Vieux Corps: The Mas of Disguise
Vieux Corps, the mas of disguise: dark, ghostly, silent. The Vieux Corps mas dates as far back as the pre-emancipation era and is indigenous to Grenada. Vieux Corps are French words which literally mean “dead body”. The name of the mas is indicative of Grenada’s strong French ancestry, having been a French slave colony from colony from 1650 to 1775 and 1779 to 1783.
The masquerade is dark and ghostly and his identity is concealed by a mask made to wire mesh. This disguise signifies the loss of identity and status and the complete invisibility endured by the slaves brought to Grenada from West Africa during slavery.
It is believed that the Vieux Corps mas originated in the Western part of Grenada specifically Victoria, St. Mark. Along the mask, the Vieuc Corps costume comprises a tall conical, hooded hat and a long flowing gown with matching collar. Traditionally, the gown was made of crocus bag material or black cotton fabric, with menacing images hand painted at the front. In more recent times, the colours of the costumes and the paintings at the front tend to be dependent on the portrayed of the band. Heavy clogs made from the wood of the mango tree, sometimes with a horse shoe at the bottom, are worn on the feet. The masquerade carries with him objects such as: pieces of metal, plastic bottles, posies and basins attached to a chain.
Because the identity is entirely concealed, the mas are silent except for the music made by stumping of the clogs in a rhythmic fashion with accompaniment by the objects dragged along with the ground with the chain.
The masquerading bands rehearse for weeks leading up to the Carnival. Merging the sounds of the stumping clogs and the noisy objects with intricate formations, patterns and oftentimes silent dramatizations, the Vieux Corps presents an impressive spectacle.
During the 50s, 60s and 70s, the Vieux Corps mas feared as it was common for rival bands to engage in violent clashes, to the extent that during the late 60s and early 70s, Vieux Corps bands were banned from playing mas in St. George’s. For this reason, up to today, there are strict rules that the Vieux corps masquerade must observed. One of these rules requires the masquerade to remain with his band at all times.
Clashes between rival band is now a thing of the past and the Vieux Corps mas is anticipated every year as the bands compete for prizes in the various competitions and become more and more intricate in their portrayals.
Chantuelle and Shortknee Legend
There are words which are used naturally together. Rice and peas, nowadays, wicked and jab. Add two others to that list:
Shortknee and Henezie
Arguably the most famous Chantuelle to have ever played, Henezie’s illustrious journey began in quite dramatic circumstances. At the age 13, while following a band of chantimelle shortknee, as young boys his age did in those days, he was singled out, and beaten mercilessly by a rival band of shorknee from the neighboring village of Samaritan. He remembers running into a house and hiding under a bed unknowing to the owner. This drove him to play Shortknee the following year because he badly wanted to take revenge for the beating which he had received.
Thus began an illustrious career which spanned twenty two unbroken years in the first instance. During that time he composed many famous Shortknee chants and road marches. After twenty two years he took a break and played jab jab for about ten years. However the colourful clothing and the sweet scent of flying powder was not finished with him yet. Thus it was not long before he was back into the fray, leading his band of Shortknee warriors from Chantimelle, his home, until the physicality of playing asked questions that his body could not answer.
During his playing days he lead his band to 1st position on several occasions at the national pageant in Queens Park and won best composition on less that five occasions in the St. Patrick’s Shortknee competition.
It is worth pointing out that in Africa and the Caribbean diviners (seers) often use mirrors to discern the identities of their clients’ friends, enemies and tormentors.
The Shortknee wears a wire screen mask over a powder-whitened face; these masks were once upon a time imported from Austria and Germany. Before the coming of the Austrian and German imports, the Shortknees made their “false faces” (masks) from vegetal matter such as dry banana leaves and calabash gourds (Cresentia Cujete). The Shortknee character is very well covered from head to toe. On his head he wears a white bath towel, which is held in place to give the masquerade a hooded look. Women’s stockings cover the Shortknee’s feet are encased in tennis shoes. Back in its heyday the Shortknee wore a starch stiffened headdress called a “crown”. Thes crowns disappeared in the 1960’s, perhaps because a younger generation of players lacked interest in the artisanal side of mas making.
Significantly Shortknee bands do not have a musical corps, so they make music by means of a rhythmic stomping of their ankle belled feet. The little bells are called “wooloes” and they are fastened to the Shortknees’ stockings.
Shortknee players sing in the familiar call and response style and their songs attend to heap scorn to their enemies or proclaim the fighting prowess of the singers. Typically, a “Shortknee song” consists of two lines, a call line and a choric line. For example: Call lines: Mama doh bawl, doh bawl mama doh bawl choric line: Tell Chantimelle (a rival village) is one for the jail and on for the cemetery.
A matter that will be of much interest in Grenada is the fact that the Yoruba verb to parade, yide, “is derived fro yi, to roll”. In Grenada, it is common practice to speak to masqueraders “rolling” into this or that town or village.
“Traditional Kongo processioneering technique” dovetails nicely with “Yora beliefs”, says Professor Thompson, who hypothesizes that “Kongo and Yoruba belief systems” reinforced themselves in “Creole collision in the Black Caribbean.”
Shortknee processioneeringis conducted at a jog, and it consists in a number of “moves” (dance steps) that demand both athleticism and balletic grace: These moves include jumps, kicks, hops, tumbles, slides pirouettes and a shuffle with arms hanging limply and feet in the second position. When in friendly territory, the Shortknees will execute a slow dance, leaning their torsos forward while taking mincing steps on their tiptoes.
The Shortnee is indeed a pulsating portrait to our Caribbean hybridity. Speaking of this Caribbean hybridity in the course of his 1992 Nobel Lecture Derek Walcott said this: “Antillian art is the restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off the original continent.”
JAB JAB: UNIQUELY GRENADIAN
The word jab is French patois for “Devil”. The Jab Jab or “Jab Molassie” is a mas that was born on the sugar platation during slavery.
The jab jab portrays the spirit of a slave who met his when he accidentally fell (or may even have been pushed by his white master) into a copper vat of boiling molasses; hence “molassie” the French word for molasses. His ghost comes back every year during carnival to torment his former master.
During slavery, slaves were forbidden from taking part in the festivities (Carnival) that immediately preceded Lent. Always devising ways to rebel and resist against the shackles of slavery, the slaves engaged in their own form of “Carnival” but confined themselves to the plantations.
Upon being emancipated on August 1st 1838, the ex-slaves took to the streets with the Jab Jab and other forms of masquerade. They pasted their bodies with grease mixed with coals dust, black oils or molasses. They wore horns on their heads, chains and padlocks on their bodies, live serpents around their necks and poises in their hands.
It is widely accepted that the Jab Jab masquerade is indigenous to Grenada. Today in honour and memory of his enslaved ancestors, the Jab Jab masquerades in authentic fashion complete with blowing of the conch shell and beating the unique Jab Jab rhythm on drums. A variation of the Jab Jab or Jab Molassie is played in Trinidad. The costume comprises a full bodied dark satin suit with a tail, horns on the head and a whip in had. It is believed that the Jab Molassie was introduced in Trinida around 1795 by the French Creoles who fled from Grenada to Trinidad around 1795 in the wake of the collapse of Fedon’s Rebellion, taking Carnival with them.
The Wild Indian mas depicts the indigenous people of Grenada, the Caribs. The story goes that the rather than submit French rule in 1654, the last of the Grenadian Caribs leapt to their deaths at Leapers’ Hill, St. Patrick. However, it is now accepted by historians and scholars, that the Caribs of Leapers Hill were in fact not the last of the Grenadian Caribs. Others were scattered throughout the island but they never united to form a formidable force of resistance against the European colonizers.
Some of the remaining Caribs settled in St. David and the Wild Indian masquerade developed out of te parish. The masquerade dons Carib war time heard gear, compromising colourful feathers and long braided hair. A loin cloth (which evolved into a short skirt) covers the private areas. The body of the masquerade in painted and sometime carries a bag slung across his back with his weapons and other supplies needed for war.
Moko Jumbie: Protector of the village
The Moko Jumbie depicts the Nigerian god “MOKO” who watches over and keeps the village safe. “Jumbie” is a West Indian (Grenadian) word which means spirit or ghost; hence Moko Jumbie- Protector Spirit.
Rooted in African ancestral traditions, the Moko Jumbie is a feature of most Caribbean Carnival celebrations. This divine spirit uses his imposing height to see danger and evil from afar and ward them off. The Moko Jumbie stands tall on stilts made from white pine which is light and easy to carry. Platforms for shoes and braces just below the knees allow the masquerade to maintain balance and easy to maintain balance and easy mobility. Because of divine nature, the Moko Jumbie performs antics from his great height that leave lesser mortal mesmerized.
The spirit of the Moko followed the African slaves to West Indies watching over them through the terror of slavery. When the slaves were finally freed and took to the streets in celebration, Moko followed them watching and protecting as they celebrated; he has been on the streets with them every Carnival since then.
A derivative of the Jab Jab