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Everything is practice

Published: 
Sunday, April 6, 2014
Austin Fido’s J’Ouvert selfie.

Over the past two months, Barbados-born, New Jersey-resident writer Austin Fido has written a series of articles attempting to get behind the mas—from concept to design to production and performance. This is his final piece in the series.

 

Since February, it has been my privilege as a journalist to meet a great many artists: actors, dancers, choreographers, playwrights, directors, designers, painters, illustrators, writers, filmmakers. They offered advice. Designer and bandleader Robert Young told me about “the niceness” of Trinidad in Carnival season, hospitality that can turn spectator into spectacle. Choreographer and dancer Makeda Thomas talked of “the Carnival pace.” “If you’re a Carnival novice, you’re in pain,” advised Tony Hall, playwright and bandleader. I listened, but I did not hear. I had a plan for Carnival: to watch the art I had seen prepared in its intended setting on the road. It did not work out. 

 

7 am J’Ouvert morning 
Despite a befuddled detour through the streets of Belmont, I watched nearly every possible iteration of messiness set to music. I am ready to go home. A bass line heralds another band. The sun is out now; maybe I can get a picture or two. A painted head lunges into my camera’s view. “You are too clean,” it says. My first J’Ouvert was a blurry, paint-slickened, amply-powdered, drum-driven delight. But not a story—I couldn’t see a thing through the paint on my glasses. No matter. I had plans. I returned to my lodgings, got hosed down in the yard, and took a nap.

 

2 pm Carnival Monday The day is half done and I am just starting out. I learn that brushing powder-covered teeth is an alarming experience, and I hit the road. The Savannah is a traffic jam of beads and feathers. I watch a drunken sailor try to thief a wine from a woman carrying a baby. I remember Saleemah Paponette, who plays black Indian, describing what she liked about her mas: “Sometimes it gets a little hot, because of the colour, but you get to keep yourself covered. You don’t have people treating you as though you are up for grabs.” There are no black Indians visible at the Savannah. It is time to move.

 

4 pm Carnival Monday Where is everybody? The streets around Piccadilly Greens are deserted. I watch the East Dry River’s muddy struggle. A man passes with a warning: “The Great Alligator will come for you.” Time to move again. At George Street, I am reminded of Narrie Approo, the veteran masman. “Everything is practice,” he said. He told me the story of the first time he played imp, in the 1950s. He was on George Street, getting into his costume. “I heard a horn coming down the road—Clarence.” Clarence Young was a friend of Approo’s, but on this day, he was a rival. “A tall, thin fella—the man could dance—what! Like a snake. If you see that man bend.”

Approo was young and impetuous. “I don’t care who I am meeting—it is mas! I don’t care what kind of mas I am playing, so help me God, if it’s a competing mas, I want to compete with the best.” The half-dressed imp rushed out on to the street; wiser heads ducked the challenge. “What are you afraid of?” thought Approo, “He won’t kill you. Somebody has to be better than somebody.” Clarence was better than Approo that day. “I wasn’t in his class. I couldn’t dance—it was the first year I was playing.” Everything is practice. Approo started rehearsing for his next Carnival in June. He practiced the imp dance, mixed in some of the moves he had seen Clarence use against him, and innovated: “I used to beat a Shango drum, so I took a little Shango and a little movement from some Indian things, and I made a combination.”

He was ready for a rematch. To his surprise, however, on the Sunday before Carnival, Clarence requested a meeting. Approo was nonplussed. “Why does he want see me? He shamed me last year, I want war with him!”  Still, he went. “I had practiced. I was not afraid—I was good now, you know.” Not only good, but prepared: Approo had bought himself an axe handle and fashioned a realistic blade to fit to it. It sparked when he dragged it on the ground. “I created all kinds of antics for when I would meet him,” he recalled, “I created my own thing.” It was the year Tokyo played Cyrano de Bergerac. Approo picked his way past articles of the costume when he arrived at the designated meeting point. Clarence greeted him, and produced the familiar props of his imp mas.

“He brought out the scale and weight, and asked me what I was playing,” Approo remembered. He suspected a trick—“I thought he was trying to tie up my foot”—but it was, in fact, a gift. Clarence was playing Cyrano; there would be no imp battle. The next year, the two men played black Indian together. Everything is practice, but Carnival can wrong-foot even the best prepared. 

Noon Carnival Tuesday: Woodbrook is alive with flesh and sequins. The day before, I saw too little; today, too much. But also not enough: none of the bands I want to see reveal themselves in the parade, but I do learn there are a surprising number of ways to make a bikini.

 

6 pm Carnival Tuesday: “He asked if I was a mas or a vagrant,” says Robert Young, after a brief conversation with a stranger. On Erthig Road in Belmont, a large aluminium contraption is in the final stages of assembly: it will become the centrepiece of Japan-based visual artist Marlon Griffith’s mas presentation, Positions + Power. A bedraggled parade of costumes mingles in the street. There are bats from Cat in Bag Productions’ Suck It, black Indians from Young’s Vulgar Fraction’s Black I, someone who appears to be playing a ballerina who had to work on her wedding day. One woman has had her neck and shoulders delicately spotted with white dust, as though she has been beset by floury mice.

She is Claire Tancons, curator and scholar of international contemporary art, about to be transformed into artwork herself; the powder pattern is part of Positions + Power. The band is in a hurry: light is needed for the final preparations, but the mas must be presented after dark. Perhaps the observer was referring to Young’s companion: sweaty, teeth stained by an obstinate coating of powder, wearing worn-out shoes coated in paint and glitter and dust of the East Dry River. I saw nothing that I planned to see. I gathered no stories. But I learned a lot. Call it practice for next Carnival.

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