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A spritely octogenarian executes nimble dance steps, skipping on the balls of his feet and striking boisman poses, while his youthful audience gaze on in admiration tinged with astonishment. Eighty-six-year-old Narrie Approo is demonstrating an Imp dance, but he’s better known as the oldest surviving Black Indian masquerader from the band Warriors of Huaracan.
Approo has been playing mas since he was seven and describes himself as “the action man.” Growing up in Harmony Hall, John John, where there were five or six dragon bands, introduced him to the Imps but besides his major role as Black Indian, he’s also played Long Nose Sailor and Fireman (or stoker) in sailor bands, all of which require the kind of energy and skilful co-ordination which have not deserted him after nearly 80 years of mas. He was inducted into the Warriors of Huaracan by his godparents Claudius Pierre and Eudora Thompson of Cascade, who were king and queen of the band, respectively.
A not-so-quiet revival of traditional mas is underway, appropriately enough bubbling up from one of the island’s wellsprings of Afro-Creole culture in Belmont. Designer Robert Young of The Cloth, long established in his own international niche market with his range of appliqué design tropical-friendly clothes, has ventured into the world of mas. His independent band Vulgar Fraction will be bringing out Black I, an interpretation of the traditional Black Indian mas.
Approo’s dance demonstration and the talk which accompanies it are part of a welcome collaboration between a younger generation alienated from the consumer/commodity culture of mainstream Carnival and the craftsmen and women and veteran masqueraders of traditional mas.
This evening’s “interactive talk” is one of the Unconquered series, organised by writer and self-styled “jouvayist” Attillah Springer and presented in Robert Young’s Propaganda Space at 24 Erthig Road, Belmont.
Black Indian mas has resonances for Trinidad and indeed the wider Caribbean, which the more familiar Wild or Fancy Indian mas cannot claim. Black, as opposed to Red or North American, Indian refers to the Creole mix of Africans and Amerindians, as in the case of the Garifuna or Black Caribs of St Vincent, who were exiled from their island homeland by the British in 1797, eventually settling on the coastal strip of Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua. Similar Black Indian communities developed in Haiti, on the South American mainland and in some of the southern states of America, notably Louisiana, where Black Indians have long featured in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.
Joining Narrie Approo at last week’s Propaganda Space talk session was current king of the Huaracan Warriors Andrew Patrick who proved just as energetic as Narrie when it came to dancing and who was even more voluble, emitting blood-curdling war cries and whoops, or delivering chants in a language derived from Aruacan, Yoruba and Creole. Patrick emphasised the West African festival elements in traditional Black Indian mas, drawing the distinction between their costuming and that of other Indian bands: “We use natural material and resources- river beads, cowhorn, cobo feathers and snails.”
Although a definitive date for when Black Indian mas made its first appearance in Trinidad Carnival is still lacking, Patrick pinpointed the 1924 pilgrimage to Louisiana as an inspirational catalyst. He also noted that “pure whites” also play the Black Indian mas in Louisiana. Patrick certainly carries himself with the pride and authority of an artist, who insists he’s not merely playing a character but contributing to an art form. He mentions the fact that Approo has been working on his headdress since October; the headdress, wig, feathering and beadwork being integral distinguishing features of the costume. He’s equally emphatic that the warriors’ graceful dance is “not wining” but a form of homage to the gods.
If the Black Indian mas keeps alive some of the unwritten and neglected history of marginalised and demonised Creole communities of the region, it also speaks directly to some of their descendants. Robert Young himself recently discovered his own indigenous antecedents, through relatives in St Kitts and local Kalinago activist Tracy Assing, who was a vocal member of the night’s interactive talk.
For the man of The Cloth, his collaboration with the Warriors of Huaracan has both personal and conceptual currency. “How do we make the Black Indian relevant to now?” he queries. There are the obvious issues of the environment and our woeful treatment or rather neglect of our indigenous past and its survivors, the bones discovered in the foundation of the Red House a glaring reminder of both colonial and then independent nation indifference.