‘My tongue is the blast of a gun!’ On the Road with the Midnight Robbers
The Mystery Raiders on the streets of Port of Spain, Carnival Tuesday, 2017
"When carnival coming the poor and dispossessed [...] walk with a tall hot beauty between the garbage and dog shit, proclaiming life, exulting in the bare bones of their person and their skin."
(Lovelace, 1998, p.5)
Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace, whose writing brought to life the centrality of carnival and masquerade in Trinidad to an international readership, describes the emancipatory power of carnival in The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979). He goes on to describe how, for those who live in the shacks of Laventille, one of the city’s poorest communities, playing traditional masquerades such as the Midnight Robber or the Dragon is a profoundly transformative experience. Like the tellers and listeners of Anansi and Brer Rabbit trickster folktales, through their performance mas players are able to transcend their status at the bottom of the economic hierarchy and, albeit temporarily, become omnipotent.
“My tongue is the blast of a gun!” is one of the many threats directed at carnival revelers by Midnight Robber masqueraders. The Midnight Robber is part highwayman, part cowboy and part agent of death and destruction. He wears a huge fringed hat, a cape adorned with skulls and carries a gun – yet his speech is his most fearsome weapon. Traditionally, he holds passers-by to ransom and revels in detailing the vengeance he will wreak on his oppressors through grand, verbose speeches in exchange for a prompt cash payment.
During my research trip to Trinidad in carnival season, I wanted to conduct interviews with traditional Midnight Robber players and find out if the mas character still possessed his potentially revolutionary energy. I was eager to see if, through his war of words, he was still a fearful figure, challenging corruption and authoritarian rule – or had the increasing commercialisation of carnival and fantastically popular, touristic, ‘beads and bikini’ masquerade drained him of his status, influence and power?
I arrived in Port of Spain, Trinidad, at dawn after a grueling long haul flight involving three changes. As always, despite my many trips to the Caribbean, I was silenced by the overwhelming, simmering beauty of the tropical landscape; the lushness of the trees, the pink skies clearing the way for blue above the forested hills and the cacophony of birdsong competing with the sounds of the bustling city preparing itself for the day ahead. By 9am I was up on the hill overlooking the capital in King Olender’s tiny house. King Olender, otherwise knows as Charles Harrington, is one of the oldest Midnight Robbers in Trinidad. He was bed-ridden, so I interviewed him as he lay on an impressive circular divan he had made himself using his skills as a carpenter. His room was small and bare and he was clearly unwell. I worried that I would be placing him under unnecessary strain by interviewing him, but he was eager to talk and share his stories.
Charles told me that he had been playing the Midnight Robber mas since he was a teenager – he had seen a Midnight Robber masquerader as a boy and followed him around, entranced by his outfit and his impressive mastery of language. As his skills in carpentry grew, he was able to construct more elaborate costumes and he transformed himself into King Olender. During one carnival he hired an assistant costume maker, but he swore never to request help again as nobody could be trusted to make his outfit in the correct manner – to follow his vision. Every year, all year round, he would work on his costume, which could never be the same as the one he wore for the last carnival. For him, the two days of carnival were a culmination of pain-staking costume designing, making and rehearsing speeches.
King Olender left school early, but he knew his speeches were ‘a kind a poetry’. He boasted that in his youth he had committed over two hundred speeches to memory. He used to train boys who wanted to play the Robber mas, and insisted that creating and learning the speeches helped the boys develop academically. He showed me clippings from newspapers that presented him in his former glory, as one of the most celebrated Midnight Robbers in Port of Spain. From his circular bed, he recited the speeches he still remembered. His threats of his vengeance and omnipotent power – how he could eat his enemies’ livers for breakfast – threw his frail and diminished state in sharp relief.
In the days that followed I spent time at the ‘Mystery Raiders’ Midnight Robber mas camp, the last traditional Midnight Robber mas camps in Trinidad. A mas camp is where the magic happens – where carnival masqueraders come together to design and make costumes and shape the band. The mas camp was at band organizer Anthony Collymore’s house. Collymore described himself as a ‘reluctant robber’, as he found the performance challenging and never quite experienced that moment of possession during the mas – he never felt he became the robber. He had inherited the organizational role from the most well-known and respected Midnight Robber in Trinidad, Brian Honoré. Brian’s son, Fedon, was now in the Mystery Raiders band. When Brian passed away, Collymore also inherited from Brian a duty of care for the ageing Midnight Robbers in the band, like King Olander and Esau Millington whom he visited regularly.
Collymore had a pretty house on the side of a hill with a large verandah overlooking the city below. The verandah was packed tight with Midnight Robber costumes and a riot of glue, wire, tape, string, tools, cloth, cardboard and wooden struts strewn across every surface. The Midnight Robbers were in a frenzy of glueing, sewing and hammering as they rushed to get their outfits finished before carnival Monday. They explained that despite weeks of careful planning, when you are out on the road for eight hours, dancing and moving, parts of even the most carefully planned and robust costume can gravely disappoint the wearer by falling apart.
I interviewed the robbers about their masquerade; what compelled them to take to the road every year? The planning, the organization, the time, the energy, the expense – and also the shared sense of not being respected due to the popularity of the ‘beads and bikini’ mas – did this not put them off? Collymore explained that there was a lack of appreciation for ‘old mas’; during one of their last performances, which was being filmed as they took to the stage, the local TV station cut to an advertisement break during the Midnight Robber speeches – and then cut back to more beautiful, wining (gyrating) women adorned with feathers and sequins.
They told me about the ancient history of the masquerade, how the hats are the very same design as the ones worn by Nigerian chiefs and the speeches similar in rhythm and theme to those of the West African griot or storyteller. In the face of the history of slavery and colonialism and current neo-colonialism, crime and corruption in Trinidad, the Midnight Robber is a speaker of the truth, bringing the country’s attention to both historical and contemporary wrongdoings. They also explained that, at a personal level, the speeches and the mas camp itself, with its atmosphere of camaraderie, can help a person feel empowered – to overcome shyness or feelings of social inadequacy or awkwardness. It struck me that this is what carnival theory really lacks; a framework for examining the personal effects of the masquerade – the spiritual, emotional and psychological impact of playing mas. Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, whose theories of the ‘Carnivalesque’ have dominated carnival scholarship, does little to help us understand the profoundly transformative effect that playing mas has on the individual.
After several visits to the mas camp, the Mystery Raiders unexpectedly invited me to go on the road with them on carnival Tuesday. They would lend me a hat, a cape and a whistle and I could then see for myself what it was like to play the Midnight Robber. This was opportunity I couldn't turn down, but I braced myself – I was going to be leaving my ‘comfort zone’ as a researcher and observer and become a participant. I prepared a speech, just in case, and I took to the road with them.
The logistics of the whole operation were complicated. Getting the full-sized coffin (a key prop) strapped to the roof of the truck and then down again, waiting for band members to arrive, a last minute costume crisis and an unanticipated downpour proved to be challenging in all sorts of ways. When we finally set off we were all rather worn out.
The Mystery Raider's coffin.
Being on the road with the Mystery Raiders was sharp contrast to the beads and bikini mas; there was little focus on drinking, dancing or looking attractive. It became clear that there were two kinds of mas going on, ‘pretty mas’, for which you have to ‘pay to play,’ and ‘old mas’. Pretty mas bands can be two thousand people strong and fees start at £500, in exchange for which you receive a very small, shiny outfit and guaranteed free drinks and food for two days while you follow your truck through the streets – plus a raft of security guards to watch your every move. For the Midnight Robbers, drinks and snacks were dispensed from the full-size coffin we dragged trough the streets with chains, there was no security and the mas, far from being hedonistic, was a serious business. It struck me that for this group of people, this was a ritual – and one which took place not just during that moment on the road – but throughout the year.
Setting off from the Savannah with The Mystery Raiders
The band’s nerves were frayed as we queued to deliver speeches on the Savannah stage (a large concert stadium) and be inspected by the judges. Behind us a band of blue devils took a break from squirming, writhing and tugging at their chains to top themselves up with a fresh coating of blue paint for the judges.
The Blue Devils rub fresh paint on themselves before crossing the Savannah stage
After crossing the Savannah stage, the band relaxed a little. We pulled our coffin through the streets, posed for photographs, frightened people and danced (a little) for around six hours. As part of a yearly custom, we stopped to pose outside the Sony photo shop; the Sony photographer took our photo and rushed inside to make ten copies, one for each Mystery Raider. I was deeply honored to be presented with mine, signed by Collymore. It read, ‘For Emily, Best wishes and Many thanks from the Mystery Raiders and Anthony Collymore, The Mellancolly Marauder’.
The Mystery Raiders were certainly not the only examples of ‘old mas’ on the street – a ‘Baby Doll’ took over the mic at the judging point and screamed at the men in the crowd to take responsibility for her illegitimate baby, Moko Jumbies, performing their elegant West African mas on high stilts above the crowds, were to be found in every carnival procession, and, after I had taken part in J’ouvert and greeted the dawn bathed in blue paint, I saw a sinister and unforgettable ‘Jab Molassie’, thought to represent a slave covered in soot or molasses from the cane factory.
This Jab Molassie had covered himself head to foot in engine oil and held a baby doll smoking a lit cigarette. I paid for my curiosity and photograph by being smeared in foul-smelling engine oil.
So to answer my initial question, does the Midnight Robber still possess his potentially revolutionary energy? My interviews and my time playing mas with the Mystery Raiders proved that Midnight Robber mas is alive and well in contemporary Trinidad. Although not paid the respect they are due and continuing to struggle against the commercialization of a carnival dominated by selfies and g-strings– these traditional masquerades still exemplify the power of old mas.
It is challenging not to fall into clichés when trying to describe what the ‘power of mas’ actually is – it is such a multitude of things and each of them sound overly grandiose. Traditional mas in Trinidad continues to provide a creative medium for scrutinizing an oppressive and traumatic past as well as highlighting the flaws in contemporary society. These masquerades keep the creative traditions of carnival alive and, at a deeply personal level, playing this mas is also transformative. In Dragon Can’t Dance, Earl Lovelace captures the effect of playing mas on his protagonist Aldrick, who lives for nothing else but to work on his exquisite Dragon costume and play the Dragon mas at carnival. Lovelace also shows us how Trinidad carnival becomes a vehicle through which the poor and dispossessed can assert their strength and humanity, even if they are forced to ‘rip open the guts of the city’ to do it. As Aldrick dances the dragon dance through the streets he wants his dancing to bring a message to his people and the impoverished communities of Port of Spain:
Oh, he danced. He danced pretty, he danced to say, “You are beautiful, Calvary Hill and John John and Laventille and Shanty Town. Listen to your steelbands how they playing! Look at the colours of your costumes in the sunshine! Look at your colours! You is people, people. People is you, people!”
"He wanted everybody to see him. When they saw him, they had to be blind not to see. They had to be deaf not to hear that people everywhere want to be people and they were going to be that anyway, even if they had to rip open the guts of the city." (Lovelace, 1988, p.116)
I leave you with the Midnight Robber speech I prepared for the Savannah stage – one which I was a little too shy to deliver.
Maybe next time..
Queen Anansi Robber
My Father came from England
My mother from the Caribbean
Here I stand before you
On your Trini island
I may look like a nice woman
But fear me, or you'll pay
I'll haunt you through your nights
And rip holes in your day
A foreign agent of destruction
With a foot in black and white
I see you mock men coming
And you're an ugly sight
Don't smile and look at me
And ask me where I'm from
I'm Queen Anansi Robber
And I will rob your song
The spider trickster moves through I
And I is watching you
I'll mash your mind and take your heart
Me telling you, for true
Caribbean Carnival Conference 2017
I am currently organizing an international conference on Caribbean culture with Professor Max Farrar to celebrate 50 years of Leeds West Indian carnival, the oldest Caribbean carnival in Europe, as well as developing a Caribbean Carnival Cultures strand at the Leeds Beckett University. You can find out more and book a place here.
Emily’s research is informed by postcolonial theory and includes examinations of constructions of identity, race and racial politics and Caribbean carnival cultures. She is particularly interested in forms of cultural resistance and cross-cultural fertilisation in the face of colonialism. Emily is an expert in the role of trickster figures in the literatures and cultures of Africa and its Diaspora and has published widely in this area.