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Rawle Gibbons can count his conversation with Ronald Alfred as one of the coups of his career. The chat, part of the Masters of the Mas project launched in 2010, is an initiative of Jouvay Ayiti, a collective that gathers the resources of Arts-in-Action of UWI, the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies of Tunapuna, Scherzando Steelband of Curepe and Studio 66 of Barataria.
Alfred is not known as a talkative person. He is a giant of a man, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, but you wouldn’t see that immediately when he works as the king of The Original Whipmasters. In the band, he wears vivid yellow with brilliant accents of colour, shards of mirror and wisps of swansdown decorating his costume, which tinkle merrily with every step.
Alfred shrinks into that costume, his massive frame blending in among the colourful, masked imps that constitute the band, their presence a mix of tinkling bells and slashing crack of whips. And none is louder than the explosion of the Whipmaster King’s massive braided rope, a sound that pressures the eardrum even across open air.
Ronald Alfred spoke for more than an hour with Gibbons on February 3 at the Rudranath Capildeo Learning Resource Centre, the whipmaster agreeably coaxed into discussing the history, inspirations and antecedents of the band. Cross-lit and bearing up a bit hesitantly under the insistent view of twin video cameras, Alfred offered a recounting of his knowledge of this remarkable band, which stands as an almost untouched instance of traditional mas; its practices and techniques handed down from generation to generation across most of the last century.
It’s a sacred tradition for the Alfreds, who have introduced each of their children to Carnival from the pram. “My whip hangs in my house,” Alfred told the audience in the centre’s auditorium. “It ain’t in no bag or in some corner.” The whip, the symbol of the band’s distinctive approach to the jab jab masquerade, is something of a coveted item and curiously enough, not one that Alfred hesitates to share. He teaches schools the tradition of the mas and makes 75 each year for the children who attend his master classes. At Christmas, he creates another 100 for the community surrounding Whipmaster Drive, the family’s home in Couva, and finally makes another 57 for the band members.
It’s a labour of love for Alfred and his family, who don’t charge people to play mas with them but demand something more precious and far rarer than cash, a dedication to the ideals of the masquerade that is their life. At the end of the talk, Ronald Alfred rose from the tiny chair in response to a request for a demonstration. As the video crew scrambled off the stage and the Whipmaster King put his mask on, the power of his masquerade seemed to fill the room, along with more than a dozen members of the band, their jingling bells a musical susurrus that was soon punctuated by the cracks of whips large and small. The power of the jab jab mas, a spectacle of colour and gentle bells that holds the terror of the deadly clown with each snake’s strike curling of the whips, undimmed by something as clinical as a documentary recording under unkind fluorescent lights.
The conversation with Ronald Alfred is part of Jouvay Ayiti’s 2014 production of a devil Mas band titled Impersonation (spelt IMPsPersonsNations). The group tries to interview veteran mas performers who have worked in the style of each year’s band. The next scheduled talk is with Blue Devil masman Tico Skinner at Studio 66 on February 24. The recording of the Whipmaster talk will form part of the project’s archive and a copy will be given to the Rudranath Capildeo Learning Resource Centre for use in the Schools Broadcasting Service. The T&T Guardian’s 2012 story on the band is here: http://ow.ly/tqkBg