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Yes, that’s me playing mas in Antigua last Carnival.  And this is probably what you think of when you hear the word Carnival – costumes that are rather on the skimpy side, what’s now called the “bikini and beads” version.

But that’s a recent thing, very recent.  In my mother’s time – the time when my characters, Iris and John, were running mas, in the time when Matilda came to town for her revenge -- in the 1940s, such a thing would have been unheard of.  In fact, in keeping with the African origins of masquerade, when the costumed figures represented spirits and to unmask one would have meant the spirit’s death, the costumes had to cover every inch of your body, including gloves for your hands, and you better not take off your mask!

This excerpt is from one of Unburnable’s most powerful chapters, the one which describes the clash of two masquerade bands, and in doing so, speaks to the African origins of Caribbean carnival.   Have a look at the similarities between a “band mauvais” and a West African Masquerade, and see for yourself.

For further reading on the African origins of Carnival, see:
“mas Dominique: a history of Carnival”  http://www.lennoxhonychurch.com/article.cfm?Id=380

:Mama dis is Mas”: a historical overview of the Trinidadian Carnival, 1786-1900 http://www.nalis.gov.tt/carnival/carnival.htm  
(Trinidad focus: prepared by the Trinidad library system)


Taken from Chapter 21 of Unburnable:


Upstairs, the older British colonialist was now speaking to his hostess. “Not exactly what I would have expected for this kind of celebration,” he said. Mrs. Richard had pushed her way back to the front line of her veranda after she secured her valuables following the influx of people from the street.


“Those masquerades.”

She shrugged, not caring, not understanding, wondering why the other band was moving so slowly, wondering when the fight would begin and keeping her eye on her coward of a son-in-law, because if he did not prove himself today, act like a man this time, she would go down there and use her own hands to beat him, and then she would go to the bishop, to the pope if necessary, and get the marriage annulled. Fainting like a woman while her daughter had been defiled by his whore. He had better fight, fight good today.

“I’m puzzled,” Alfred Drummond said, still trying to engage Mrs. Richard. “I’d have thought they’d be more of the entertainment genre, but there is definitely some kind of social control element happening here.”

The annoying white man was still talking. She spoke to be polite. “They all look the same to me. Damned ugly, Mr. Drummer.”

He tried to flirt a little with his hostess. “Drummond, madam. And thank you again for your kind invitation.” He raised his ti ponche and bowed his head in genuine appreciation. This was why he enjoyed his postings to places his British friends and family would never dream of visiting, primitive places. The people were so open and welcoming, their culture so rich. He probably should have been an anthropologist instead of a representative of the Crown. He looked back up the street. “I imagine to the uninitiated eye they would indeed appear to be rather ugly. But I was saying, these are what would be called dangerous mas­querades in Africa. Some of them seem to be war masks.”

She shook her head. “We don’t have anything like that here. War masks and so on. We here in the West Indies, we are not Africans, you know.” She looked down at her bare arm to prove her point. “It’s a long time since we could tell you anything about Africa. Those people”—she pointed up the street—“they carved some ugly masks like old-time people used to do. They’re trying to bring back old-time things. That’s all.”

When Alfred Drummond looked again, they were close enough for him to see them in their entirety, for him to catch his breath from the full impact. Before, he had only been able to see them in detail in little round magnified sections, one mask at a time. Now he could see them as they were, a river of them. He remembered something he had read, that there were few African languages with words that accurately trans­lated as “mask.” He thought of some of the translations he knew. Face of the Forest Spirit. Spirit of Death. Death Gathers In.

Alfred Drummond had spent twenty years in West Africa and he knew what he was seeing. How much time did he have, he wondered, to warn the people below? How would he explain to them that they should not stand there making strange sounds and stamping, that they should use their feet to run away? Who would listen to him, in the few minutes that were left? Mrs. Richard was gone, insulted by his reference to Africa. His younger colleague had squeezed away from him, bored with an old man’s stories of a place in which he had no interest. There was a young woman at his side, turned completely away from him, seemingly very interested in watching the oncoming band. He had to try. He shook her shoulder.

“Miss, I beg your pardon.” When he bent down to speak near her ear, he saw that she was praying. It was a famous Catholic prayer, one he often heard Dominicans reciting, something about the hour of death.

“Those masquerades,” he said, and then was not sure what else he could say, how to explain it to people who, although so obviously Afri­can, were yet and still not African at all. Perhaps it would be better if he did not try to speak in African terms. He would not try to explain that the people coming down the street had become transformed, that they were now possessed by the spirits represented by their masks and head­dresses, their full-body covering of raffia. She might listen if he did not elaborate on the significance of the masks. He would not tell her that the front lines of the masqueraders were going to war, with their small, round eyes representing anger, and the sharp, straight noses showing that they would never retreat, and the block of bared teeth saying that their fury had no bounds. He would not point out the rusty-brown color of some masks, heavy patinas of sacrificial blood.

He would not point out to her the next group behind the warrior spirits, not show her that these were even more dangerous. There was one in particular he knew well, with the big round forehead from which grew antelope horns, the warthog tusks sprouting from crocodile jaws that jutted far out. It was a masquerade that only came out to direct strong magic against those who had broken the law, perpetrated a taboo. And he would not mention what was for him the most frightening part, the most telling part, the large group of funeral masquerades in the rear, some of them dancing on stilts, higher than the two-story town houses. Those, with their delicate, feminine-featured white masks, were more terrifying than all the others.

This young, cultured woman with her milk-and-coffee skin would not understand any of this. He thought of the servants downstairs in the kitchen, and knew that they would understand, but he did not speak Creole and they might not speak English. In any case, there was no time. So he said only this to Cecile: “Miss, I fear that there is about to be a great deal of trouble.”

And she replied, “Yes, sir, I know.


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