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A CARNIVAL STORY 

By M. Martin Lewis

I grew up with carnival and have always been close to the "Art Form" and my Grenadian "culture." But please don't ask me for a precise meaning of the preceding assertion. Okay, with some prodding I will say that I am a “strong supporter of carnival”; I will also allow that the years have diminished some of my boyhood excitement over the mas’. Today, so many years past boyhood, carnival has evolved to a place where it bears no resemblance to the festival that the likkle boy once lived for: and neither is the man pining for the carnivals past. 

In the days of this Grenadian childhood Carnival came and went in February and you did what you had to do, or to be more precise, what your mother assigned. Everyone had a place. Those places were pre-ordained long before you could ever think of playing mas’.  

So, for instance, the Peters were a Short knee family, and any family member brave enough to break the fold was playing with his /her inheritance. Joe danced in front of cars pretending to be a “wild” Indian, just as his brothers Pig and Tewa had done before him. Cinty, Maude and all of Ta Dana’s girls played pretty mas, and so did their brother Chicken, who always played sailor except for 1970 when he played in “Back to Africa,” in a white dashiki. 

Carnival was played by whatever it was that part of your “sub” village played and some were very strict about it. Kids from Belfast, also known as “Behind the School”, played “Wild Indian” and Mano only dared becoming a Jab after his family moved lower down to “Crab Track.” I had no older brothers and we lived on the main road; what I played on Carnival day was always up for grabs. 

One year I did try to play “Apache” with Joe and Tigg. They were close friends and in any case adolescence is a mass of psychological putty: it can be shaped and re-formed in a flash. (I need a psychologist). I must say though I did gain respect for my friends and their art.  Stopping a car with will power to beg a penny is an extremely brave, even if a dangerously stupid act. Even more so on Carnival day when you’re 95.3% (how’s that? ) sure that person had been drinking. Carnival was also the time people tested their jalopies on the road, the other 363 days of the year they worked on it. 

I learned that “Stop in the name of Cuukumza” did have a strong and commanding ring to it. After the first two stops and a near miss, I figured out quickly that one never stood directly in front of the car and that you always made eye contact with the driver of the vehicle. Even when you did move in singing and dancing you only pretended that you were giving your back to the car and only fully moved in when you were sure of a stop. Cars moving at a certain speed were left out as possible targets and we would dance as if we did not see them or simply say they were busy. There were also people that you did not stop: Anse, Badjohn John, Mr. Elie and his family were exempt and even his teefing cousin Willie. No one wanted to mess with such fools even on Carnival Day… Apache had too many rules.  

So at the risk of Joe’s and Tigg’s friendship at 8:30 that Monday morning I abandoned ship: I gave my feathers to an adoring 8 year -old, gathered my chain and headed for my true calling. I was discovering the hard way- I was really a Jab Jab man in the making. 

THE JAB JAB MAN  

By 8:45 I had already painted myself. I found a drum with a dark chemical residue that would invoke vehement protest if today the thing spilled accidentally on concrete. I got properly daubed with the stuff and then I headed to meet the band. I had practiced hard on evenings, doing the barefoot marathon stomp. I headed to where I heard the sound came from. I marched up the road singing with all the pomp and pride of a Jab who knew the songs we had practiced over several nights.I knew where every intonation was needed. My great hope was to be inducted as an apprentice reader of Dragon’s and Mokoyo’s Devils from Hell. 

Membership carried important privileges. At the top was the ability to sing and say words and phrases that would have earned one a sound beating just yesterday.  I particularly liked those sentences that were grammatically overburdened with the words “yu mudder”. Such words and phrases could be recited to the hearing of the headmaster; these words and moments took on legendary status; a thing which reminded that carnival was the overthrow of the objective world.   Carnival played by its own rules and laws. It allowed you “Blacken” people that you hated, people who refused to put a penny in the paw of the masquerader.  

And carnival was an occasion to show off that Mary was mine every year, love is a strange thing. 

I liked playing Jab because it was like a “people’s mas.” It had no standards; or rather that all standards could broken; any standard. No one held you to anything. Lazy or fit you made it up as you went along. No tradition was sacred with Jab; every year was a new year. Fat, skinny, rich, poor all played Jab. Jab was the nearest thing to a classless society and for those two days I relished in it. 

The Short knee was a different: a creature I could never be. They invoked a certain mystic aura that scared me, scares me as I write now. I never once played a Shortknee, actually I never ever thought about it, uuuuurrrruuuhhhhh. Like Mammymaladdee, there was something about Shortknees that made them too out there. If not the fear and the mystery, just the discipline would have killed me. 

As a mas form, at least for me, Shortknee was kinda out of place. They are not directly African or Asian, English or French and were unrelated to any part of my past. The way I saw it, the Shortknee seemed devoid of history.  How do I know this? Well at ten my father knew all things, and he always ducked my Shortknee questions. 

Their legacy was not born on any plantation, where would they have gotten all that cloth and mirrors? They did not depict any earthly peoples and really did seem inhuman. They dressed like clowns but did not invoke any laughter and for Carnival that broke all the rules. It did not seem to be their prerogative. Carnival only seemed as the cover to carry out their other mission. Like their clothes or history no one even questioned it.

Then there was the wire mask. They all had one size and were all white with the little red markings for eyes and mouth, no nose, hypnotic.   No single object can be as cold and beautiful at the same time. The masks were all too small for a human face. Even with all the varied colors on the Shortknees the mas evoked the haunting. At ten, I knew inside those multi- colored jump suits had nothing to do with anyone “playing” anything. 

A Shortknee asked for nothing, least of all publicity. You never heard beforehand anybody organizing a Shortknee band, they just appeared and  those mysterious Peters people, Sleepy, Noray and a few others disappeared for two days. 

End of PART 1

             

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