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Mas in your mas

Posted in Art Papers, Trinidad and Tobago by Adele Todd on February 4, 2008

Kurt Allen at the Dimache Gras

During the Carnival season you find yourself less interested in what is going on anywhere in the world, and on carnival Sunday, the Dimache Gras show makes that fact acutely clear. I have had a standing joke for years about this unwieldy show that can go into the wee hours of Carnival Monday. I always fall asleep when the Mighty Chalkdust is singing and wake up when he’s singing his second song! It is that long! Although in the last year, calypsonians are now singing only one song. But the show is still interminably long.

That aside, I was so very pleasantly surprised to see a great deal of air brushing and hand painted work in the costumes of the Kings and Queens of carnival. I am still a bit dismayed by the way costumes ‘ are made and look. I find that most costumes have a deja vu quality about them that rankles. Also, I imagine that if someone was asked to draw lots with costumes names on them, tripped and fell and then hurriedly handed the names to the announcers, it wouldn’t matter what the costume was. They all seem interchangeable. They are always, Jewelled this, and Goddess that.

Peter Minshall’s long shadow is still cast along the savannah stage as poor interpretations of his mas come forth. Don’t get me wrong, just like our soca music; it takes a great deal to make what we see. It is just that a lot of it seems more for the tourist than for us, who support it. So imagine my complete delight and joy to see Kurt Allen tonight at the Dimache Gras show, singing a song about Bad Johns in Calypso and choosing to act the part by dressing in the suit of the past and including a wonderful tableaux vivant where his characters came to life and sang the chorus. He won’t win of course, the judges wouldn’t let him. Yet I was so pleased that I have to state here that Mr. Allen has finally raised the bar of performance on Lundi morning!

Thank God! At last, someone has broken the Super Blue curse of everyone and their cousin bringing props and half finished costumes and signage onto the stage to help with the ‘conscious lyrics.”

Mr. Allen was able to paint an image of the past so successfully in word, music and visual representation to such a degree that I am actually going to try to stay awake long enough to look at the whole show, god willing in 2009.

With the Kings and Queens of Carnival, the inclusion of art in the mas is not new, but this year I wanted to comment on it a bit, as I have not done so before.

Our Carnival presents many challenges to the people who design and make the mas. Drawing does not always work. Nor does the use of dimensional masks and worst of all, maniquins. Puppets fare better because they are what they set out to be. With the inclusion of pyrotechniques, the mas finds itself beholden to special effects that become neither special nor effective. I am concerned about the way our kings and queens are looking today. I wonder whether I should just get used to them as one gets used to traditional mas? Chalk them up to classical forms? Am I being too critical? After all, these things are done with a lot of serious thought and preparation. One band leader and costume maker had to defend his use of a costume that he resurrected from carnival 2007 and added to! It can’t be easy to face the stage with a brand new concept every year.

How much history and fantasy can you portray successfully and refreshingly different every time? Here is my suggestion. Band leaders and mas makers, look at images of our mas history. Look at mas from everywhere in the world and ask yourself, what can I do differently in this twenty-first century with the materials before me? Does the mas really have to look like you are pulling a big jewelled refrigerator behind you? Can’t it be elegant and beautiful at the same time? Can it be impactful without costing thirty to sixty thousand dollars? I must close though by saying that I do not want to give the impression that I hate everything I see on the Dimache Gras stage. On the contrary. I am a huge fan of the traditional Indian mas characters, and some of the African mas characters as well. I love aspects of the fantasy mas and the colour combinations of many of the Kings and Queens. In short, what I am trying to get across is that our mas people must learn and be inspired by the very best and continue to evolve the mas, or else we shall end up looking like mas anywhere else, and that would be tragic indeed.

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