Centuries old tradition in positive revival

Guyana Chronicle
December 31, 2000

DURING the Christmas season in contemporary Georgetown, it is encouraging to see masquerade bands performing on the streets since it means that a centuries-old tradition is enjoying some positive revival.

But today's bands are rather ragged, fairly limited in performance power and definitely tame on spectacle. The great splendour of the past has faded along with the spiritual meaning of the masquerade dance. Yet, this street exhibition is one of the surviving traditions in the Caribbean that have come to be associated with the Christmas season.

This period between Christmas and the beginning of Lent is a significant one for many important traditions in the Caribbean. Yet, although both Yuletide and Lent are Christian festivals, only one of the main traditions that came to be practiced at Christmas is in any way Christian or religious. How then did they become such close companions? The history of this association is quite interesting.

The first factor is that through the 18th century, the plantocracy in the West Indies celebrated a prolonged carnival period which began at Christmas. They engaged in all sorts of revelry in all sorts of revelry including masked balls, masqued performances and dances. In this season of goodwill, the slaves were given a bit more freedom than usual to get up to their own devices. They were allowed a bit more food, luxuries and free time and encouraged to participate in their own music and theatre.

The second factor is that sometime around 1800, Martial Law was declared at Christmas in the British West Indies colonies. There were two main reasons for this. One was to control excesses in the behaviour of the white inhabitants of the colonies during Christmas and their carnival season. It was also imposed to control duelling which was commonplace among white men and among house slaves, resulting in much death and injury. During this season, civil courts were closed, so it was felt necessary to have courts martial to control these conflicts.

It was made compulsory for all white males to enlist in the Militia during this time. This measure was introduced to increase the security of the white inhabitants because they lived in constant fear of slave uprisings. There were elaborate initiation rituals along with many balls and social events which fitted in quite neatly with the revels of the carnival.

Work ceased on the estates and the slaves had more time to indulge in their enactments.

These conditions allowed them to revive many traditions known in Africa and brought over by the slaves to the Caribbean. Even though these had no connection with the Christian religion, or with Christmas, many of them became grouped around this period because the slaves had full opportunity to practice the m unimpeded. As the years passed, they became entrenched as Christmas time traditions.

One of these was the masquerade which was performed by both the Ibo and the Yoruba as religious festivals in West Africa. However, unlike many of the other events, the seasonal masquerade was indeed traditionally practiced in the December-January period in Africa at the time of the Harmattan and the celebration of the harvest. For the Africans, it was a time when the gods came to visit dressed in their costumes and masks and performing dances. It was also for some, a celebration of victory and prowess in war.

It was danced by the slaves as entertainment as there was much revelry including drinking of liquor in the parades through the streets. But the spiritual aspects were maintained in the symbols and masks used. There were costumes and effigies representing ancestors as well as such qualities as strength, acrobatic agility, fertility and terror.

Terror represented fearsome qualities in battle as well as the fact that when the gods came to visit, no mortal was allowed to get too close tot hem and those who strayed too near were whipped.

In the Jamaican version of the masquerade (known as john canoe) the craftsmen making the masks were known to go to the cemetery to invoke spirits who would then inhabit the costumes in the same way that the Yoruba Egungun masks contained the spirits of the ancestors.

As the years went by, the masquerade developed many more masks, costumes and characters which represented the growing influence if European elements and civil society.

The fertility symbol, for instance, became the `whore girl' or the `belly woman' during the modern period. From the Christian influence came the devil with his pitchfork which was a source of terror for the onlookers. The policeman was introduced, as was Mother Sally, while the `bad cow' or `cow head' represented the elements of fear and acrobatic agility and the horse head was a symbol of strength. Others in the old versions were the houseboat, the house, the king, the queen, the executioner and the doctor.

The last named was also a source of much humour because of his role in the `doctor play'. In this drama, the king had a rival with whom he fought to the death. This duel would be followed by the spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness when the doctor would come in to restore the dead to life.

In a Guyanese version of this doctor play, the element of humour loomed large.

One of the few features that survived to contemporary times is the acrobatic agility displayed in the past by Koo Joo or Actor Boy. The stilt dancer performs these feats, as does the wild cow dancer. To a certain extent the flouncers are expected to have similar skills. But most of the great features have disappeared from the contemporary masquerade band in Guyana.

In the early years of Martial Law, the colonial administration's concern for slave uprisings was not without good reason since the slaves were known to take advantage of opportunities. They took advantage of the free time and licence afforded them at Christmas to revive their old traditions and they took advantage of the relaxed atmosphere and the lenience in authority to plot revolts.

A good example of this was the insurrection planned for Christmas Day in Trinidad in 1805 when a cleverly coded poem was used by the slaves as one of the instruments in the plot. The poem was discovered by the authorities and the leaders were executed. Some dances, which the planters dismissed as vulgar, such as the `bamboula' and the `Kalinda' also, contained strong elements of resistance.

The only well-known tradition of this type in the Caribbean which actually celebrates Christmas is the Parang of Trinidad. Of all the musical traditions, it is the only one in which there is a great concentration of Christ's nativity. There are several traditional parang songs about the Annunciation, Maria, La Pastora Divina and many other elements in the biblical Christmas story.

Parang is one of the traditions which preserve Trinidad's Spanish heritage. It grew up in a number of villages and towns such as the former Spanish capital of the island, St. Joseph, Lopinot, Manzanilla, Rio Claro and Princes Town, among many others. It is a folk tradition involving local traditional instruments, an indigenous rhythm, feasting and the drinking of `puncha crema'. At Christmas, the bands travel from house to house in the community performing the songs and partaking in refreshments. Its language is Spanish in which most of the lyrics are composed.

However, in contemporary Trinidad, there has been a large-scale parang revival over many years, which has taken it out of its Christmas time confinement. It is now often performed at different ties of the year. The influence of soca is also marked since many soca singers have taken it up and there are well-known blends and mixtures of the music with lyrics in English and Creole on a variety of topics, particularly the element of revelry.

Of all the Caribbean territories where this association of performance traditions with Christmas developed, the greatest concentration has taken place in Trinidad where most of these enactments and masques became a part of carnival.

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