The Trinidad Carnival has always been more than just a parade. It is an activity tied up in the complexities of masking and the role of social visibility, concerned with forms of re-possession or restitution, and being able to empower and renew, reclaim, protect and project freedom.
— Adeola Dewis
Carnival in Trinidad can be traced back to the arrival of French planter immigrants and their African slaves in the 1780s. The French imported their lavish lifestyle. The white elite and freed ‘coloureds’ (who would lose their social standing with the rise of British rule) observed Carnival as a pre-lenten celebration with masked balls, extravagant costumes, and carriage rides through the streets.
Much of these celebrations involved a performative parody of plantation life. One such parody involved a march with torches, Canboulay, during which the elite imitated slaves putting out cane fires. Canboulay got its name from the French term cannes brûlées for ‘canes burning’. African slaves were excluded from participating in Carnival celebrations, invited solely for the amusement of the elite. When allowed some supervised respite with which to amuse themselves, entertainment for the enslaved involved masquerades which invoked both fear and comedy. Their costumed performances included characters that mimicked the aristocracy, as well as characters from African folklore.
Carnival celebrations were transformed by emancipation in 1834, as they were embraced by the freed slaves. After the abolition of slavery, the Black working class took to the streets in masses. Carnival became an act of rebellion –portrayed through the masks and performances of the masqueraders– against an oppressive system riddled with ethnic conflicts, scarcity, and injustice. When ruling forces attempted to quell masquerade and Canboulay (which had become an annual celebration of freedom) in the mid 18th century, the Black majority engaged in violent riots. The fight to preserve Carnival and the right to celebrate it in a way the people deemed fit was won in blood. Carnival became a celebration for the people. As diversity increased on the island and the cultural influences of the diverse peoples made their way into Carnival celebrations, Carnival became a symbol of Trinidadian culture.
Carnival is a broad term. It describes a season of revelry which includes fetes (parties), Panorama steel pan competition, soca competitions, calypso tents, Jouvert, and Mas. Mas’ typically describes costumed parades involving play/performance that take place on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Carnival costume designer Brian Mac Farlane states: “Costume, street theater, putting on a costume, becoming the part, telling a story; that is mas”.
While the word mas’ originated from the words mask and/or masque, alluding to the donning of a costume to play the other, its meaning has expanded to describe a deeply personal, empowering, and emancipatory experience. In her work Carnival Performance Aesthetics: Trinidad Carnival and Art Making in the Diaspora, Adeola Dewis draws on the testimonies of Carnival scholars, performers, playwrights, etc., to establish the following definition of mas’: “a performance activity that, instigated by the player, allows for a change in the everyday in order to draw attention to a specific aspect of the everyday.” It involves social commentary, rebellion, and resistance against dominant powers.
Of the two main forms of mas’ in Trinidad, Traditional Mas’ and Pretty Mas’, this form of social/political action through performance is most visible in the former. Traditional Mas’ often features identifiable characters that are linked to social concerns as well as celebration and remembrance. One such character, ‘Baby Doll,’ walks around with a doll in her hands, looking for the baby’s father and accusing spectators of child neglect. ‘Moko Jumbie,’ who walks on 10 ft stilts, has the ability to foresee evil. Whether one becomes Baby Doll, the Midnight Robber, or Dame Lorraine, mas’ is about visibility, allowing the performer to harness a sense of self-agency through story-telling. It involves a disruption of the everyday in order to draw attention to it –a reactionary performance– or to re-present oneself. That is, it creates an opportunity for liberation in which one is free to play a version of themselves that is “distinguishable from the everyday self [and] defined by oneself and not by others.”
The 1980s marked a significant transformation in the way mas’ was played. As women became more engaged in the professional sphere, they became increasingly engaged in Carnival performances. Subsequently, Carnival evolved from a male-dominated event to one predominantly led by females. This lent to the popularization of the term “Carnival is woman.” The younger generation also began to play an increasing role within these festivities. Maica Gugolati suggests that a “lack of reference to the tense politics of the era could certainly be behind the recent mas’ tendency to be interpreted as a form of entertainment and source of escapism.” This reinterpretation of mas’ led to the popularization of Pretty Mas’ in its Bikini and Beads form. By the 2000s, mas’ was embraced as a moment of freedom and self-celebration.
When asked what mas’ meant to them, a few Carnival goers had the following to say:
Where “to play mas’” traditionally meant “to play something other than yourself,” the term now also describes an act of self-expression. As revelers are unmasked, they shed traditional characters to reveal embellished bodies. Individual bodies replace character costumes as the central feature of mas’ and revelers are free to “play themselves.” In Trinidadian vernacular, “to play yuself” describes the “capacity and the desire to enjoy yourself to the fullest, or to express yourself to the extreme as only you are able to do.” To play yourself invokes a sense of self-ownership and public self-imposition through revelry — of ‘letting go’ and taking up space.
Performance remains central to the concept of mas’ and is essential to the experience of release. Adeola Dewis describes it as such: “The release of pressure through movement, facilitated by music, by a body adorned … within a specific communal scenario, in turn, facilitates an intense transformation with potential effects of self-empowerment.” The experience of mas’ becomes transformative as the individual is able to ‘let go’ of their rational inhibitions and unmask a suppressed self. The exhilarating combination of crowded streets, soca music, and profuse gyration creates an atmosphere that energizes each reveler. Mas’ facilitates a freedom that allows for the release of anxiety and the weight of the everyday, allowing each participant to express themselves fully and enjoy themselves completely. It is the way we chose to imagine ourselves and realize that creation of self. Adeola further describes mas as a world view which moves beyond the performative event. Instead, “Mas’ embodies the whole idea of multiple identities, … moving from identity to identity. It is an ontology”.