Blog March 9, 2018
Photo Essay: Traditional Masquerade in Trinidad

When Carnival in Trinidad is portrayed visually, the image that prevails is that of bikini costumes adorned with feathers and jewels. This is certainly the most common kind of masquerade--or mas--these days. But the history of mas goes much deeper, and is central to Carnival culture. When Carnival emerged in the 1800s as a kind of rebellious, defiant festival amongst the enslaved Afro-Trinidadian population, masqueraders dressed in ways to mock slave masters and aristocracy. There were also characters that emerged as expressions of the otherwise inexpressible, whether it be an emotion or a condemnation of authority. And, of course, there are characters that are just plain fun. Masquerade even is tied into Trinidad's landscape - one of Trinidad's endemic birds, the Scarlet Ibis, was over-hunted for its brilliant red feathers, intended for Carnival costumes. Hunting ibises was only banned upon independence in 1962, when it became the Trinidad's national bird.

The artistry and creativity behind the tradition of mas is awe inspiring. As popular mas has moved more towards the enormous bands decked in scant costumes with feathers and jewels, some people are frustrated. National Carnival Commission (NCC) Chairman Colin Lucas puts it this way: “The direction our costumes have taken seems to put us in the same sphere with the Carnival of Brazil and so on… And I think we have moved out of a niche that we would have well controlled… the more depictive costumes, you know, that took people months to make. Really creative things. We’ve moved away from that, into a niche that everybody’s in... everybody’s buying costumes from China." 

We'll go into it more in a later post, but the debate over traditional identity versus commercial strength is an important one. At any rate, there is still a vibrant community of traditional mas makers. A few years back, the NCC introduced a section of Carnival Monday morning dedicated to traditional mas. Despite relatively small audience numbers, the costumes were beautiful and the spirit that the masqueraders put into their craft was visible. Some people live for traditional mas--also known as ole mas. See their works of art yourself in these photos of traditional mas from competitions and Carnival Monday. Photos by Sebastian Bouknight. 

A traditional Black Indian - there is an entire culture around the Black Indian character, with a language and songs
A traditional Black Indian - there is an entire culture around the Black Indian character, with a language and songs
Black Indians at a traditional Mas competition
Black Indians at a traditional Mas competition
91-year-old Nari Approo keeps the Black Indian tradition alive
91-year-old Nari Approo keeps the Black Indian tradition alive
Nari Approo in Black Indian costume on the Queens Park Savannah stage Carnival Monday
Nari Approo in Black Indian costume on the Queens Park Savannah stage Carnival Monday
A Fancy Indian: a common traditional character
A Fancy Indian: a common traditional character
The Fancy Indians are exaggerations of the image of Native Americans that has been portrayed on screen
The Fancy Indians are exaggerations of the image of Native Americans that has been portrayed on screen
These costumes all have narratives; the Fancy Indians are based on imagined Native American characters
These costumes all have narratives; the Fancy Indians are based on imagined Native American characters
Dame Lorraine is another popular character, originally meant to mock women of the white aristocracy
Dame Lorraine is another popular character, originally meant to mock women of the white aristocracy
The defining feature: hyperbolized voluptuousness
The defining feature: hyperbolized voluptuousness
Traditionally, most Dame Lorraines were played by men, like this masquerader
Traditionally, most Dame Lorraines were played by men, like this masquerader
The Blue Devil, a type of jab jab, is a special mas character
The Blue Devil, a type of jab jab, is a special mas character
They paint their whole bodies blue and taunt onlookers with pitchforks
They paint their whole bodies blue and taunt onlookers with pitchforks
The blue devil tradition centers around Paramin, a town in Trinidad's mountains
The blue devil tradition centers around Paramin, a town in Trinidad's mountains
A fancy jab jab, these ones with whips
A fancy jab jab, these ones with whips
A crew of whipping jab jabs
A crew of whipping jab jabs
Not mas, but tradition. A tamboo bamboo band, playing complex rhythms with bamboo sticks
Not mas, but tradition. A tamboo bamboo band, playing complex rhythms with bamboo sticks
Moko jumbies are stilt walkers - and they start small
Moko jumbies are stilt walkers - and they start small
Bats: another traditional mas character
Bats: another traditional mas character
A small band wearing costumes made of grasses and sticks
A small band wearing costumes made of grasses and sticks
A big, walking crown
A big, walking crown
This group of students is keeping ole mas alive, with a skit involving many traditional characters
This group of students is keeping ole mas alive, with a skit involving many traditional characters

You could consider the height of mas making to be at Dimanche Gras. Besides playing host to the Calypso Monarch competition, Dimanche Gras is where you go to see the gargantuan mas costumes competing to be King and Queen of Carnival. These are 20, 30-foot wide and tall masterpieces, built with pipes, wire and tons of shiny fabric, props and all kinds of other materials. The sit on wheels and are pulled by the proud masqueraders who dance and shake the big beasts on the huge Queens Park Savannah stage. Often, as the masqueraders come out on to the stage, a soundtrack will play: something atmospheric or symphonic, with a voice reading a dramatic description of the narrative behind the piece. Then, as the masquerader circles around the stage, showing off from all sides, the accompaniment will abruptly shift into booming soca, in many cases "Soca Kingdom" by Machel Montano.

"Death and The Maiden," designed by the legendary Peter Minshall, won King of Carnival
"Death and The Maiden," designed by the legendary Peter Minshall, won King of Carnival
A magnificent King
A magnificent King
A King titled "Dos Banditos"
A King titled "Dos Banditos"
Skeletal "Dos Banditos," riding dinosaur skeletons
Skeletal "Dos Banditos," riding dinosaur skeletons
A grim reaper King
A grim reaper King
Moko Jumbies
Moko Jumbies
A moko jumbie portraying Sundjata, the legendary founder of the Malian empire
A moko jumbie portraying Sundjata, the legendary founder of the Malian empire
A dancer accompanying a robot King
A dancer accompanying a robot King
A futuristic robot King
A futuristic robot King
A masquerader accompanying a cosmic King
A masquerader accompanying a cosmic King
A cosmic King
A cosmic King
Lionfish King
Lionfish King

Coming soon: conventional mas on the road, Carnival Monday and Tuesday!