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A lifetime of mas and more

Published: 
Sunday, March 9, 2014
Narrie Approo, 86, plays the traditional black Indian mas every year. Photo: Anu Lakhan

In the front yard of his house in Arima, Narrie Approo prepares for Carnival. Chip-chip shells cluster like butterflies on a low bench. Loops of wire, slung neatly over a hook on a wall, overhang a table crowded with paints, thinners and spray cans. Strips of black card wait patiently to be bonded to the frame of a wire headpiece, home to a seine of beads, glittering with intent. “When that is finished, it will be a beauty,” says Approo. It is two weeks before his 80th Carnival. It is a landmark, though not one he is inclined to dwell upon. When it is mentioned, it is as a rebuke to the impertinent assumption that some of his costume-making is outsourced: “I have been playing mas since 1934. You think I need someone to help me?” He first played black Indian mas when he was about 11. He designed and made his first costume maybe a year later, using shells harvested from a day in the mangrove. He’s been creating and playing mas ever since. 

His tunic, pants and skirt are waiting for last year’s flowers and beads to be unpicked and replaced by chip-chip shells. It seems like there is a lot to be done, but whatever time there is before Carnival Monday will be time enough to finish the task. Narrie Approo is 86 years old. He knows what he is doing, and he is known for what he does. George Bailey sent men to watch Approo play dragon mas. He was the chief fireman in Cito Velazquez’s Fruit and Flowers in 1959. “Narrie guided me around Port-of-Spain, showing me traditional mas,” says Tony Hall, whose band this year was Miss Miles—The Woman of the World. Approo is a man who enjoys the company of those who take their craft seriously. “Everything I do, I want to do good,” he says. “I am serious in what I am doing.” 

Occasionally, that led him into serious trouble. As a young man, he played tenor pan on the front line for Cross of Lorraine (now All Stars)—he bears the pan side’s mark, tattooed on his arm. He was with the side on the day it got tangled up in the fight between Invaders and Tokyo on Charlotte Street. (Some sources say it happened Carnival Monday 1946, others 1950.) It was one of the seminal pan riots, described by Kim Johnson as a defining moment of the “badjohn roots of pan” in his book If Yuh Iron Good You Is King. “Me and a fella called Blakie, a calypsonian—man, we take off! He went into Charlotte Street, in a yard, but I didn’t follow him. I went home,” Approo recalls. Lord Blakie chronicled the day in the song Steelband Clash: “Me friend run and left his hat/When they hit him a baseball bat/Never me again/To jump in a steelband in Port-of-Spain.” 

Approo speaks of neither hat nor bat, but he stopped playing pan soon after: “too much bacchanal.” He was a good singer himself, using a tenor voice to sing opera at Union Hall. He won prizes, but stopped competing after being placed second in a certain competition. “I beat him, everybody said so, but the fella was a union man and the union ran the competition. I never went back again.” If things had worked out differently, perhaps we would know Narrie Approo for his voice or his pan. Instead, we know him as a masman. Even without the aforementioned provocations, it might have been hard for him to be anything else. He is from a mas family. His brother played pan and sailor mas. His sister played with Red Army. His father started putting out a dragon band in the first decade of the last century, and kept it going until the 60s or 70s. His godmother was a Black Indian queen.

Young Approo’s first mas, in 1934, was as a small devil, holding on to the tail of a big devil, mimicking its every move. When he started playing Black Indian, it required close attention also: to learn the dances, rituals and, most importantly, the language. Black Indian is a speech mas and “a war mas,” says Approo. When his godfather, Claudius Pierre, wrote out passages of Black Indian speech for Approo to learn, it wasn’t simply to honour the tradition of the mas. “It is a fighting mas, and the only way to defend yourself is talking,” says Approo. In the days when there were several Black Indian bands on the road, the threat to band members who couldn’t speak the language was not merely embarrassment: “If you can’t talk, you in pain.” The Black Indian’s lance and shield are not for show. If a rival band member couldn’t find the words for peace, “you buss the man’s head and he fall down.” These are perhaps the less celebrated lessons of traditional mas: discipline, consequences, the importance of study and high standards. “Everything is practice,” says Approo, whose experience shaped his preference for “action mas.” 
“If it has no action, I ain’t playing it,” he says. 

Before he took over leadership of the Black Indian band he joined as a child, Approo would play a different type of mas on Carnival Tuesday. He learned to play dragon and imp, fireman and midnight robber, repeating the journey from student to master each time. When he thinks of today’s Carnival, he sees a stifling homogeneity: “Everything is wining, wining,” and “naked mas.” 
He is not threatened or disgusted. “I like to watch J’Ouvert, but that is not my kind of mas.” Approo literally speaks a different Carnival language. He will always be a Black Indian, but he gave up leadership of his band a few years go. He has a little more time now, and he remembers the days he played other characters fondly, though the body is not as willing as it used to be: “Imp is a harassing mas—you have to do all kinds of antics and bending. At my old age, you won’t catch me bending.” Perhaps he could play fireman again? “It’s a mas I like,” he says, “I have my poker and everything.”  If someone asked him to play fireman on a Carnival Tuesday? “Yes. I would play.”

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