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The mas – an expression of FREEDOM

Sharon Syriac reviews Fr Robert Christo’s thesis, ‘Interpreting the Mas Portrayals of Peter Minshall as Food for the Christian Religious Imagination’

During this pandemic, amidst mass retrenchment, rising unemployment, a weary economy, the rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus and nearly 3500 deaths, why is the national government willing to spend $25–$30 million on ‘A Taste of Carnival’ for its citizens?
Is the national psyche for celebration so deeply entrenched that despite public health guidelines, Mt D’Or residents dared to flaunt those regulations to stage an unlawful J’Ouvert? No! Such simplistic assertions fail to recognise that the proposed ‘Taste of Carnival’ and the unlawful J’Ouvert are deep expressions of a people’s religious imagination.
This three-part series on Carnival will ignore the commonly held belief that the value of mas and Calypso lies solely in its artistic expression – in its creativity, colour and musical compositions.
Fr Robert Christo has long argued in his unpublished thesis, ‘Interpreting the Mas Portrayals of Peter Minshall as Food for the Christian Religious Imagination’, that alongside its artistic ingenuity, mas is also a religious expression.
Minshall’s work as a ‘mas man’ has been showcased both locally and internationally. Through his Carnival bands like ‘Papillion’ (1982), ‘Hallelujah’ (1995) and ‘Lost Tribe’ (1999), Minshall has evolved as “masman extraordinaire”, achieving international recognition through events like the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
Yet, in spite of Carnival’s extensive spread beyond the Caribbean to other destinations, the first “modern” Caribbean Carnival emerged here. It evolved within a society which mirrors Minshall’s understanding that to “play mas” is to wear a mask of mud or masquerade, that is truly liberating.
Fr Christo argues that this liberation, forged from the oppression and degradation of slavery and indentureship found expression in dance — thus affirming the sacramentality of the body. It also found expression in music –setting theology into poetic motion.

From captivity to creativity
The history of mas which initially began as a symbol of brokenness has evolved into a visible sign of liberation. Indeed, history shows that people were cut away from their roots. Millions were bought and sold. Family ties were dramatically severed. When plunged into forced labour and servitude, people became property of a master who exercised divine right over a man and his family.
Despite this history of pain and sorrow, set against a backdrop of oppression and cruelty, the mas emerged as a rebellion for freedom. It became a mode of resistance to defy the conventions and prejudices of the oppressors and allowed the oppressed to transform himself or herself into any person, creature, object, or dream. Through mas, the oppressed is transformed and the oppressor, confronted.
Peter Minshall understands this rebellion of the oppressed, and is a firm believer that mas speaks about or to a people in the land of bondage and what we did to hold ourselves together and fight back.
Unlike the people of Israel who could not sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, here on this twin island, Peter Minshall has created an identity for Caribbean people and given us our own rhythm to cope with human servitude. Foreshadowed by the Israelites search for the Promised Land, masqueraders in Minshall’s Lost Tribe (1999) wore earth-toned robes and turbans as they too searched for their Promised Land.
Through this performance art, Minshall gave his people a rich spiritual song, adamant in his declaration that we have a song to sing to the universe that nobody else can sing.

Freedom of Movement
In 1981, Minshall flooded the city of Port of Spain with 3,000 masqueraders bearing 12-feet butterflies in ‘Papillion’. With the mas harnessed to their bodies as an expression of freedom, they danced to the accompanying Calypso,

Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom! Freedom road come…
Ah going home free free…Come fly with me.

The freedom of the decorated human body which transcends beads and bikinis comes alive to “play de mas” in Minshall’s productions.

Oppression contradicts the Divine
Clearly, Minshall’s art celebrates not only freedom from bondage nor simply freedom of movement, but this liberation, explicitly expressed in Minshall’s ‘Papillion’ (1982); ‘Danse Macabre’ (1980) and ‘Hallelujah’ (1995) highlight that the Divine God is also deeply concerned about freedom.
This Divine God, intimately involved in the history of oppression and enslavement, makes right what the oppressors have made wrong. Minshall’s message through his mas is simple: oppression contradicts the Divine. It is a denial of the divine will.
Today we yearn for a taste of Carnival – to return to that freedom once a year when we masqueraders “get the chance to shed the bonds of class, ethnicity, family and even gender”, and, according to Peter Minshall, to be who we are in our own heads. Is it any surprise then, that understanding this motivation, the national government is willing to spend millions to help its citizens achieve this?
Certainly, the unlawful J’Ouvert of Mt D’Or residents early that Sunday, January 30 morning can never be condoned, but can it be understood?