The tale of the La Diablesse originated on the island of Martinique more than three hundred years ago.
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Storm on the Edge of a Knife
“Water by the side of fire at the centre of the sky... Shango splits the wall with his falling thunderbolt ...Leopard of the flaming eyes... Storm on the edge of a knife. ...He dances savagely in the courtyard of the impertinent He sets the liar’s roof on fire.”
—Yoruba praise song
These lines are from a Yoruba praise song in honour of the orisha spirit Shango. In Yoruba religion, an orisha is a spirit that reflects a manifestation of the divine. Shango embodies a powerful spirit, a great warrior who is also lord of the dance. He flashes lightning and rumbles thunder from the skies and is linked with the idea of justice in the world – he smites the wicked with his electric lightning, and is linked with the colour red, and with fire.
The ideas here formed the starting point for this year’s mas by the small moko jumbie band TouchDSky, whose 2017 portrayal is called Storm on the Edge of a Knife.
“Our mas this year is based on the suggestion of that praise poem... Shango’s lightning can burn down the houses of liars – he’s a force for good, for righteousness. That’s something we want to portray in the mas, in a poetic, visual, performative way, so all the dancing and costumes have something to do with justice and righteousness”, said the band’s artistic designer, Alan Vaughan, in a T&T Guardian interview on February 12.
While not an explicit portrayal of Shango or any other deity, some of the band’s mas costumes reference related ideas and express TouchDSky’s enjoyment of rich African diaspora belief systems to celebrate ancestral traditions, while making performance art, says Vaughan. It is up to the viewer to decide what the costumes may mean.
One meaning, however, is clear: whatever the costumes, TouchDSky is dedicated to their mas, and think about it throughout the year, not only at Carnival time.
Their design process starts the year before, just talking about ideas. By December, they focus on building structures for main characters. And the beauty of a small band is that they can design to individual qualities, physiques and personalities of each player.
In fact, they’ve even broken bones because of their love for moko jumbie – one senior stilt-walker, “Salti D Jab King”, once broke his forearm in a stilt fall, but that hasn’t diminished his warrior spirit to get back up on the stilts and practice new moves. Bandleader Young himself twice fractured his left wrist, and gets back problems from the muscular pressures while stilt-walking. And one young woman stilt-walker says you have to prepare for “ugly knees and double knees” – stilt-walkers often get hard raised calluses below their knees where they strap on the stilts.
But these injuries are all part of it – you take the good with the bad if you love something. Band members have learned about beautiful cultural traditions through their mas, and enjoy themselves hugely learning to stilt-walk.
They also experiment with materials to make their own unique costumes. They have created their own special small performing arts “mas family” in Tarodale, which is a small HDC community just east of San Fernando. And they make their mas with virtually no resources.
Band members assiduously scavenge and recycle a wide range of materials, including old breadfruit leaves and leftover housepaint splashed on old sneakers. They use bits of cloth from thrift stores, mosquito netting, and aluminium rods stuck together with bolts and tape for structural frames. Some wire-bending, papier mache, cardboard craft, textile collage and painting are all involved this year. They make careful small purchases from hardware stores, and Vaughan says that shops on Charlotte Street, Port-of-Spain have proven to be a treasure-trove of inexpensive, unexpected materials for the band.
Bandleader of this little mas family is Adrian “Daddy Jumbie” Young, a 29-year-old stilt-walker who just a year ago started a youth arm for the band. He welcomes youth from his neighbourhood who are keen on stilt-walking to spend time at his Tarodale home for evening practices. A revolving group of up to 20 area youth visit him regularly, he says, from a little two-year-old girl nicknamed “Pumpkin” to tall, lean young men of 17 and 18. And yes, the two-year old is learning to stilt-walk too.
(“Pumpkin” is actually carrying on a family tradition: she is the daughter of Stephanie Kanhai, who played a resplendent Sweet Waters of Africa on stilts in 2015 to become Trinidad’s first ever moko jumbie Carnival Queen.)
This year, “Daddy Jumbie” Young is also involving the children in the Port-of-Spain aspect of mas playing – and they are looking forward to it a great deal. Some had never visited Port-of-Spain until this year, through mas camp visits; one youngster asked, when he saw town for the first time, “Is this America?”
Speaking about his connection with moko jumbie mas, “Daddy Jumbie” Young quips:
“Stilts is my next wife! If you ask me, who I love more, my wife or my stilts – I would have to say my stilts!” he laughs. He shares:
“Stilt-walking found me. Seeing a pair of stilts by a gate unattended had me curious. I just went up, and that day I end up gashing my head falling from a three-foot stilts. I was eight years old. So I say: ‘Me ent walking that stilts again!’ But the next day I see a seven-foot stilts...just trying to conquer fear, I went up again, and end up walking around on stilts in Embacadere. Then I needed my own pair of stilts. So I investigated whose stilts it was... Later I found out about Junior Bisnath and asked him for a stilts, and it is there I start to walk stilts.”
Some years later, the US-based roving UniverSoul Circus scouted Young and invited him to join their act. So from 2013 to 2015 he performed stilt-walking with them, an international experience he values. On his return to Trinidad, he came energised with new ideas to build his mas tradition.
The moko jumbies do more than walk around. They are developing special moves and even dance routines. “For their young age they can do incredible things on stilts,” commented Vaughan, when we watched some little boys gleefully practice stilt-walking in the middle of the road on a Tarodale hill two weeks ago.
“There is a lot of potential...the skills of mokos can be portrayed better, taken further. And we have always wanted to take the costuming and presentation to a whole different level,” says Vaughan.
The band’s very first mas costumes when they started out five years ago in 2012 were all built on a wing and a prayer, in band member Tekel “Salty D Jab King” Sylvan’s bedroom, because Tarodale in the South lacks any community centre or space for such activity.
It’s only since two years ago, thanks to the generosity of fellow artists at the Granderson Lab in Belmont, Port-of-Spain, that the band found a central, actual workshop space, where members can store materials and experiment with mas construction for six weeks at Carnival time in a location convenient for national Carnival events.
“We’re very small, but we have a little entourage of really supportive people,” says artist Vaughan. “Using the mas camp here in Belmont has made a big difference, and we are grateful for the support – friends have even brought us cake and oranges, or a bit of pizza! And now even some of the neighbours in Belmont know us, and some boys here have learned stick skills from the band.”
Kemoi, a young Tarodale man, just started learning to stick-walk with TouchDSky last August. He says: “I get to love it...And soon Adrian taught me how to construct the sticks. He encouraged me. This is not really a band to me, this is a family. We have we king and we have we queen, and that is my king and that is my queen.”
The philosophy of “lend-hand”, sharing and creative improvisation is alive and well in Tarodale, and spreading, in no small part due to the passions of a few people daring to dream tall.
FAMILY BANDS: RECONSIDER KIDS’ QUOTA RULE
This year, a new NCC rule about only two per cent of a band comprising children is causing distress among some small, closeknit family bands and small traditional mas bands. That rule would effectively strip small bands like TouchDSky of all its children. Some traditional mas bands are so small, they would never make the quota.
“I can see with some of the big party bands, how children might present a problem,” says a TouchDSky band member, referring to possibly unsavoury adult behaviour on the road if children are unsupervised.
But it is different for small family bands, where children are well looked after by family members, he says. Also, many of the children look forward to crossing the Savannah stage as part of their family tradition.
Touch D Sky still wants to take part in formal competitions, but say they are uncertain this year of how they can compete in some events with the new quota rule.
“We have a presentation already worked out which includes the children, and now at the last minute, to have this rule imposed on us... We will still go and play our mas, which is the most important thing. It’s important to be true to what we want to do, play our mas how we want to play it. Because we know we are safe. We are a family. It’s our Carnival.”