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The mas – joy and unity

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

She’s Bacchanal lady

Sweet scandal when she walk

Bacchanal lady

Real magic when she talk

Bacchanal woman

Won’t you come

And won’t you make some love to me (David Rudder, Bacchanal Lady, 1987)

There has always been a focus on the portrayal of the female anatomy in calypsoes. Her walk. Her talk. Her sensuality. That “sweet scandal” aroused by her body. However, during Carnival, when the dancing human body is decorated, costumed, sometimes covered in mud, can it be a channel of communication of the Divine?

Can the human body be a vessel of expression of the wonder of God through the medium of mas?

Fr Robert Christo dares to argue in support of the sacramentality of the body in ‘Interpreting the Mas Portrayals of Peter Minshall as Food for the Christian Religious Imagination.’

He contends that the beauty of the human form reflects not only the infinite beauty of the Creator, but during Carnival, when an energised human body clad in Minshall’s mas, dance through our streets or ‘ramajay’ on the Savannah stage to Rudder’s music, it embodies a theology that expresses Eucharist, Creation, Joy and Hope.


Theology of the Body

With costumes to facilitate bodily expressions, Minshall says of his mas, “If my work has been about any one thing, it has been an effort to marry structure with the dancing human form, to make the cloth dance, and through this dance, to speak.”

Today, many would oppose Minshall’s description of the human form as capable of preaching Good News, adhering instead to the notion perpetuated by Gnostics that the human body is evil.

However, this idea has consistently been contested by St Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body which maintains that “the body in fact, and it alone is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and divine.”

What a revelation! But how can the human body make the invisible God, visible?


You are dust

It is commonly accepted that the spiritual is present in music, but the notion that the spiritual is present in mas remains highly contentious. The 1995 Hallelujah Carnival controversy highlights this.

Yet despite such disputes, Minshall continues to assert that every J’Ouvert morning we are reminded of God’s declaration to man, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19), claiming that “the ritual of putting mud unto the body for J’Ouvert is about the myth of man being made from that mud. It is returning to the Source; it is being one with the universe.”


Music – Theology

in Poetry

Most of the lyrics for Minshall’s band were co-written by David Rudder or Christopher ‘Tambu’ Herbert for the stage presentations. These artistes staunchly reject any notions of women or their sexuality as sinful or shameful.

In Minshall’s debut presentation of Paradise Lost (1977), his Queen, ‘The Dove’, personified in movements and design, a celebration of freedom, sensuality, generosity, and human sexuality.

Likewise, in Bacchanal Woman, Rudder’s lyrics embody an understanding of human sexuality as intrinsically good. Both Minshall’s mas and Rudder’s music celebrate the female who has achieved sexual and bodily liberation,


She’s everything you think she’s about

And everything you dream she’ll be (Bacchanal Lady, 1987)


Fr Christo maintains that their portrayals simultaneously revolutionise and theologise about women, doing justice to her humanity and reinforcing her image as mystery, since like God, the human body is mystery – a reality which one experiences, but whose depths cannot be exhausted by intellectualism. Here, the human body embodies freedom, mystery and celebrates its sexuality.


Expression of Joy

In Minshall’s second trilogy which began with Hallelujah (1995) and continued with Songs of Earth (1996) and Tapestry (1997), which was “a mas in celebration of humanity in all its diversity”, our “masman extraordinaire” used the human body to express joy and unity drawing on icons from various religions.

That year, the audience never stopped screaming at the spectacle and the state-owned television station postponed its evening news so the country could continue watching that all-embracing mas.

Fr Christo argues that Minshall’s “masquerading” repeatedly emphasises the mystery, experience and beauty of the human body as the medium for “de mas”, reminding Caribbean people of God’s great deeds and potentially arousing in them, a desire for a new Exodus in which God will reveal Himself, in what may be called Messianic Joy.

Although Minshall always ends his mas with an element of joy, this joy is depicted as fleeting and temporary as mirrored in his three creations: From the Land of the HummingBird (1974), Spirit of Light (1977), the costume worn by Janelle ‘Penny’ Commissiong who became the first black Miss Universe that year and Joy to the World (from his 1995 band, Hallelujah).

Allyson Brown, the performer wearing Joy to the World seemed to echo the words of Psalm 5:11 with “endless shouts of joy” as she described her experience in the costume, capturing what St Pope John Paul II expresses: that the human body reveals the joy of the human person which is poetically reflected in the text. Here, Fr Christo claims that the human body is used to express gratitude for the gifts of the Divine – gifts of joy and unity.

How can the human body make the invisible God, visible? Through our yearly re-enactment of the myth of the mud, engaging in the performance of ‘playing mas’, and resurrecting the sense of joy and exuberance characterised by Carnival, the human body can become a vehicle to communicate joy, mystery, gratitude, unity and freedom – all values that are the hallmark of the Kingdom of God which more accurately reflect the Divine. Hallelujah!