The visual culture surrounding Trinidad’s carnival has become mostly balkanised between images of the ever-pervasive Port of Spain ‘pretty mas’ and the ostensibly ‘dying traditions’ of old-time characters. Though masquerades of all kinds converge in the capital city on that grand Monday and Tuesday, the life blood of many traditional elements can be found in towns and villages scattered around the island. Their pulse-though sometimes faint in comparison and perhaps waning as the festival evolves - is found in communities that have inherited the passion, aptitude and methods to make mas’ the old-fashioned way.
The Jab Jabs/Whipmasters of Couva
In the town of Perseverence, Couva, there is a street now named ‘Whipmaster Avenue’, home of the Alfred family. Their title as the ‘Original Whipmasters ofCouva’ is well earned, as the Alfreds have been playing “jab” (diable/devil)for at least four generations. The ‘jabjab’, ‘whipmaster’ or ‘rope jab’ is commonly mistaken by name for the jabmolassies (black/molasses devils) and blue devil. It is the proper creole combination of African stick fighting (kalinda) and Indian stick-dancing traditions (gatka), making it a martial art in mas. This cultural fusion is most evident in their costumes which resemble medieval jesters embellished with small mirrors and strips of cloth from the tradition of the batonnier(stick fighter). The ominous and unmistakable combination of cracking whips and marching gunghroos (Indian dance bells worn at the ankles) is the signature sound that announces the arrival of jab jabs. It’s far more than a costume and a chant. The players undergo rigorous physical training, fasting and herbal remedies to prepare mentally and physically for combat and carnival.
Blue Devils of Paramin
The close-knit community of Paramin deserves to be studied for its propensity for cultural preservation. Perhaps the air is literally rare in these steep hills overlooking Port of Spain, or perhaps it is the kinship bonds that weave the traditions of mas’, music and language in to their everyday existence. The Blue Devil mas’ is one that Paramin not only preserved, but pioneered. During the period of plantation slavery, this community did not feature sugarcane crops, so while the enslaved Africans in other areas daubed themselves in molasses to portray the jab molassie, the residents of Paramin used blue washing powder as the base for their paint concoction. This is a mas’ that you can run from, but not hide, as they taunt with a distinctive beat played on biscuit tins, and a rhythmic scream, threatening onlookers to ‘pay de devil’ a dollar or two, or risk being chased and possibly touched with wet paint. Just as the other devil masquerades, theBlue Devils breathe fire and improvise a performance of horseplay in the Paramin Hills on Carnival Monday night.