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