Tag Archives: Characters

Just Limin’ in the Caribbean

by JT Talley

Note: This is the fourth in a series of blogs from students who participated in the BCC’s Fall 2014 Research Tour to Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10-15.

Limin’: Trinidadian slang synonymous with resting, relaxing, hanging out, or just chillin’. It falls in line with a culture of knowing and enjoying what you are, who you are, and where you are in the moment. And we definitely enjoyed ourselves in Trinidad and Tobago. During the Purdue Black Cultural Center’s research tour to these Caribbean islands, we were tasked with unmasking blackness in a culture of celebration. And Trinidad is widely known to be the founding country of the largest celebration on Earth: Carnival.

We got a taste of this celebration on the very first day. The same night we arrived in Trinidad, the Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago gave us quite a show. They had us parade with them around Queen Savannah Park and introduced us to some traditional characters of Carnival. There was loud music, fire blowers, whips cracking, weird costumes, and beautiful women. The whole experience was confusing, scary (I’ll mention why in a moment), and EXCITING! It was exciting because you could feel the spirit of celebration in the atmosphere. It was scary and confusing, though, because everything was so new and different.

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It was hard to see and understand the point of some of the characters at first. There were devils, people in skeleton costumes with a collection of skulls, masked giants on stilts, and women holding babies looking for the father in the crowd. Especially being a man of Christian faith, I was not sure how to interpret the presence of devils and men with skulls. After letting myself be open to the experience, however, it all became clear.

These characters were not just for some random method of celebration, but rather played a double role in life lessons for the future generations. All the characters and all the costumes had a purpose of showing and teaching on having pride in one’s heritage and warning them about things such as drug usage, alcoholism, and teenage pregnancy. Everything seemed to have a purpose, down to the tiniest detail. And the artists embraced this purpose to the fullest extent, tying everything they did back to the character they portrayed.

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I mean, it really only makes sense when you think about it. Carnival itself has a great underlying purpose that many outsiders don’t seem to recognize. The people who started Carnival weren’t celebrating for no reason. It wasn’t some period of overindulgence before Lent, like in the European version made in an attempt to copy the originators. It’s a celebration of resilience of a people to overcome adversity. It’s a celebration of survival and freedom from the injustices of the olden slave days. And you can see this very clearly in their pride, in their performance, and in their speech. Because if you try to ask them who they are, someone will answer, “You know who I am. My name’s survivor.”

Experiencing the Mask

by Keturah Nix

Note: This is the third in a series of blogs from students who participated in the BCC’s Fall 2014 Research Tour to Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10-15.

While on the trip to Trinidad and Tobago a phrase that was stated stuck with me: “Look through the mask and see the expression of the people.” This was briefly said in a demonstration workshop we attended conducted by Matthew Wiley who portrays the traditional bat character in the Carnival celebration. For me, this phrase helps to contextualize the experience. When thinking about a mask, there are two perspectives, the one from the onlooker and the one from behind the mask. On this trip, we were able to experience both angles.

As an onlooker, we participated in a Carnival re-creation celebration at Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain where we learned about the signature Carnival characters and their African origins and connections. This experience was enlightening because I was introduced to the history of Carnival in Trinidad. Learning that the origins of many of the characters are exaggerated representations of the slave masters and the slave experience was very interesting. For instance, the Blue Devil, a popular yet frightful character is a representative of the lost slave souls from the Middle Passage to the island and the ones who died and were killed working the fields. The Blue Devil goes around with a sticky substance on his or her body forcefully beckoning for money from crowd members and threatening to smear the sticky substance and blue paint over people. We found out that the sticky substance is molasses and it symbolizes the sugar cane fields in which the slaves had to work. The reasoning behind this character’s petitioning for money serves as the symbolic payment for those slaves and servants who never received payment for their endless work. It is a devil embodiment because many of the slaves viewed the White slave masters as the devil. This and other characters have similar roles chronicling the slave experience in the entire Carnival event.

A Blue Devil flame-blowing at the Carnival re-creation performance at Queen's Savannah Park in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
A Blue Devil flame-blowing at the Carnival re-creation performance at Queen’s Savannah Park in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

As part of seeing the mask from the inside, two workshops I believe helped with this are the Idakeda Group ‘s workshop on “Anansi and the Drum” and the Extempo workshop with Calypso artists “Short Pants” and “Lord Superior.” The Idakeda workshop was an intense 4 ½ hour session of learning about African storytelling in the Caribbean. In this workshop we engaged in song, dance, and acting to help foster a historical perspective to the slave experience. In the Extempo workshop we had an opportunity to hear and even engage in what would be considered freestylin’ but with a more political and international twist. This was fun because old and young Calypso artists explained the importance of Calypso in Trinidadian culture and we were able to feel the fun, lighthearted, and informational vibe extempo can possess.

One of my favorite days on the trip was when we went on a glass bottom boat in the Caribbean Sea to see the coral reefs. In certain parts of the sea the reefs form natural swimming pools where we had a chance to get off the boat and either snorkel or just play around in the water. After some major coaxing from friends, I ended up getting off the boat and into the water (I admit I was kind of scared because I didn’t trust my swimming skills, plus I was having sinus issues that day.) But, I must truly say that I am glad I got in the water! It was refreshing and awe-inspiring to stand and swim in the middle of the sea while looking out and seeing no land anywhere. It was a moment that I will cherish because I was literally a tiny spec in a massive ocean surrounded by water and sky. I could feel the magnitude of God’s power through nature.

A sunset picture of the glass bottom boat at Pigeon Point Beach, Tobago.
A sunset picture of the glass bottom boat at Pigeon Point Beach, Tobago.

These were just a few of the moments that I reflect on from my first trip to Trinidad and Tobago. While I understand that it is implausible to learn and experience every aspect about a culture or location in 5 days, I am appreciative of my experience because the exposure has helped to increase my interest in looking more at the social developments of culture and identity within this nation. I think that this trip has helped me begin to see the mask from an insider’s point of view and an outsider’s point of view so that I can better understand a rich heritage full of color, liveliness, soul, and the tradition of hosting the “Greatest Show on Earth.”

 

The Traditional Characters of Carnival

by Arlie Lehmkuhler

Note: This is the first in a series of blogs from students who participated in the BCC’s Fall 2014 Research Tour to Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10-15.

Friday, we had the privilege of participating in a small Carnival put on by the National Carnival Commission. Carnival started after the freeing of the slaves in Trinidad and Tobago. It was a show put on to mimic the slaveowners essentially, and the range of characters are amazing.

First, there is the basis of music that is the steel pan drums. They are attached by a framework made of pipelike metal poles. People would assist the movement of the band as they walk forward and continuous play the magical sounds of the steel pan. Now, let’s move on to the eccentric characters.

The Midnight Robber is a person who dresses similar to a grave robber or grim reaper. His dress included many skulls around his two layer hat and an all black skeletal costume with a decorated cape. His character carried a gun and basically collected the skulls on his hat. The emergence of this character came from slaves having to be in by midnight or they were basically risking their life. Something else to note while each character presented themselves to us was that when in costume they ARE that character.

They next set of characters to introduce themselves were the Jab Jab. These were the people with electrifying whips that most people thought were the sounds of firecrackers or guns. It is LOUD. They cover their whole bodies for somewhat protection, but also elaborate decorations distract their opponents because it was a competition as well. The Jab Jab have short whips used the whip each others bodies. They prepare their skin for this by brushing their body. They also wear bells on their ankles. Though this was thought to represent the slave master or whip cracker on the plantation, it derives from the Indian influence of the country. People worship the Hindu god Cali by whipping themselves as a spiritual thing. Competitions are held throughout the year and his wife was actually the first female Jab Jab; she also competes.

Next, we’ve come to a french influence of Pierrot Grenade. The name in French patois is Grenadian clown. This lady was dressed similar to a 1920s flapper and used allegories to spell words. For example, how do you spell Chicago? When you have to take your chicken to the vet and the light is finally green, “CHIcken n de CAr can GO.” Another one might be what happens when you play music out on the farm where your pigs are kept, “yo pig IN DE PEN DANCE.” Trinidad and Tobago declared their independence in 1962. This character used to fight with whips, similar to Jab Jab, and were French pantomimes, but they began fighting with words as time continued.

A more traditional character that emerges at Carnival is the Fancy Sailor. The man we met was about 80 and had been dancing as the Fancy Sailor since he was six! They wear big elaborate costumes and dance real smooth with great footwork. He even did the drunk sailor dance for us! The origination of the sailor came from mocking the sailors who brought them over. The women of the group dressed as sailors for the parade!

Fancy Indian came about from traditional Native Americans. They use modern materials, but keep the dress and design very traditional and the same to Native American dress. They do not have any African influence and do not refer to themselves as Indian, which is not the accurate term since there is an East Indian influence. Yet, the name Fancy Indian sticks because that is what they are historical called as a role in Carnival. They even have met with Native Americans and the Native Americans are amazed to see the hundreds of traditional headdresses made from this family. It’s amazing how uniquely they preserve the culture. This was the Jagasaw family.

The Masqueraders are the lovely ladies dress in beautiful detailed outfits that only cover what is necessary. They are the modern aspect of Carnival and do not have any historical ties.

Dame Lorraine is another French influenced character that is traditionally played by a male. He dresses up in a large dress to accentuate the breasts and bottom that are made of pillows and wears bright makeup and accessories. This was a satire of the wives of the plantation owners. Sally BomBom is known in other areas. Eric Nichols was the man who played this character and he won King of Carnival prize last year for his portrayal of this character as Nicki Minaj.

The Babydoll is a character that carries around multiple children and dresses scandalously, accusing men to be her baby’s father. This role pokes fun at the women who would carry around their blue eyed babies, covered up, accusing black men to be the father of her baby, though it made no logical sense. She would have people pay to see her children, thus making money.

The Blue Devils were also a VERY scary creature, they are fire breathers. They are painted blue and paint was used to erase your identity, which also comes from the traditional oil pan that is pushed around by a sailor. The oil was also used as paint to erase the identity as well so they could do what they want and not be punished. Also, you had to pay the blue devils or they would rub their blue body all over you.

Moko Jumbie was on stilts that derived from an Africa spirit that walked across the Atlantic Ocean. After years of brutal treatment, he remains tall. Costumes differ in every way and kids use this to learn as an after school activity.

It was great to see all the characters of Carnival and hopefully everyone will come out to see us portray some of these at the Masquerade Ball and our Cultural Arts Festival!