Carnival in Dominica
The relationship between man and the mask goes way back into prehistory even before our rough hairy ancestors knew how to build a shelter for themselves or scratch the earth to plant crops. The mystery of this relationship is tied up in the complex nature of the human mind. The yearning to become something other than what we are, to be part of the spirit world, to express a particular feeling, to represent someone else, to convey fear or joy or to escape identity and gain a certain freedom from the real world. All of these are reason for mankind using masks from age to age.
We get the name from the Arabic "maschara". The Greeks, Romans and Europeans used masks for centuries, as did the people of the Far East and the island of the Pacific. In West Africa, the mask was an important part of religious festival. In most cases the mask was used to represent the deities of the spirit world as did the costumes for these ceremonies.
In Dominica the mask lost almost all of its spiritual meaning and became simply a form of disguise. By the end of the 19th century they were so popular that merchants imported wire masks from Europe especially for use at masquerade time. These pink masks with blue eyes and bright red lips had been described in numerous books about Dominica. With a piece mosquito netting behind the wire face the disguise was perfect - or almost. Such masks were used up to 1963 when they were banned by law, but they were reintroduced, with certain regulations, in 1993.
Photo: Maj. Richards
A separate booklet could be written to describe the changes and roots of the Masquerade costumes alone, masks apart, the oldest form of costume are the various types of sensay. The name itself has origin in Ghana. It is a costume of West African origin. It is made of frayed rope and other fibrous material such as pounded leaves of the agave, 'langue beff' (Furcraea tuberosa) that grows mainly on the west coast. The material is tied around the body in layers so that it cascades from the head to the feet. A mask is usually worn on the face and cow horns form the headpiece. Sensay costumes are also made of strips of paper, cloth, frayed plastic sacks and dry banana leaves 'pai fig'. They are similar to costumes used in West African tribal ceremonies. The word comes from the Twi language, senseh, which is a type of fowl with curled or ruffled feathers. The costume is named after its resemblance to the fowl, which also has special spiritual properties among the Twi people. Sensay is the name for sisal, which when shredded is made into tribal costumes. The Asensay discover witchcraft. Costumes which imitate the feathers of this prized bird and those which simply look like it, but are used to portray other spirits are all sensay. In Africa as here, they were made of leaves, cloth and sisal, known locally as "langue beff". More recently frayed rope and paper became used as well. A brief survey of West African spiritualism and costume gives us many examples of sensay complete with the wooden masks that are now prized by the leading museums in the world.
A costume character we see occasionally is bwa-bwa dancing down the street on high stilts. For his origin we look to Nigeria and the deity called Agere who loved to manipulate sticks for the purpose of walking but eventually because deformed on account of this practice. One can still see amazing dances done by stilt men called Agere Lookman in Nigeria today. In Dominica they were as high as the verandahs on King George V Street and collected tips from the onlookers sitting there.
The Darkies and Red Ochre bands were similar to the Jab Molasi or Molasses Devils found in some other islands such as Grenada and Trinidad. A hundred years ago these gangs covered in soot, boot-black, ochre or molasses from the estates would gather in regiments on the Newtown Savannah to engage in stick battles or bwa battaille, similar to the Kalinda of Haiti and early Trinidad. At the beginning of this century the custom died, but the bands ready to dirty the other cleaner revellers, remained a feature of street bands for many years.
Of course any weird costumes made up of old clothes and forgotten hats and gloves were popular. Many gave themselves names to go with their outrageous body defects. Misyay Gros Coco, Madame Gross Taytay, Madame Gros Bonda and Misyay Gros Gwen are just a few, Black dress and corset were poplar about ninety years ago to make fun of the "bustle" fashion of the time. "Tourist" bands mimicked the visitors who arrived those days with parasols, large hats and strange clothes from northern climes. Night gowns or robe de chambre were very popular.
Such mimic-drama is universal to mankind and could be seen in similar forms at villages festivals the world over. Animal imitation is also universal and often has long spiritual religious roots, Cow horns, as used in the sensay outfits are seen in West African costume also.
Bats with their sweeping black wings were popular in the form of Souswell Souris bands. These traditional bat costumes are usually made of satin and divided into two colours and are often decorated with small mirrors. The costume is hooded over the head, sometimes with bat ears and a large cape is sewn into the full-length trouser suit. Masks were originally worn with the costume and whistles were used. Dancing in long winding lines or simply in groups, the revellers sway with the music to simulate the flight of bats. From the Creole word for the bat: solsouwi. Cowboy movies early this century led to elaborate imitations with large frilled sombreros, long red capes and twinkling mirrors. Devils were everywhere. Red and black were the most popular colours with sometimes cow horns and wings and Dracula-like capes.
The traditional costume of Dominica, the Robe Douillette and the Jupe were widely worn. Thanks to Daniel Green. I have found a perfect old photograph of a masked band of "matadores" dressed in their madras outfits, posing in the Old Roseau Market in 1912. It was usual that after a wild session on the streets in the morning, women and often men as well, would change into their Douillettes for the afternoon round.
Costumes for the house parties a Carnival time were also colourful but recalled the French masqued balls rather than the ribald street parades.
Samedi Gras was of course the main night for such parties. At some costume dances, a ludicrous nobility of Dukes and Duchesses, knights and Counts were presented. Usually the national costume was worn and men sported red cummerbunds. Thirty to forty years ago such places as the Albert Hall above the Phoenix Store and the Union Club were centres for the local "society" on Samedi Gras night. Private parties and village gatherings were also in progress with places like Chim-Chim in Newtown rolling with Jing-Ping music and charging six pence entrance fee.
On Sunday evenings, the Pappy Show Weddings were out, another ridicule of social decorum, the more outrageous the costumes, the better the wedding. Roving from house to house the various weddings performed little skits and were rewarded with drinks and food. In those days more people lived in Roseau, particularly in the town centre and the movement of these families to the new residential area of Goodwill in the 1950s coincided with the demise of the Pappy Show Wedding. On Dimanche Gras night "ghosts" in the white sheets roamed the town.