Catholic And Orisha 'Mas In Carnival

I came across this very interesting excerpt yesterday in the book by Frances Henry - "Reclaiming African Religions in Trinidad: The Socio-Political Legitimation of the Orisha and Spiritual Baptist Faiths." published by UWI Press in 2003. I did not see any mention of this event in the articles which I have been collecting on the recent and ongoing debate about the launching earlier this year of the Catholic Church's Band. It is a pity because it would have added different and interesting perspectives. Thank you, Frances Henry for documenting this event.

[p. 185] -- "Orisha “Mas” in Carnival: “401 meets 2001”

The Background

Shrine leader, Brother Oludari Massetungi, whose African-oriented philosophy was described at length in chapter 5, became the centre of a new controversy that pitted his organization, the Egbe Onisin Eledumare, against that of the National Council of Orisha Elders. Oludari has, for a number of

[p. 186] -- years, thought about bringing out a mas band for Carnival, but his efforts only came to fruition in 2001. Beginning the planning as late as December 2000, the shrine and its active members nevertheless managed to design, develop and organize a Carnival presentation in time for 26–27 February 2001. It was entitled “401 meets 2001”; 401 signifies the number of Orisha deities in the traditional Yoruba pantheon.

Oludari and his shrine are on the margins of the more traditional Orisha mainstream, largely because he subscribes to a fully Yoruba-oriented worship devoid of any vestiges of Christianity. His shrine and its members, many of whom are young people, participate in council activities to some extent but the group basically runs to its own agenda. While this is in keeping with the atomized and individual nature of Orisha shrines and their leaders, his is particularly distinguished by their total dedication to the “African sacred sciences”. In this regard, his shrine is similar to that of Patricia McCleod - both of whom were earlier identified as Afrocentricists who are motivated primarily by spiritual and doctrinal commitments to the Yoruba Orisha, as compared to other African-oriented innovators inspired primarily by political and ideological dynamics. Oludari and McCleod do share, however, the need to identify with their African origins and cultural heritage, for which the Yoruba-derived Orisha religion provides the ideal forum.

The decision to mount a Carnival mas met with criticism, especially from the National Council of Orisha Elders. Their opprobrium is contained in the following letter sent to shrine leader Oludari and to the Express newspaper:
The Council of Orisa Elders wishes to advise it is viewing with grave concern the developing trend of disrespect for the religion in the Carnival arena. The council is mindful of the strong links between the religion and the evolution of the mas. This was at a time when the Carnival was the sole means of public expression for an otherwise persecuted belief system … the Council of Orisa Elders now invokes the wrath of all the Orisa on all who dare feature any Carnival characters named after the Orisa. It views any incorporation of the Orisa into Carnival as an attack on the sacredness of the religion … The present Carnival no longer includes the elements of African spirituality, with which it was imbued in its earlier years. We respect and give recognition to all those elders of the mas and the pan, who bravely expressed their religion in the Carnival, at a time when it was illegal to do so at any other time. It is the view of the council though, that such a forum is now no longer suitable or necessary.

[p. 187] -- (signed: Babalorisha Sam Phills, Chairman, for and on behalf the two chief shrine leaders, Iyalorisha Rodney and Babalorisha Forde and three other members of the council)
The media has, thus far, not taken a stand on the issue. However, a long article by Leroy Clarke was published in the Trinidad Guardian. In it, Clarke takes a generally positive position, saying, “The advent of this perfomance can be viewed objectively as a ritual of utterance meant to revisit and re-evaluate our social practices, in this case, mask or mas playing.” Oludari himself believes that it is important to bring the cosmic and spiritual energy of the Orisha into a Carnival that has become too secularized. It is an attempt, in his view, to regenerate Carnival and bring it back to what it was in earlier times. He believes that the distinction between the sacred and secular is too rigid and that the Orisha and their energy are part of nature and permeate all of social life. Carnival, as part of the social life of the country, is therefore an appropriate arena for the display of Orisha powers. Gordon Rohlehr makes much the same point when he notes that “the unity of secular and sacred existed in many traditional African societies and was part of what was lost or obscured in the New World encounter between African systems of thought, belief and performance and Manichean Christian, particularly Calvinist Protestant modes of perception”.

Another member of the Egbe group supports the mas because “within us all the Orisa are present … and the portrayal of nine Orisa deities will liberate the awesome power of the cosmos to help reestablish the equilibrium and balance in our nation as we resanctify Carnival”. Oludari and his members emphasize that their decision was sanctioned through the divination processes of Ifa. As one of its members stated, “Nothing is done without the blessing of Ifa. When [we are] in doubt about what to do [we] do divination. This was authorised by higher forces than ourselves.”

The decision to play an Orisha mas in Carnival is not really new. Orisha, or Shango bands as they were once known, paraded through the streets of southeast Port of Spain in earlier times. Older Trinidadians, now in their seventies and eighties and raised in this area of the city during the 1930s, clearly remember that they were sometimes accompanied by steelbands “when they came down from the hills”. They also recalled that mothers would take their children inside and close their windows when these bands passed because they were afraid of the obeah that Shango people were believed to practise.

[p. 188]-- Despite the earlier tradition, the decision to mount a Carnival band in 2001 brought out some of the ideological and doctrinal differences, further illustrating the conflict between authenticity and syncretism already discussed. This controversy provides more evidence that such doctrinal divisions are evident in the practice of the Orisha religion today.

The Mas

The band consisted of about forty members, most of them younger supporters of the shrine. It was registered in all of the events of Carnival, including Jouvert, Monday night mas and the Parade of Bands on Tuesday. Its Jouvert portrayal was called “A Tribute to Piparo” and featured a number of members wearing mud-stained pareos and head ties and mud decorations on their faces. Oludari was with the band, carrying two African sacred staffs in his hands. Painting the body in mud is a traditional feature of Jouvert Carnival bands and is called “mud mas”.

Piparo is the name of a village in southern Trinidad where small, but occasionally active, mud volcanoes are located. What distinguished this group from ordinary “mud mas”, however, was the way in which it was made to relate to the Orisha religion.

Brother Oludari stated that “this is a tribute to Aganyu, the primeval Orisha god of volcanoes and a fitting way to begin the Carnival”.

A ritual initiated each event; prayers, offerings and thanks were made to the Orisha. Chanting and songs were also part of the ritual. On Monday evening, for example, the band played a Monday night mas. A small group of twelve members assembled in a park in Woodbrook, Port of Spain, the centre of many Carnival activities. Some were in their complete Orisha costumes, others in partial costume. The women portrayed Oya, Oshun and Yemanja; the men Eshu, Shango, Ogun and Orunmila. The band also included the “unformed”, played by young children. The costumes used the colours of the deities as researched by Oludari and therefore differed somewhat from their portrayal in the more conventional Orisha Ebos or feasts. At about 9 p.m. the group formed a circle, holding hands, around a flagpole. Oludari placed a small calabash of water, one of seeds and a bottle of sweet oil on the floor. He was holding an African sculpture staff, possibly an Eshu dance staff from Nigeria, that he used throughout the ritual. Libations were made, followed by the ritual blessing of people past and present. Aiding in

[p. 189]-- the ritual was another Orisha elder, Esmond King, who has an extensive background and knowledge of the early steelband movement and Carnival mas, who specifically called the names of many individuals who played significant roles in the popular culture of an earlier era. People living and dead, all African people, elders and the nation as a whole were included in the blessings, each of which was accompanied by a few drops of water sprinkled from the calabash onto the ground. Singing and drumming followed. The band was awaiting the arrival of their steelband accompaniment that failed to arrive in time, so the evening ended at this point. The mixture of the sacred and secular - ritualistic celebration versus the worldly and profane Carnival rites - was especially obvious, albeit in a small way, during this event.

As the religious ritual was being celebrated around the flagpole, a steelband of about twenty players atop a flat-bedded truck, surrounded by about one hundred Carnival revellers, several of them white tourists, slowly made their way on the street facing the park. The band was playing an old-fashioned ballad and the people were singing along, many of them holding on to the truck's sides with one hand and managing beer bottles with the other. At one point the two music sounds merged together and created an almost surrealistic, other worldly ambiance. In addition to this particular event, the night sounds were punctuated by the calypsos of the season, particularly those of calypsonian Shadow.

On Carnival Tuesday, the band came out with about forty players. Unlike other Carnival bands, however, they were accompanied by traditional Orisha drummers as well as by the steelband, comprised of younger musicians who had agreed to play despite the controversy created by this event. They did not play the calypsos of the season but concentrated on those composed by the late and great calypsonian, Lord Kitchener. They also played ballad music. The participants danced with the traditional movements of the Orisha deities, resting now and then with the small “chip” movement moving to the music. They did not “wine” - the sensual and erotic hip and pelvic gyrations that are the conventional movement of Carnival merrymaking. Even at competition points, they played their own music interspersed once or twice with the Yoruba Orisha singing of Ella Andall.

Most Carnival bands create a King and Queen of the band, whose costumes are the most elaborate and costly. The Orisha band did not portray a

[p. 190] -- King but they did create a special costume for their Queen. The Queen portrayed Oyeki Meji, one of the sacred scriptures or Odus associated with the Ifa system of divination. The band's press release describes this mas thus: “The invocation of this first Odu is the primary first stage of all initiation ceremonies. It is the portal through which the ancestors may return to share their wisdom with the living.” This Odu symbolizes the female principle, the costume depicted a woman wearing a head tie flowing with straw-like locks, a full skirt in blue and white and a stylized torso displaying large bare breasts. Yellow-white streamers, symbolizing milk, flowed from her breasts. She was entered in the Queen of the Bands competition but did not progress beyond the preliminary stage. In fact, the Trinidad Guardian, reporting on the competition, headlined its article “Orisa Queen fails to impress”. In noting that a calypso singer played the mas, the article reports that the “costume did not resemble any of the other huge, iridescent queens, her blackened, droopy ‘Odo-Oyeku Meji’, who lost a few stringy hair strands, resembling ole mas”. (This refers to the Jouvert mas where ugly, dingy and often-ridiculous costumes are worn.) Its religious significance was clearly not understood by this reporter. The band was not able to cross the grandstand stage at the Savannah, as is customary for all Carnival bands, because the Queen costume was damaged during the course of the day. However, they paraded all day and joined in the other competition venues.

Oludari and his shrine members were pleased with their first entry into Carnival mas and they hoped to bring out a more elaborate and larger band the following year.

In 2001 Patricia McCleod (Iya Shangowummi) and her shrine had also planned to bring out a Carnival mas band because they too had the permission of Ifa, obtained through divination, to do so. It was to have been entitled “Yoruba Cosmology - Faces of Oshun” in honour of the Orisha Oshun but they decided to delay their presentation. Although McCleod too received the same condemning letter as Oludari, she feels that both groups are doing nothing disrespectful to the Orisha religion and, in fact, “the two Iles getting the vision around the same time shows the Orisha was sending a message”.

In 2002 Patricia McCleod did, in fact, mount the “Faces of Oshun”. The band consisted of her shrine members, many of them also young people. The mas camp - a small shop - was located on one of the streets leading off the Savannah. On Carnival Tuesday morning the band of about sixty persons,

[p. 191] -- accompanied by a rhythm band, played their mas. About six pan players (steelband) and their instruments travelled on a small truck, while a bamboo tamboo rhythm section on a wheeled platform was attached to the truck by stout ropes. Bamboo tamboo instruments are hollowed out rods of bamboo, pitched to different levels, that preceded the development of steeldrum or “pan”. The players were dressed in the different faces of the Orisha Oshun, celebrating her femininity as well as different aspects of her power. One very elaborate gold and sequined section called “bangles, beads and combs” portrayed the feminine and beautiful side of Oshun, while green-costumed players demonstrated her earthy qualities. The Orisha Shango also had a prominent role in the band, being shown in several of his manifestations including the “King” of the band, who portrayed Shango as the lord of the skies in the form of giant white eagle.

Mrs McCleod, all of whose decisions were guided by divination, did not take the band through the main competition point, the grandstand at the Savannah, but they did pass the smaller downtown competition points. As well, they traced a route through some of the older areas of the city associated with the historical African slave presence. Throughout the day they were treated respectfully and with interest. Their costumes, which markedly differed from the more commonplace bikini-type costumes of most of the larger Carnival bands today, attracted considerable interest. A few spectators mistook them for “the Minshall band”, referring to mas band leader Peter Minshall, who has for some years developed the most innovative, artistic and creative presentations.

Oludari's Orisha shrine and their participation in the Carnival of 2001 created a controversy between themselves and the National Council of Orisha Elders. (By contrast, the Oshun mas the following year, although also criticized by the council, did not attract as much attention.) The event was played out in the newspapers, thus adding more friction to the situation. In addition to furthering the distance between Oludari's and McCleod's shrines and the shrines represented by the council, however, the event lends support to the ideological and doctrinal differences within the Orisha religion today. It also provides some provocative insights into the nature of public and private ritual, the roles of performance and spectacle in Trinidadian popular culture, and as the growing trend towards minimizing the difference between the sacred and secular.
"Patria est communis omnium parens" - Our native land is the common parent of us all. Keep it beautiful, make it even more so.

Blessed is all of creation
Blessed be my beautiful people
Blessed be the day of our awakening
Blessed is my country
Blessed are her patient hills.

Mweh ka allay!


Monifa said...

This is so lovely! Orisa music, and artistry should be part of the carnival experience. Why not honour them on the road. I am sure some of them would even come down to enjoy it. I hope they play Orisa mas again. I am looking forward to that. Blessings

Guanaguanare said...

Thanks for visiting and your comment, Monifa. Yes, I would have loved to see this band. I have no idea if they continued after 2001. According to this researcher, Orisha or Shango bands, have been taking part in Carnival since the 1930's so I expect that even if the trend is not continuous, they will return from time to time when they are moved to do so.

Anonymous said...

Greetings! Thanks for this highlight of the work of EGBE ONISIN ELEDUMARE. The members continued playing " Mas " for several years in Moruga at the Southern sector of the island. They have now returned to Port - of - Spain where some of the members are involved in portrayal of " Traditional Mas "
Oloye Orawale Oranfe

Guanaguanare said...

Thank you, Oloye Orawale Oranfe. I approved this comment and then forgot to reply although I usually try to respond promptly. My sincerest apologies!

It was my pleasure to discover and share Frances Henry's research. It is good to know that the members are still involved in the Carnival. I am wondering if any videos showing their participation have been uploaded on the Internet? I will do some research but feel free to refer me to them if they do exist.

Thank you for visiting and for your comment.