Playing mas is a lot more than putting on a mask and going out to party
First, local authority Robert Nicholls notes, "as an art, it combines different arts" dance, music, oratory, poetry and theater as well as the visual element.
Second, he says, "It's a form of communication, a means of informal education, a social commentary employing satire, parody and double entendre."
Or, he adds, at least that's what it was before carnival got to be so "structured."
The origins of masquerading in the Virgin Islands date from centuries ago in Africa, with traditions from the plantation era in the Caribbean interwoven.
Nicholls, an associate professor of education at the University of the Virgin Islands, is the author of "Old-Time Masquerading in the U.S. Virgin Islands," a book published last spring to synthesize five years of research undertaken with funding support from the V.I. Humanities Council.
Masquerading, he noted in a lecture on the St. Thomas campus of UVI recently, has in the Caribbean context traditionally been "part of a larger celebration, usually seasonal. . . a moveable event, mostly in the streets."
Until recent times, he said, "you didn't go out and watch a mas parade; you went and took part. Mocko jumbies could actually fine onlookers who were out of costume. The sidewalk carnival was as much a part of it as the carnival in the streets."
Each masquerade type had its own drum rhythm, "so that people watching a parade would know who was coming by the sound." However, he said, drummers did not set the rhythm for the stilt dancers, but rather "followed the lead of the dancers."
In the early 1800s, he said, Old Year's Night (New Year's Eve) was a time for the free and unfree to party together, although in many instances it came down to "the masters and slaves got drunk and went from plantation house to house together.'' By around 1840, however, the end-of- year celebration had evolved for blacks, both free and unfree, to enjoy "three days of freedom and activities over which the masters had no control."
European historical accounts, Nicholls said, make numerous references to "saturnalia" a word wrongly associated with satanism which actually derives from an early Roman word for role-reversal of masters and slaves.
Nicholls said he has found references to plait-pole (maypole) dancing in the territory dating from 1865 and descriptions of mocko jumbies from 1871. The term "mumbo-jumbos" also appears in historical documents in reference to the stilt dancers, he said.
As late as the 1940s, he said, the standard mocko jumbie costume was a simple woman's knee-length dress, such that the stilt dancers' trouser-clad legs could be seen attached to the stilts.
The two most famed mocko jumbies from the '50s were Magnus and Marshall. In the '60s, Alli Paul, who studied under Magnus, "was the first to create sizeable troupes and to include women," Nicholls said. Others who have made their mark in masquerade, he said, are Willard John and John McCleverty.
Today's traditional carnival masqueraders clowns, indians and Zulus have their historical antecedents, he said. One was the bull figure, with the masquerader wearing actual bull horns on his head; another was the bear, with a costume of raffia or straw bullrushes. And there was royalty kings, queens and their entourages. A "mother" figure with billowing skirts able to accommodate small children was another a departure from African practice in which mas was almost exclusively the province of men.
Mumming, or street theater, was a common part of making mas a generation or so ago, Nicholls said, often taking "a hero-combat form such as David and Goliath."
As for actual face-covering masks, there are folk explanations linked to jumbie spirits. But, Nicholls said, there is also the practical fact that masks made of wire mesh, starched coarse cloth or lacquered skin of trigger fish (old wife) were a buffer to the confetti and flour thrown by revelers.
He noted that today's annual carnival celebrations date only to 1952, although there were also formalized carnivals in 1912 and 1914.
Asked how the Indians, drawn from the imagery of North America, came to be a part of carnival, Nicholls offered only a theory: "In the late 19th Century, American Indians were still in a struggle against genocide. Perhaps it was to express solidarity?"
Chances are, this narrative has raised in the reader's mind the desire for visual images to validate the ideas Nicholls presented. His lecture given recently on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix was amply illustrated with slides, often of photographs and drawings that appear in his book. It's available at bookstores throughout the territory and at the UVI libraries.
MASQUERADING IS MORE THAN DONNING A MASK
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