Tag Archives: Fancy Sailor

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!

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