The Art Of Mas
Its Caribbean carnival time again! And everybody will be getting down and playing mas on Eastern Parkway this Labor Day. But take it from an expert you can have real fun at carnival time – if you know how to play mas. No, this is not that other book about strategy and tactics. But it could be. You see Trinidad-style carnival (The Mother of All Caribbean Carnivals) is a real unique festival, with its special language, dos and don’ts, and just about every carnival historian will agree that there is a traditional way to “play mas.” Mind you, just about everything you do on carnival day can be put down to the popular phrase “all ah dat is mas.” So if you never played carnival, don’t be dismayed – you can do your own thing and still be in the groove. Because as Vincentian calypsonian Alston Cyrus Becket (ABC) says: “Carnival is mas an music, carnival is mas with ah brass band, carnival is we.”
Of course a main ingredient in learning to play mas is to drink “de spirits,” “de pitch oil,” “take de waters,” “beat de bottle,” “take de sours” etc. etc. as imbibing rum (alcohol, and remember for people from the Caribbean all alcoholic drunks is “rum”) is called. You would believe that the darn thing has some secret vitamin formula or medicinal properties the way confirmed “grogists” (rum-shop experts who drink a lot of rum) revere their rum. Hear them: No, you can’t drink rum with Coke, that will get you drunk…chase with water, coconut water is best…you have to eat first boy, the rum must have something to feed on…you have to take ballast, boy! On carnival day all that advice goes out the door, it’s like the Mighty Sparrow says one can get really “drunk and disorderly.”
But all ah dat is still mas!
At any rate you can’t (or should not) “play mas” in a jacket and tie. That’s a definite no-no. People will laugh at you. To play mas you have to work towards a level of “wassiness” – loose, gay abandonment, a kind of merry – perhaps alcoholically inspired – state when you become receptive to the beat of the calypso music, so much so that you might just want to “wine yuh waist.” So if you are not part of a mas band, wear something light, something colorful, something which will not inhibit your movement as you chip or “jump-up” to the sweet soca music.
And no, reggae music is NOT PART OF CARNIVAL Nope. Nada. No can do. So don’t go belting out some Bob Marley or Burning Spear and believe that is about carnival because this festival has its own music. Its called Soca and Calypso. And remember: You can’t play mas and be a stiff prude. In carnival parlance “even the priest could play.” You have to drop the professional office demeanor and get in the groove.
And like the grogists will tell you – after they encourage you to “fire one for de road” – eating food is key. Simply put, you can’t jump and prance if you have no energy – and food gives you that energy. But carnival food, like carnival itself, is special. No heavy soups. Lots of curry. Curry chicken with roti, with plain rice, with peas and rice, with ground provisions or just plain curry chicken eaten as a “cutter.” There again rum just has to creep into the mix. Ask them Bajans and they will tell you that a “cutter” is any kind of food used to “cut de rum,” to delay getting high.
To my mind chicken is the most popular food around carnival, followed by goat – again done with curry, fish and beef playing the rear guard. Chicken is also barbecued, stewed or fried. But the seasoned grogists will tell you that the best “cutter” is souse – a peppery concoction made from pigs feet, pigs ears or pigs face or chicken feet, mixed with heavy seasoning (chives, thyme, hot – very hot – peppers and onions) and thinly sliced cucumbers in a saltish brine; others will swear by saltfish souse and bakes, or smoked herring souse and bakes; some still will tell you to eat a good “mannish water” – burnt goat head and trotters cooked into a soup (this is the soup exception) laced with pepper. But you get the picture, right?
Then you have to learn a few words of a favorite calypso, to sing along usually in an off-key, high octave voice, especially if – what else? – you did “take a few.” Yes, rum is definitely the big honcho when it comes to playing mas. The Merry Monarch expects you to loosen up, to put all your cares aside, to free yourself from your built in prejudices, even shed your priestly gowns and “play mas.” King Rum helps you do that quite nicely.
Then, if you were not born in the Caribbean, you must take a crash course in Carnival lingo. “Wine on ah Bumsee” – dance behind a woman with hips gyrating; “Carnival Posse” – people who enjoy carnival; “Road March” – most popular calypso on the road; “J’ouvert Morning” – Carnival Monday morning; “Ole Mas” – special mas played on J’ouvert Morning; “Beat Pan” – play the steel pan; “Jump Up” – dance in a carnival band and “Las Lap” – late Carnival Tuesday Evening.
And if you can’t remember all this, no problem – just do what you are comfortable with – wear your jacket and tie if you want – because there is no right or wrong way to play mas. As long as you are having fun, meeting people, and enjoying yourself, you are playing mas.
“Carnival is mas wid ah brass band, carnival is we.