Wanted: A rescue for the street masquerade bands

SN file photo: Masqueraders along Camp Street

Today, around the streets of Georgetown, small, straggly groups of youths dressed in motley costumes can be seen prancing about, almost to the rhythms of two or three lazy-looking drummers who stand at the side of the road. There is no continuous flow of performance, nor does the display take any particular form or shape; they spring to life every time vehicles pass, weaving through the traffic and blocking the way of passing cars in a good-natured manner.

These are the Guyanese masquerade bands. They make their annual appearance in the city each year at Christmas time and will remain through the season for a few days into the new year, then pack up their props and disappear until next December – perhaps.

These bands are greeted with mixed reactions, moving from nuisance to nostalgia. They are hailed and highlighted, mostly in the newspapers, where they are cheered and celebrated as proclamations of national heritage – of Guyanese cultural tradition. They probably rekindle memories for some. But largely and realistically they are cursed as a nuisance by most motorists who forced to stop – their journeys interrupted by out-of-time prancers wining up in their faces, and then having the audacity to smilingly stretch out a cap for money.

There are not many of them around; there are small bands of six or seven to groups numbering more than a dozen. They are ill-equipped, arbitrarily costumed in clown-like apparel bearing the national colours – mainly green, yellow and red. They use no props, except the receptacle to receive monetary gifts. They block the path of cars and will not let them move until they are rewarded, or convinced they will get nothing by the impatient horns of irritable drivers who threaten to run them down, forcing them to skip aside.

To be candid, their performance is poor and not really entertaining as there is not much to look at or listen to. They do not know how to flounce, to dance or entertain, there are no dramatic characters, no defined costuming. There is no shape to the theatre; if you encounter them while driving, you notice a traffic snarl and do not hear any music. Their drums are makeshift instruments and the players stand languidly aside, virtually disconnected and do not play the correct or known masquerade rhythms, which most likely they have not learned.

There is one photograph in the daily newspapers of a band with a stilts dancer in performance.  That was a rare and encouraging feature since you do not find such a performer among these groups. Stilts dancing is a major skill among masquerade bands and calls for training and practice. It is an important part of the tradition, but not usually found among these bands on the streets today because they are wholly untrained amateurs who do not know and never learned the tradition – not its music, its forms, its characters or its performance. They have no funding to aid them and their main motivation is assumedly the small earnings they gather each day.

The appearance of such bands in Georgetown today is nothing more than a reminder that masquerade used to exist (or still does). But how important are they? Are these motley groups nuisances to be cleared off the streets, or do they serve some purpose? They are important and worth encouraging even if their primary interest is the hope of earning small change. It would be a good thing to ensure that they do in fact benefit from some earnings from these annual appearances or the bands may just disappear altogether for lack of sufficient public contributions.  Teaching them the tradition is the next step.

Collection of subscriptions from the public audience is indeed an important part of the tradition.  In the old masquerade bands across the Caribbean there were different dramatic characters and one of them had the function to collect donations from the audience. Furthermore, picking up coins from the ground is a part of the skill of flouncing (the actual masquerade dance). At a time when coins actually had monetary value, it was a practice for members of the audience to throw coins to the performers to show their appreciation. The dancers would then show off their skills at picking up the coins as a part of the dance performance without stop or pause or interruption of rhythm. Achieving this was a mark of a good flouncer. The value of coins decreased, but the audience would still throw them to give the flouncers a chance to show off their skills.

Masquerade, during the time of slavery, was performed (in part) to entertain an audience – most importantly members of the plantocracy. Work relaxed on the plantations during the Christmas season and the enslaved had some freedom to carry out their own performances and revelry.  Masquerade was one of these and they would target the white audiences who would be disposed to throw them gifts and money. Collecting those became as important as many other elements of the performances. Even post-emancipation, the colonial class would continue that kind of patronage. One of Rooplall Monar’s best short stories is “Cent and Jill” from his first collection Backdam People (1986) in which the narrator describes this practice. It is a post-colonial work and the narrator expresses a very strong class resistance to the kind of patronage and colonial snobbery to which he was very sensitive.

Yet this collection of gifts outgrew colonial patronage and developed as a custom. Caribbean masquerades of different kinds travelled in bands from house to house at Christmas season and were always rewarded with drinks, food and money at each stop. This included the parang of Trinidad and the jonkunnu of Jamaica. As the bands danced by on the streets they invoked fear among the audiences and children would flee from them, but as they stopped at gates there was always a drink of rum among the gifts.

Caribbean masquerade (except the parang with its varied roots) is known to be derived from West Africa where it originated as a religious ritual. Even after the slaves were brought to the West Indies, the largely Nigerian practices continued as spiritual ritual and ancestor worship.  Even when they entertained the plantation masters some of these were retained. As they developed they became increasingly social and secular to the point where they adopted several forms of social commentary and very strong European influences. All of these contributed to the powerful street theatre that it became.

Of course, none of those apply today in the annual appearances seen in Georgetown. Guyana’s continuations in the twenty-first century are mere reminders, not even remnants, of those mighty traditions, neither of Guyana itself, or of the Caribbean as a whole. The jonkunnu or masquerade of Jamaica has the grandest and most elaborate history, surpassed only by Trinidad’s carnival.  The jonkannu of the Bahamas remains the most vibrant today. It flourishes at Christmas and New Years in terms of what has survived and is on show; it is second only to the carnival. The Mummies of St Kitts and Nevis has probably the most European derivations – the name “mummies” derives from the English Mumming or Mummeries, Christmas house-to-house performances. But it is a fading, outdoor masquerade tradition. The St Lucian Papa Djab is already extinct.

There are those who are able to give eyewitness accounts of Guyana’s masquerade as it still persisted decades ago. People recite the cast of characters only in vague and indistinct terms, naming them glibly without much depth. They include the stilts dancers – tall, towering, gangly but sure-footed; the flouncers who have distinct dance movements; the mad cow (or bull) an uncontrollable horned creature driving fear into the audience (a true relic of the African tradition); female characters played by males – like the Mother Sally and her particularly hilarious version Bam Bam Sally and other white characters.

The doctor play used to be a special performance that British Guiana shared with other Caribbean forms. Its plot was an approach made to a doctor or spiritual shaman type to bring back to life or cure one who was ill. Its main ingredient was laughter as both the negotiations over fees and the actual revival were governed by hilarious performance. Then there are the “toasts” – four-line recitations in pentameter.

It might be even more remarkable to see the performances of “Shakespeare Mas” in Grenada and Carriacou where costumed masqueraders compete with each other in words and sturdy violent whips to recite speeches from Shakespeare’s plays.

There is a masquerade band in existence most prominently led by “Three Feet” in Linden.  Bands still survive on the Essequibo Coast, and we often hear about bands in Victoria, East Coast Demerara: Jokers Wild, Golden Arrow Head and Kabaka, without ever seeing them performing on the streets. Legendary flautist “Portagee” seems to have rested down his flute.

It might work if there are official attempts with appropriate funding to actually bring some of these elusive bands on the road. Then it might be worth a try to teach these youths who now appear annually on the city streets how to really dance masquerade.

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