An early Monday morning arrives and the Sabbath begins. With the onset of dawn, there is movement; low chatter and electricity fill the air as the once empty streets of Port of Spain are now lined with patrons who wait for their dirty blessing. They have come to be baptised in a transgressive ceremony of mud, clay, paint and chocolate, to go incognito as they get ready to unleash their inner beasts. Every year, two days before Lent, these revellers from far and wide come to take this city hostage. In so doing, they leave their worries behind and enter a psychedelic world of non-stop bacchanal, outrageous costumes, pumping performances and all out misrule. Some call it Mardi Gras, some call it Carnival. In Trinidad and Tobago, it’s Mas.
The origins of this beloved Trinidadian sacrament date back to the island’s darker colonial past, before the colourful, youthful hedonism and merrymaking of the modern day. The Cedula of Population (1783) opened Trinidad’s shores, inviting French planters who brought the Catholic tradition of Shrovetide to Trinidad, along with their annual masquerade soirees to bid farewell to the flesh (meat). In clandestine gatherings of their own, their slaves mocked these masters in elaborate, highly exaggerated and macabre caricatures, including new personas of their own influenced by the sinisterness of African and Creole folklore. This tradition evolved into what Trinidadians call “Ole Mas”.
The vibrancy of the ‘Ole Mas’ characters has turned Trinidad into a world leader in street theatre. On the Friday before Lent, the past and present collide in a ritualistic dramatisation of the 1881 Canboulay Riots. Parading in his black cape, the ‘Midnight Robber’ blows his whistle and spouts monologues about his conquests and magic powers to curious onlookers in the stands. The ‘Dame Lorraine’, a farcical representation of a French planter’s wife with oversized breasts and behinds dances vulgarly while the ‘Moko Jumbies’, the island’s iconic stilt walkers, loom over the festivities in mesmerising and otherworldly spectacles that are both beautiful and terrifying. The ritual then comes full circle with a symbolic display of resistance. In a flurry of ceremonial violence, the annual stick fighting competition represents the burning of the cane fields in opposition to British suppression, showing Trinidad’s fiercest warriors and unshakeable spirit in the face of adversity. These eclectic icons of the Trinidadian pantheon have opened a door of endless possibilities in art and expression.
However, all this revelry officially commences with J’ouvert or ‘Dirty Mas’, a pre-dawn street party where the mischievous come out and play. The still, early morning of Carnival Monday is brought to life as the dark streets are illuminated by the sporadic plumes of fire from the whip cracking jab jab devils who are covered head to toe in tar and paint, intimidating passers-by for a dollar. Masqueraders dirty themselves up to join them, being taken over by the sharp tunes of the steelpan and booms of soca as they parade in the narrow avenues of Port of Spain. Paint and powder colour the air as the crowds ‘chip’ together to the Queen’s Park Savannah to welcome the blazing sunrise. Here, traditional Mas comes to a close, welcoming the dawn of modern Mas.
After the intense and messy initiation, partygoers race home to dorn their feathers, beads, bikinis for ‘Pretty Mas’, the Trinidadian equivalent of Brazilian Carnival. It is a celebration of freedom and the body, a flamboyant manifestation of the cultural and sexual liberation that came with the latter half of the 20th century. Masqueraders take on the harsh Caribbean heat in full force and with little complaint as they dance alongside the pulsing music trucks that move about the city. This unofficial day off for the working Trinidadian is a welcomed escape from the monotony of everyday life, with non-stop dance, drink and laughter. Even after the sun sets, the country and its visitors are still reeling from the excitement, thirsty for more of the glitter and glam.
Part two is the last stand, the last chance to indulge before the upcoming sobriety of the Lenten period. On Tuesday, the masquerades take to the Savannah stage to have their moment in the sun. Carnival bands, who are responsible for hand crafting and distributing these incredible costumes compete for the prestigious title of ‘Band of the Year’, and are judged for visual impact, theme and originality. However, every year, the attempt at instilling a competitive spirit goes unnoticed as participants get lost in the hype of celebration and meeting people from all around the world, which lasts until night falls when the steelpan and music trucks stop, the stage is emptied and the cleaning crews get to work.
And so, the rite of passage is completed and the Mas is ended. Masqueraders go in peace and return to reality in a blissful daze with a lingering sense of nostalgia. Forever changed after immersing themselves in the transcendent power of the Mas, the indoctrinated revellers vow to make another pilgrimage to this small corner of the world in the hopes of recapturing the magic of this pre-Lenten extravaganza.