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Does colour make you caribbean?

Posted in Debate, Opinion by Adele Todd on September 16, 2007

I had the opportunity to speak with Professor Jeff Henry yesterday. Mr. Henry has written an excellent book on the history of carnival, or as he prefers to say it, ‘the masquerade.’ I was bursting with questions for him, as I had an ulterior motive for most of them. Carnival has the potential to be a huge arbiter for Art. It is one of the reasons that I pursue concepts for the season every year since 2ooo. Most years the ideas come to nothing, but the work is still put into, following the process as far as I can. This year the concept could not be co-ordinated in time for carnival and shall have to be attempted in 2008.

Mr. Henry spoke with me about traditional mas in particular, as this is what his thesis is about. He has traveled the world and seen the Noh and Kabuki theatre of Japan, the carnival of Brazil and the masks of Venice. He has concluded that it is deeply relevant to keep traditions alive and also growing. He also said that he wrote his book so that young people would understand why they do rituals in the way that they do.

Carnival 2007

One of the issues that he raised was the point of history, tradition and the belief structure that the art form belongs to us in Trinidad and Tobago. This became clear to him in Brazil when he saw how far afield the Brazillians had pimped their mas. We are not too far behind in our desire to , as he put it, go Vegas in our taste.

One traditional character in particular was discussed. The Pierrot Grenade, originally from Grenada, hence the name Grenade, the fact that it is not meant to be a ‘pretty’ masquerade at all. The point is to use natural materials found in the forest, and found materials, discarded materials. The whole prettifying of the masquerade came about because people wanted to win prizes, and impress judges.

We are so used to expecting mas to look pretty today, that it may jar the sensibility to see a mas that is devoid of beads and feathers. There have been bands who have attempted to make their mas more about conservation of materials, and there have been children’s mas, King and Queen and adult mas, Kings and Queens who have attempted to use such materials, to varying degrees of success. So it is clear that mas does not have to be about beads and sparkle at all.

It is also inevitable that mas will have to continue to look for alternative resources as it gets bigger and more complex. This year the argument with some bands was that the whole production was made in China or India! What has become of our artisans? Is mas too expensive to be made in Trinidad? Or is it that the band leader wants to keep as much profit for themselves as possible? When a King of Carnival costume can out cost the prize money, something is rotten in the state of mas today.

The post however is about colour, does a vibrancy of colour make the art or the mas, caribbean, or local in nature? We have no patent on how colour is used. Brazil uses just as much colour as we do. In fact they colour combine in arguably slightly more interesting ways. What sets us apart is our themes and our humour. When we bring ourselves into what we do, and remember that it is ours to love and explore, tweek and poke at, turn on its head and lovingly slave over, that is what makes it what it is, and only then can the thought of colour become something that speaks for a whole region and a country in particular.

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