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Mas—A tool to transform trauma?
In April, within days of each other, two conferences were held. One was called Trauma, Conflict and the Community Peacemakers; the other Mas Aesthetics: Exploring the Art of Mas.
The first was held in San Fernando at the Southern Academy of the Performing Arts, while the exploration of mas took place at UWI, St Augustine. At first glance, the conferences couldn’t have appeared to be more different from each other.
But it emerged that they shared an exploratory thread of culture, identity and national healing. They were involved in the same dialogue but would never know it, they were not only separated geographically, but were being hosted by representatives of two very distinct disciplines. What, after all, could a masman have to say to a social worker? As it turns out—a lot.
At the conference Trauma, Conflict and the Community Peacemakers, an exploration of the role of trauma in crime and gang culture began with a documentary called Apocalypse to Awakenings, which featured UWI Professor Emeritus Gordon Rohlehr. In it, Rohlehr asserts that Carnival is used as a mechanism for absorbing and normalising “the crisis and stress in society” caused by a failure of the region to see itself as traumatised.
This trauma, he says, occurred during the region’s shared experience of slavery, indentureship and colonialism. There are times, says Rohlehr when Carnival “seems to break down” or “stops doing its job,” and when it does prove ineffective, that the tension erupts into violence. He has established a pattern of destructive Caribbean upheaval, occurring at roughly 15 to 20 year intervals since the 1880s.
However, the idea that Carnival’s increasing inability to ease tensions could be linked to escalating murder rates, gang-related criminal activity and child abuse did not stay central to the exploration of trauma at the south-based conference. There was a great deal of focus on Laventille but giving way to insights from criminal justice, youth, community and social work, Carnival as a change agent remained on the fringe of discussions, only injected in small portions, by UWI literature and gender studies lecturer Dr Paula Morgan.
Morgan, who said the trauma was ongoing, for reasons other than being “rooted in collective memory,” and who cited mass migration and the use of T&T as a drug transshipment point, as contemporary violations, suggested that Laventille (to many the starting point of Carnival) should be viewed both as “a hotbed of creativity” and “the cause of the work that needs to be done.”
“Our creativity, our cultural assertiveness is trapped inside Laventille,” said Morgan. It was “our cup of shame,” the place where trauma has become embodied but where liberation can be found.
“Mas is the central meditation of lives here in the Caribbean,” said Tony Hall, speaking at the first Carnival Studies Mas Colloquium (CSMC), held at the Centre for Learning and Languages (CLL), University of the West Indies. Describing mas as a form of therapy, Hall said, “Mas is a transformative process for the individual and the collective.” He explained that it helps the individual understand something about being, by dissolving the focus on the self alone, leading to an experience of oneness, which is expressed as group mobilisation.
“In Laventille there is no space,” he said, “because everyone is so wrapped up in who they are. Mas is what you need to become to get out of a situation.”
Creating mas to transform a situation is something that Laventille has done before. Although once considered the heart of the national creative community, Laventille has always been the enclave of the subaltern. The whores, badjohns, chantwells and stickfighters that exemplified early Carnival culture, sprang out from a Laventille, once able to use its marginalised place in society and its poverty, as a catalyst for creativity. In the 1930s, out of sheer material lack, but with a deep love for music, people from Laventille began to experiment with the only materials available to them—milk cans, paint cans, car hubs, pots—and the biscuit tin, said to be the first ancestor of the modern-day pan.
But what is needed now to transform current conditions there, and how can it be of benefit to T&T as whole? Or perhaps as one conference panellist, children’s mas designer Patrick Roberts asked—how can mas be used to create mass action? How can available materials be used to give language to thoughts and enable them to travel out into the wider society? How can mas be seen again, as an aesthetic focussed on what needs to be expressed?
Hall contends that “mas’ capacity to be a vehicle for our expression, the canvas of our best hopes and dreams,” is just one of the things being eroded as “mas grows in line with capitalism rather than around its central dynamic—freedom from slavery.”
While understanding that money is needed to drive the machine, he asked, “how can you take a protest against authoritarianism and regulate it?” What happens when what was the expression of a marginalised people, embodied in the mas, steel pan and calypso they helped to create and develop, becomes a national culture, and leaves out one of its central premises, of giving them a voice? What happens for that national culture, when what was a tool of protest and liberation, is used only for entertainment?
Eight-time King of Carnival, Peter Samuel, who sat on the same panel as Hall, knows part of the answer. “We no longer have King and Queen for the mas,” he said, “I call them floats.”
Samuel expressed the view that “we are going backwards,” explaining that the size of the King and Queen costumes mean that they can no longer go on the street and are therefore disconnected from the mas and the community. He said it had become virtually impossible to ship costumes overseas, to be showcased as contemporary examples of T&T Carnival, because they are so big.
Reflecting on his Carnival career, exclusively wearing masman Peter Minshall’s creations, Samuel became emotional as he remembered playing Devil Ray in 1979, a costume he described as his favourite, and which he said gave him the opportunity to “become” the mas.
Hall had already described becoming the mas—it is a transcendent process during which the artistry of the costume, the rhythm of the music, and the rationale for the costume and band combine to “dissolve” the individual mas player and give way to something universal.
Mas emerged as a movement away from the dominating power, but at the end of colonialism, the greater focus has been on how to be a part of world capitalism.
“We are in a real bind,” says Hall, speaking to the T&T Guardian in a follow-up interview, “and I don’t know that we see it. We are trying to play catch-up, we believe we are behind. And for all our efforts, we are only on the right track if you want to become a 19th-century nation.
“The greatest hoax of Independence,” he said, “is that you can now form part of the same system that exploited you.”
This doesn’t allow you to connect to yourself. If you understand how you survived, you can create a new system,” he said.
“In this so-called globalised, multinational capitalist culture, what does nation mean? What does culture mean? What does ethnic mean?
“The ‘mas movement’ of pan, mas and kaiso (like reggae and rasta) around the world transcends race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, consumerism...We learned how to survive (dance and fight) from participating in the emancipation performance traditions developed in the Caribbean while ‘exploiting’ the latest communications technology. As Lloyd Best [used to say], we have become entrepreneurs of development. We had no choice. Oh, if only we could just see it.”
For Tony Hall, Laventille’s creative rather than reactive action was a process that could be mapped.
“We had spontaneous strategies to survive,” says Hall, and these now need to be understood “without judgement, shame or blame.”
Hall believes that a study of the survival mechanisms which gave way to the creation of Carnival, steelpan and calypso, will give way to a blueprint, better adapted to the uniqueness of Caribbean societies, and which can inform for example, approaches to education and sustainable business models. Extempo, he said, for instance, shows the successful juxtaposition of spontaneity and discipline. As for business, “every ghetto,” says Hall, “could become a pan factory” and “a real pan factory can accommodate every skill.
“What we need to observe too,” continues Hall, “is how the ‘Hindu Leela’ lives alongside the ‘Roman Catholic Carnival,’ the ‘African masquerade’ and ‘Islamic Muharram’ devotion, to produce the particular dynamic energy of the place we are talking about and by extension the region.
“This is not just to ‘talk’ about how we participate as ‘one’ in cultural practices or in festivals, that cliche, but to look at how these mythologies shape how we see and create our world, how they all influence our very world view and worldly outlook in our daily lives,” he said.
“Indeed, this can start to frame what we may, one day, be able to call a ‘new world.’”