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Revising a tradition

Sunday, February 9, 2014
Veteran masman Anderson Patrick, portraying the Black Indian, was among the many colourful traditional mas players who turned out to display their costumes at Victoria Square, Port-of-Spain, in 2012. Photo: Edison Booodoosingh

From now until Carnival, Barbados-born, New Jersey-resident writer Austin Fido will write a series of articles attempting to get behind the mas—from concept to design to production and performance.


The Latin word vulgaris is generally translated as “common” or “ordinary.” This was the meaning the word “vulgar” connoted when it first appeared in English: something everyday, something usual or commonplace. Vulgar’s current definition emerged as commonness was increasingly associated with being unwashed, uncouth and unsophisticated. The meaning of the word has remained constant: only our attitude to it has changed. Similarly, the mas band Vulgar Fraction is a restatement of principles of Carnival that were once commonplace, but are now, perhaps, considered crude. The band’s name is one of the few remaining examples of the original definition of vulgar in everyday usage: a vulgar fraction is merely a common or simple one—such as ¾ or ½—different from a complex fraction in that it does not require a refresher course in algebra to decipher.


Vulgar Fraction—the mas band, not the mathematical concept—has been around since the mid-90s. At its centre is a fluid coalition of like-minded individuals, committed to combining traditional elements of the masquerade with modern techniques and materials. The band’s animating concept is “make your own mas”, a harkening back to pretty much the only way to create a costume for Carnival in less affluent, more self-reliant times. Robert Young, who has been part of the band since its inception, explains, “We come up with a concept, we name it, we build parts of it, and give you that to finish—whatever way you want. It’s just a framework. We are trying to give people back the ability to make things. All they have to say is they can do it—we challenge them to do it.” It is perhaps easier for Young, who runs the design company The Cloth, and routinely outfits pan sides and other Carnival performers, to exercise an ability to make things than it is for the rest of us. But Vulgar Fraction is about enabling creativity. “You can buy a costume—a whole costume—or buy a few components and do the rest. Or use people with some skill to help you. Or just do your own thing and join us on Carnival Tuesday,” he says.


The mas camp, Propaganda, on Erthig Road, Belmont, serves many functions. As headquarters for The Cloth, it is a design studio, workshop and occasional retail outlet (The Cloth’s Carnival pop-up shop will be there from February 13– March 3). It is also used as a forum for performance, speeches and debate. “We call it Propaganda space, where I can convince you what I think is the truth. Even The Cloth: this is how I think you should be best dressed as a Caribbean person—that is propaganda,” says Young. There is a tailor’s shop in Propaganda. Racks of clothes from The Cloth’s past and present collections hang brightly in one corner. A swath of black-and-white striped material spread out on the workbench in the centre of the room, and rolls of blue and yellow thread hint at future work. A large can of coffee speaks to late nights and early mornings.  It is a fertile space for the creation of a Carnival costume. Sitting between the coffee and a bowl of cowheel soup, on the first Saturday in February, Young explains Black I, Vulgar Fraction’s concept for 2014. “It could be the number one, the letter I, or the word eye.” The band will play a black Indian mas. “I am the black Indian. We are claiming our native heritage and claiming some kind of connection.”


The connection is multi-faceted: to the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, to a traditional but increasingly rare mas, and to Vulgar Fraction’s own traditions. The intention is to honour all three, which has already thrown up some challenges: “We always hide our face, because that is a true masquerade form,” says Young, noting the black Indian carries a stick, a sword, and a shield, but no mask. There is also the question of feathers. “You have to earn your feathers [in the traditional black Indian mas], so we won’t have feathers. We’ll use something to look like feathers.” Other options under consideration are a collection of yard fowl feathers or trawling the beach in search of corbeau. In the weeks between the band’s February 6 launch and Carnival Tuesday, Vulgar Fraction’s members will try to resolve these questions, while continuing to deepen an understanding of the original mas form. “We want to build a connection to the people who have the tradition. To try to get into their rituals, if they allow us. To try to sing their songs, if they allow us. To continue it,” says Young.

Uncomfortabling the space
At its core, however, Vulgar Fraction is a challenge to the prevailing orthodoxies of Carnival. The band’s custom is to weave in and out of the parade route, dancing to whatever music they hear on the road, masked and unregistered. Young calls it “uncomfortabling the space”, an approach that has occasionally led to the uncomfortabling of his fellow Vulgarians. He recalls a band member being roughed up by soldiers at the Savannah, overzealously demanding the removal of a mask. A motley group seeking to cross the stage without registration can bring questions from the authorities. “A band don’t look like that!” says Young, mimicking the falsetto tone of an incredulous policeman. The black Indian concept fits well with the uncomfortabling masquerade. Young misses the proliferation of the old characters on the streets at Carnival time—"A lot of the mas that is mas is kind of disappearing." The “mas that is mas” is capable of triggering feelings of exuberance or terror. He remembers the fear he felt as a child when he heard the crack of the whips of the jab jabs on the road. And he acknowledges the black Indian, bearing the articles of a warrior and the suspicion of magic, as “a costume with a kind of dread to it.” Behind the Mas continues next week.


More Info: Visit the Vulgar Fraction Facebook page, or Propaganda, 24 Erthig Road, Belmont.


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