwo” itself is a reference to molasses that takes us right back to Jab Molassie in Trinidad & Tobago. They’re all pre-Lenten carnivals, performing a relative to the Jab Molassie that we all know, but probably have not all seen.

In Grenada, this same performance would be called Jab Jab. In recent times — at least in the last 20 years — few Caribbean territories have made a mark on its own carnival with one mas tradition as Grenada has with Jab Jab. If you visited Grenada’s carnival and didn’t play (or at least see) Jab, you probably weren’t in Grenada. The mas energy has even informed its music.

Many of the major soca hits from Grenada, from Tallpree’s “Old Woman Alone” (1999), Skinny Banton’s “Soak it Good” (2014), and Mr Killa’s 2019 monster hit, “Run Wid It” attest to this. Grenada’s Jab Jab has even influenced the wider Caribbean. The “Water Lord”, Iwer George, was “planning to stop sing soca and go and live in Grenada” and play Jab Jab.

Even the lexicon in Trinidad (and elsewhere in the Caribbean) has shifted somewhat with many using the Grenadian descriptor Jab Jab to explain the black body mass. Trinidad has a mas named Jab Jab too, but its design and performance are a bit different.

What is known in Trinidad & Tobago as Jab Jab, is almost entirely performed by persons of (East) Indian heritage. Jab Jabs are dressed in what can be (mis)construed as European jesters with the fol (heart-shaped symbol containing mirrors, worn on the chest like a breastplate), which is also found in the King Pierrot, and 19th century stickfighters’ costumes. The mas performs the cracking of their plaited whips as ritual and spectacle, before culminating in battle with opposing/competing Jab Jabs.

In preparing to play, initiated masqueraders may fast for 40 days prior to carnival performances, as well as perform worship to the Hindu Goddess, Kali. While these Hindu rites might be part of the preparation, the mas makes fluid use of African stickfighting (kalinda) music and patterns, which have historically been syncretised into its practice, notwithstanding — or perhaps because of — a native Indian stickfighting tradition named gatka existing on the same soil.

Incidentally, in the community cultural work of Voukoum in Guadeloupe, the rope ritual and spectacle in mas is also a key feature. For Voukoum, this is danced in the Nèg Gwo Siwo (Mas A Kongo), one of the black (skin) forms of mas. Its use of red loin cloth and red breast covering while the remainder of the body is besmeared black is very similar in design to the Nèg Marron mas of French Guiana. The use of the (Trinidad) Jab Jab styled whip, however, is the distinguishable feature.

In my interview with its leaders in February 2021, the group boasted of its recognition of the Congo as motherland, and argued its practices as culturally related to the Congo. Using mas as community work, it at once organises a traditional percussion ensemble to accompany its traditional masquerade practices.

The Warao people, who inhabit the Orinoco delta, have had a long history of journeying to Trinidad. Trinidad’s Naparima Hills are sacred in their cosmology. They also came to trade. So, in many ways, the presence of the Warao mas — known in Trinidad & Tobago as Warahoon mas — emerges out of the context of a community who made contact with these Indigenous peoples.

In their essay “Decolonisation is Not a Metaphor”, Tuck and Yang (2012) argue:

“Indigenous peoples are those who have creation stories, not colonisation stories, about how we/they came to be in a particular place — indeed how we/they came to be a place”.

This can also be seen in Trinidad’s Black Indian mas, which remembers in performance the “coming together” of Amerindians and Africans. The Fancy Indian tradition in Trinidad — even in emerging from the influence of Western movies — is not distant from this.

It is in these mas traditions that we are placed in conversation with each other in spite of distance and differences. We make mas with the Caribbean — and make the Caribbean with mas

In Belize, the Garifuna people play a mas called Wanaragua. The Garifuna (aka Black Caribs) are a “new” ethnicity emerging from the mixing of the First Peoples and enslaved Africans of St Vincent, their yurumein (homeland). After some 40 years of formidable resistance against British soldiers and colonialism, with the help of the indigenous Kalinago community, the Garifuna were exiled in the late 18th century to the Honduras coast — now Belize, Honduras.

According to one narrative, the Wanaragua is a remembrance of this resistance. The performance is at once a conflation and inversion of the Garifuna versus the British struggle. The mas is performed with a white-faced mask. The body carries ribbons as strips, and mirrors — like the motif in the Jab Jab fol — and headpiece with feathers. Wanaragua in Belize marks one instance in the Caribbean where the native masquerade performance is not part of the carnival.

A similar presence is danced in Jamaica’s Jonkunnu. In the Jonkunnu’s Wild Indian mas, the tradition also acknowledges that there is a memory of the First People in these lands. Jonkunnu is Jamaica’s native masquerade tradition.

Like Wanaragua (which is also referred to as Jonkunnu), Jamaica’s is a Christmas time revelry, as opposed to a pre-Lenten one, which presents a band of individual characters: “King, Queen, Devil, Pitchy-Patchy, Belly Woman, Cow Head, Policeman, Horse Head, Wild Apache Indian, Bride and House Head”. This band of masqueraders is accompanied by goat skin drums played with sticks, “rattles, fifes and even bottles and graters” (Jamaica Information Service).

The Jonkunnu remains a Christmastime masquerade, performed otherwise for Independence and other festivals, and even as tourist entertainment. The Jamaica Carnival is in April and is characterised by the bikini, beads and feathers — “pretty mas”.

There is a Jonkunnu (Junkanoo) in The Bahamas. An early account of the mas talks about masqueraders with cow-bells and musical horns and a headpiece that took the shape of a ship. This similarity to the boat headdress worn by Tobago Speech Bands could not be ignored.

Similarly, the very popular Pitchy Patchy of Jamaica resembles the Shaggy Bear mas from Barbados, and the Pierrot Grenade from Trinidad. But Pitchy Patchy is a most beautiful and athletic dancer, while the Pierrot Grenade is an erudite and comedic speechifier.

Jamaica Jonkunnu’s Cow Head reeks of Bull mas in Antigua, St Kitts, and the Guyanese masquerades; while its Belly Woman contains narratives that might be likened to Trinidad’s Baby Doll mas, or those exaggerated (female) body parts mas traditionally performed by men like Dame Lorraine in Trinidad & Tobago, Bam Bam Sally in Guyana, or Mudda Sally in Barbados — the grandchildren of the Yoruba-Nago Gelede tradition.

Notably, there is overlap. These classifications are also not exhaustive, and the work to document and analyse them is ongoing.

Each mas tradition in each of these territories bears its own peculiarity and uniqueness. The BBF (bikini, beads, and feathers, or “pretty mas”) ethos has emerged as the image of contemporary mas and carnival.

The Caribbean carnival circuit creates many a stage for soca, dancehall, and other Caribbean music artists to perform — together. The structure of the festival has evolved into a festival space in our respective and collective diasporas, for Caribbean people abroad to affirm their presence.

But indeed, it is in these mas traditions that we are placed in conversation with each other in spite of distance and differences. We make mas with the Caribbean — and make the Caribbean with mas.

Common threads

Making mas with language (Speech Mas) Midnight Robber, Pierrot, and Pierrot Grenade (Trinidad); Tobago Speech Band (Tobago); Shakespeare Mas (Carriacou)

Making mas with military power (Military Mas) Bad Behaved Sailors, Long Nose Sailors, Fancy Sailors, Firemen and Stokers (T&T); Police (Jamaica); Landship (Barbados)

Making mas with the zoomorphic Cow mas, Bat mas, Burrokeet (T&T); Bull (Guyana); Horse Head, Cow Head (Jamaica)

Making mas with the anthropomorphic Pai banan, Moko Jumbie (T&T); Bwa Bwa (Dominica); Pai Banan (St Lucia); Jack in the Green (Jamaica)

Making mas with mockery Dame Lorraine, Ole Mas, Baby Doll, Pis-en-Lit, Doctor and Nurse, Police and T(h)ief (T&T); Mother Sally (Barbados); Bam Bam Sally (Guyana); Set Girls, Belly Woman, House Head (Jamaica).

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.