Masquerade, a Christmas treat now in decline

Flouncing, bouncing, and quick-stepping turns; the ringing of bells, the pounding of drums and the delightful yells of children: Christmas time is coming and, with it, masquerade will return in its full glory.

Or at least, it ought to.

Masquerading has always been an authentic Guyanese experience and as the holidays approach the bands take to the streets to entertain persons. However, as time goes by, masquerade in its true form has diminished and what was once viewed as an experience is still viewed as such – but not in the same way.

“Christmas is so nice for masqueraders,” veteran masquerader Jerome Cumberbatch said. “Many years ago it was nice; when I tell you nice, nice! People calling you, ‘come come, come in the yard’ and we play and thing.”

Cumberbatch has been masquerading, amazingly, for 78 years after he began at the age of six. He truly loves masquerading and with relish reflected on the revelry of it many years ago.

“You know, Christmas time years ago people used to glad to see the masquerade bands; they coming around seeing the Tall Lady, the Mad Bull, and the children them used to run yelling, ‘Look the Mad Bull!’ and running and ducking under beds cause the Mad Bull used to chase them down and thing. Then suddenly, you ain’t seeing that anymore,” Cumberbatch ended sadly.

He explained that in his youth masquerade had been a wonderful thing which prompted him to join at an early age. He took his first steps with a band on Alexander Street, Kitty where the masqueraders were a frequent sight.

Jerome ‘Three Feet’ Cumberbatch and two of his youngest band members in his Linden home. Monica Stewart (centre) and Serena Lambert (left) are both 12 years old
Jerome ‘Three Feet’ Cumberbatch and two of his youngest band members in his Linden home. Monica Stewart (centre) and Serena Lambert (left) are both 12 years old

“Where the rum shop was, right across the road we lived and the masquerade used to be around there playing and thing. So when the old lady gone to market and thing, we peeping she and when she reach a good way then we rush across,” Cumberbatch said with a laugh. He went on, “So the big fellows used to go, ‘Ay, wha’ happen boy? You wan’ hold this bass fuh meh?’ And I said why not?”

Cumberbatch was encouraged by the band members to love and embrace masquerading – and that he did. As he grew older, he officially joined a band at age 14 and subsequently earned himself the nickname ‘Three Feet’ for his small stature.

“I eventually come to love it; then I started dancing. When they said, ‘man show me some shots’, and I start the flouncing they said, ‘wow man, is like you grow up in this thing!’” Cumberbatch related.

In masquerade bands, the new, younger members are inducted as flouncers, the persons responsible for dancing and picking up money. Flouncers are always a big part of masquerade bands, Cumberbatch said, and are masters of entertainment.

 

Style and thing

Jerome ‘Three Feet’ Cumberbatch with the drums of the masquerade band
Jerome ‘Three Feet’ Cumberbatch with the drums of the masquerade band

“The flouncers go out and we dance for the money; people throw down the money and see how you dancing and they throw down the coins and you pick it up with style and thing. You can’t pick it up too quick you know!” Cumberbatch emphasized before continuing, “Cause they gon’ ask you what you doing and tell you, ‘dance for me money!’…We had to perform; really perform.” Besides the flouncers, there were drummers and fife (flute) players. Well-known costumes such as the Bam Bam Sally and the Tall Lady were also big hits.

“With the Tall Lady the children used to yell out, ‘Mommy, Mommy look a tall, tall lady! They ain’t seeing who under there so they really believe is a tall lady,” Cumberbatch said. Bam Bam Sally, he said, solicited lots of laughter and had her own music. “The tune is different for Bam Bam Sally; while the masquerading music was much faster, the song for Bam Bam Sally was much slower,” Cumberbatch further said. Bam Bam Sally was always a great way to get persons swaying along as the masquerader inside the costume expertly manoeuvred the costume’s large bottom.

Cumberbatch stated that the amount of persons who turned out to watch the bands perform was countless and increased during the Christmas holidays.

“Everybody used to come with their children and come and play in front of the band and everything. They were glad to see this thing,” the veteran said.

He further said that patrons were never disappointed and were privy to such spectacles as war dances. Cumberbatch explained that war dances occurred when two different bands who had been masquerading at the same time managed to meet as they tramped along. The bands would then show off their best moves to determine which band was better.

“It was entertainment; it wasn’t really a fight for anybody get hurt…he showing off himself and the other showing off himself,” Cumberbatch said.

Little competitions would also be held within bands for the entertainment of the people but no hard feelings were ever held.

Especially around Christmas time, bands would travel very long distances but the masqueraders would not feel the exhaustion. “When we left here from morning, we’re not coming back until night…and the next morning we got to go again,” he said.

Jerome ‘Three Feet’ Cumberbatch (forefront) expertly plays his flute during a masquerade performance in Ann’s Grove last year.
Jerome ‘Three Feet’ Cumberbatch (forefront) expertly plays his flute during a masquerade performance in Ann’s Grove last year.

However, as the years went by he found the bands were coming home earlier.

“Years ago people used to say, ‘come in man’ and give you a piece of black cake and some ginger beer and y’all sit and down eat and when we down we do a lil flounce up and thing. We went house to house and whatever lil shilling we got that was it; it was nice but now…people are afraid,” Cumberbatch said. “Now, how things going in the streets, people afraid fuh call you.

It’s not that they’re afraid of the masqueraders but the other people behind the band…you don’t know who is who.”

According to Cumberbatch, masquerading has lost much of its essence since he began more than seven decades ago. Back in his days, he said, persons were more excited to see the masquerade bands but, as the years went by, interest slowly dwindled. This was due in part to the dwindling appearances of masquerade bands.

He also believes the conduct in bands has changed. “Some bands when they hit the road, they got to have behaviour because when you don’t conduct yourselves, people will complain,” he said. He noted that bands these days impede traffic and, if they are not given money, they in turn curse persons on the street. “Most parents would just talk about the bands but the children didn’t get to see it,” he said. He further said that support for masquerading declined and bands began performing “hairy scary” because they were not getting any help.

“At first we were going good through the Ministry of Culture and everything decide to change up because Ministry of Culture used to support us…and suddenly that wore down. The type of money they used to be giving us dropped,” he said. He added that, without the support, it became hard to afford many of the more expensive costume materials. “All the costumes are supposed to be nice; colourful and nice,” he said. However, some bands had to substitute more expensive materials such as velvet with polyester and give up items such as sequins. “We really need help,” Cumberbatch said and stated that support must come not just from the ministry but from Guyanese as well.

However, Cumberbatch said, lack of support did not deter him from masquerading.

He explained that whatever little money he had from his job at Guymine went to his band. “Any lil money I got, I want me members to go out looking good so I put the money into buying costumes and things,” he said. He further said, “You know how much bands come out not looking as good as my band because they ain’t getting the help? But I push my hand in my own pocket for the band look nice.”

Without the support though the members became discouraged, despite Cumberbatch’s attempts to keep them pleased with his own money. It was not enough though, he said, and the band members knew this.

Some bands over the years have fallen apart due to lack of support. Cumberbatch’s bands, Torch Masquerade and Showtime, are still functioning but he stated that it has become difficult to maintain the bands.

“Masquerade is our culture; our ancestors used to play and they died and they knew it was important. We tried to keep the culture but it was tough, real tough,” he said.

So, after 78 years of masquerading and being faced with all his troubles, what keeps Three Feet going? It’s simple, he said with a grin, “I like the game; I like the fun.”

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