SPY IN THE HOUSE
A Spy in the House of Mas
by Adele Bertei
an abridged version of an opinion piece published in the Trinidad Guardian,
February 19, 2006 (written during the Bush administration)
Mas = masquerade, or Carnival
In the States, there aren’t any cultural incentives to create aside from the incentive to create cash in order to spend spend spend. Our government has stripped public schools of their art programs, and the population is overall too racially disparate, classist and xenophobic to come together for all-inclusive communal celebrations. We are divided, conquered, and if we’re lucky, working. Working way too many hours motivated by a desperate need to consume everything the current mass hypnosis convinces us we might need to be happy. This need is so acute that when we can’t afford to feed it by the sweat of our labor, we resort to crime, which sort of explains why 12 percent of all African American men between the ages of 20 and 35 here are incarcerated, and women’s incarceration numbers have been expanding at the rate of nearly 5% since 1995. The other part of that equation has to do with the need versus the costs of housing, feeding and clothing your family and keeping them healthy when you’ve never been given a decent education.
Ultimately our lack of meaningful culture is making us poorer in spirit and pocket while corporations grow beyond obese off the sweat of our labor. If you are not a wealthy American, aside from the hours you bust your arse trying to stay in the game, you’d best lie back in a passive sleepwalk while the soucoyant of consumerism sucks the spirit from you, otherwise you’re in for a mighty harsh struggle.
Speaking of soucoyants, let’s get to Trinidad.
I met my first Trini in the mid-eighties, at the time knowing nothing of the twin islands. Aside from Jamaica’s reggae music, and Mustique as a rich rock stars’ paradise, for all I knew, the Antilles could have matched what V. S. Naipaul once said so disparagingly about it: “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies”. Strange, and terribly wrong, coming from a Trini native who wrote so movingly about the country in several of his books. I came to find out nothing could be farther from the truth; obscurity and insignificance does not, by any means, equate a lack of creativity or achievement. Indeed, in this case, I’ve come to believe obscurity is the island’s greatest blessing.
After discovering Trinidad as treasure chest, I was shocked at how the rest of the world could be so ignorant to all it had to offer. I expected more ambition from its artists and craftspeople, its musicians and storytellers. Why were they not forcing their hand more, helping the world understand just how incredible the cultural phenomenon of the music and the Mas were? I was wrong in this, in wanting something it could not give, as if all it were giving wasn’t enough.
I began documenting Carnival in the year 2000, and at the time, a young man from Utah was traveling with us as a cameraman. We took him into Sea Lots to film one of our main subjects, Curtis Blackman, who lives in what most would call a (very cozy) shack. Curtis showed us his handiwork; the home he had built with his own hands, and the costumes he so lovingly assembles with every penny he makes, year after year. When we walked through Sea Lots with Curtis, everyone knew and greeted him warmly as the ‘Dragonman’.
He danced in the street, adorned in his papier maché Dragon head, and I understood clearly that the happiness Curtis felt was directly related to the support he receives from his community for his creativity and imagination, and to his freedom to fully express this creativity through the Mas, which is for many, a year-long process which infiltrates every part of daily life in one way or another.
Later that evening the Utah cameraman expressed his compassion over the poverty in Sea Lots and what he thought was Curtis’ life of misery. “That poor poor man, it really shows you how lucky we are in the states.”, said Utah, shaking his head in a gesture of extreme pity. Knowing this was a defining moment in my experience of Trinidad and in no mood for confrontation with Utah, I walked outside, preferring to listen to the bark of native frogs, and to reflect on how impoverished we are in America. Deluded, disconnected from our imaginations, from spirit, and from one another. And how blessed is Curtis Blackman.
The worst thing you can offer an abandoned child who has grown up rough is pity, for shame is deeply humiliating – the best you can give is a respectful recognition, maybe some admiration for the tenacity of spirit it took that child to survive. Just as the idea of art as belonging to every citizen is the essence of Trinidad’s cultural nature, a gleaming survival is the essence of its history, its present, and its future. This survival shines as hard and as bright as a diamond, and for those of us lucky enough to recognize it glittering beneath the haze of ‘third world’ stigma, the view is endlessly astonishing.
In his Nobel lecture, speaking about Trinidad’s seemingly disparate mélange of citizens and its colonial history, Derek Walcott said “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.” I saw this love everywhere when I began to truly look at and feel the country. I saw and heard it in the voice and eyes of Brother Resistance as he recited the lyrics of his rapso song The Glory of Kings, in the laughter and schtyups of Rachel Price, in the picong of Nikki Crosby and Errol Fabian, in the Orisha chants of Ella Andel. I felt it when the people swarmed around Lord Kitchener’s hearse at his passing, mourning his death by celebrating his art as they sang Sugar Bum. I saw it in the self-satisfied little jigs Clive Bradley would dance as he rehearsed the Witco Desperadoes into goose-bump-inducing crescendos at their Laventille pan yard, and when Machel Montano and Drupatee Ramgoonai sang and danced their duet Real Unity to an ecstatic crowd of Indian and African Trinis. I watched it dance like electricity in the classical hand gestures of Shiv Shakti’s choreographer Michael Salikram. I saw it in the way Curtis carefully sewed pieces of broken bottle glass into the talons of his dragon costume, felt it as I sat entranced, listening to Peter Minshall weave his magical story about Washerwoman and ManCrab around me like a cloak of forewarning I’d never want to shake.
When my directing partner and I showed the rough cut of our documentary film (entitled Made in Trinidad) in Los Angeles to an audience of roughly 500 people, they gave it a standing ovation. Yet no film festival would accept it aside from a tiny Black Film Festival in Berlin. Grants for funding documentaries all rejected us. Public television gave us a polite no thank you. Could it have been the sequence we shot of jouvert from atop a truck, looking down on thousands upon thousands in a crowd predominantly African,
dressed in not much more than mud and fright wigs winin’ and chippin’ down the street together arm in arm that put them off? I swear I could hear the whispers: ‘Why aren’t they shooting and killing each other? Where’s the riot? How can a whole nation of predominantly African people form such an amazingly creative community based around one yearly event? This does not fit the paradigm, it’s impossible. And where do these Indians come from? It can’t be authentic.”
We didn’t make the film to instruct… it came purely from a childish excitement to share, to say “Hey, look at the treasure chest we found…!” But fashion is fashion, and the unspoken shall always remain. Makes me think of a powerful story by Ursula Le Guinn, which poses the question that so much of our happiness is predicated on the suffering of others, and we must believe and uphold that suffering in order to be happy ourselves. The story is called The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Yet in the case of Trinidad there is no child locked up and suffering... it’s the white hierarchy who’d like to believe there is.
On my trip back to Trinidad this last Christmas after a four year hiatus, I was shocked to find the front pages of several Trini newspapers shouting out reports of kidnappings, choppings and murders. What’s really going on in Trinidad? Is the current reigning soucoyant of Trinidad not a Trini at all, but in reality, American consumer values sneaking in through television and advertising, pressuring Trini’s to feel like they haven’t enough, that they have to kidnap and kill to get it? When I first came to Trinidad, there wasn’t this feeling in the press and on TV of violence… there also was no MTV, no gangstah rap, but that’s all changed. I see the boys with their low-hanging jeans now, mackin’ and posin’ yet I know they would never for a minute call their women bitches and ho’s… try that on Trini women and we’re talking Lysistrata for real.
I will not be so presumptuous as to imagine I understand what is going on politically in T&T, but a nation of brutal murderers is certainly not the country I see. There is a much larger truth at work here in Trinidad, one the world would rather ignore than discuss or defend, namely the belief in the creativity of the human spirit and the
encouragement to express it, both as an individual, and on a grand and massively cathartic scale. This belief is a right of every citizen, and its encouragement begins from the day you draw breath and lasts ‘til the day you leave the planet. It belongs to the heads of corporations and to the street sweepers, it knows neither race, class, sex, age, religion. In Trinidad, it is every human being’s right to play with language, to dance, to paint and sew and construct, make music, adorn oneself, share ancestral cultures, arts and beliefs, and act out rituals which make the spirit soar. Everyone is active, everyone is moving, participating as they blend all into a formidably beautiful hybrid that transcends the ordinary and transforms life into an extraordinary circumstance of communion with one another. What happens here in Trinidad is mystical, as is love, as only the greatest human achievements can be. Call it God, or call it science. Even though I have my serious doubts about the former, I personally consider the two inseparable.
I’m a spy in the house of Mas, but the disseminators of information in America turn a deaf ear to the pearls we bring back from this island. So I turn around and give it back to the country that informs me, that makes me a better human being, for what it’s worth. In Trinidad, I’m neither tourist nor native, caught in a netherworld where suitors often find themselves, courting my prospective lover, wondering if she will deign to love me back. And every time I touch down on her shores, the wonder instantly vanishes and my grateful heart breaks open once again.