Past masters of the mas

These old-time characters still come out to play every Carnival, and Abigail Hadeed is there to record them. Here she shares some of her images

A band of Blue Devils of Paramin. Photograph by Abigail HadeedEsau Millington from the Mystery Raiders. Photograph by Abigail HadeedJoel Sansaviour portraying a character from the Wild Indian mas. Photograph by Abigail HadeedThe dragon. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed

Traditional Carnival characters have been relegated to the periphery of Carnival in Port of Spain, laments Abigail Hadeed.

She’s been photographing them for over 20 years, while their numbers dwindled. Originally she would look for them in between the bigger Carnival bands with mass-produced costumes of “bikinis and beads”, which are thousands strong. “It was frenetic.”

Now she sets up a temporary studio where she takes many of these vivid, spontaneous photographs. “I have an outdoor backdrop. It’s like doing portraits, an attempt to say, ‘This is your stage.’”

Traditional mas (masquerade), played by people who make their own costumes, has undergone something of a revival, for which Hadeed credits National Carnival Commission researcher John Cupid. But more work is needed.

“I would like to see the ability to not just bring the mas back, but proper discourse on the characters they’re playing. A lot don’t understand the historical context,” she reports.

Like them, she does this for love, not money.

“It’s part anthropological, part observation, part passion. This is where Carnival originated. I want to share it, to teach people.”

 

A band of the famous Blue Devils of Paramin, coming down the hill from their village in Maraval. They draw more spectators every year.

“I hope they find a way to keep the tradition without complete commercialisation,” says Hadeed.

The devils now get an appearance fee, but that doesn’t stop them from demanding money from the crowd. Pay up – or pay the penalty. While photographing them, “I’m also trying not to get wined upon or covered in blue,” says Hadeed. “It’s hard to get the money out of your pocket in time.”

Blue devils are a variation on the ancient theme of jab molassies, “molasses devils”, who smeared themselves and bystanders – and still do – not only with molasses, but also grease, mud, or oil. Ferocious and downright terrifying, they blow earsplitting whistles and beat out a rackety rhythm on biscuit tins.

 

The Wild Indian mas is said to have originated with Amerindians who used to come to Trinidad from Venezuela to trade parrots, hammocks, and beads. But Black Indians like this one are thought of as being African in origin, and their speech is thought to contain African words. This is Joel Sansaviour. Hadeed photographed him for the first time during the individual competition in Victoria Square last year. She thinks he’s about 15 or 16.

 

Esau Millington from the Mystery Raiders: “He’s probably the oldest Midnight Robber,” says Hadeed. She’s been photographing him for perhaps 15 years. “You try your best to make a connection with that person, and that’s what comes through in the best images.” With dire threats and braggadocio about their impressive genealogy, midnight robbers hold up passers-by. American anthropologist Daniel Crowley quoted one in 1956: “Stop! Drop your keys and bow your knees and call me the Prince of Darkness, Criminal Master. For if I gather my teeth and stamp my feet it will cause a disaster.”

Crowley wrote that robbers were based on the cowboys of the American West, but practitioners today argue that this mas also has African roots.

The dragon mas is one of the most recent of the traditional forms, first appearing in 1910. Dragon bands were among the most popular until the mid-20th century, when they went into decline.

Bruce Procope wrote in 1956 that this mas might survive “because of the hard core of players for whom this is the only type of mask and who devotedly carry on the old traditions and try to win over their younger friends and relatives.”

That hope proved well founded, for this is “D Traditional King Beast”, from Brian MacFarlane’s Resurrection: the Mas, Band of the Year in 2010. This beast is played by young Kieron Huggins. Hadeed says he’s very knowledgeable about the characters he plays.