Playing Mas: Experiencing the Caribbean-Style Carnival
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In Trinidad, Carnival ends with a two-day street party that signals the culmination of weeks of preparation, partying, and concert going. The type of “mas” played can be described as “pretty mas” or “dutty mas.”

People taking part in Jourvay celebrations for Notting Hill Carnival 2017.

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Carnival begins with dutty mas, or Jourvay — a Trinidad French Creole word for the opening — because it signals the start of Carnival. Revellers, as they are called, come out on the streets as early as 2 a.m., smear themselves and each other with mud, paint and oil, hence the name “dutty mas.” Dutty is the creole word for dirty. Jourvay is in full swing before sunrise, but as the sun comes up the party starts to peter out.

What the Trinidadian playwright Tony Hall calls a magical limbo between dark and light is both the beginning of and a period of transition from one type of mas to the next. In the Trinidad context, Jourvay transitions into Monday mas. As the morning ends masqueraders wash off their paint and change into stripped down versions of their costumes for the second part of the day.

On Carnival Tuesday, the full costume is put on and displayed on the streets. The so-called “pretty mas,” that originated with the Carnival band, Harts in the late 1970s has dominated the road, which is most fully displayed on the second and final day of Carnival. While the beaded bikini and feather headpieces that seem synonymous with the modern Carnival, has caused some conflict between purists and bikini mas fans, both forms still allow participants to experience something many have struggled to articulate as to why they are so drawn to the form.

Elisha Bartels is an avowed fan of the Jourvay, dutty mas Carnival model. She describes it as a spiritual experience. Amanda Lynch-Foster is more of a pretty mas, bikini and beads masquerader and for her taking part in the annual festival makes her feel “joyful, ecstatic and free.”

Kelly Rajpaulsingh is a mas player and a designer, co-founder of the band Bacchanalia that takes part in Notting Hill Carnival annually. She says that playing mas makes her feel alive.

“Like I have been slowly deteriorating until this time of year comes (mentally, emotionally, physically – tired from everyday life and stress and all that) and then this day approaches and with it comes the planning and preparation, the meeting up of friends, family, getting excited to totally ‘exhale’ and let yourself go for a few days”

Art Psychotherapist Satori Hassanali says, “As a creative artistic process, mas making, and its expression, has the potential to facilitate (psychological healing).” So when Kelly says she feels that Carnival is returning life to her, it may be that she is experiencing in Carnival what Satori's says is the "medium by which an individual's resistances and defenses can be unconsciously circumnavigated, granting access to drives, ideas, memories, thoughts and other repressed material that would usually go unexplored and unexpressed.”

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By allowing participants to break from society's normative behavior, Carnival lets them access parts of their psyche otherwise unexplored. This process can be both empowering and healing. It may also explain why Carnival can be more beneficial to the mental health of participants than a party.

Bartels says playing mas makes her feel “like a deity, larger-than-life, but somehow the very essence of myself ... and, divinely connected to life, the universe and everything.”

She says in a fete, or party, however, ”I playing meself (as opposed to a mas) and is a grand time … but yes, Carnival as an experience is spiritual.”

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“The costume element gives it a different feeling to being in a fete. It adds an element of spectacle and the most outrageous but perfectly allowable showing off. You're aware that you are part of a show, part of a spectacle for people to enjoy especially when you are crossing the stage at the Stadium,” says Lynch-Foster.

Rajpaulsingh agrees. She has seen this time and time again, both as a mas player and as a costume designer. And while as a Trinidadian living in London she was born into Carnival, she has seen how the heady elements of the festival can have its effect on persons unfamiliar with the concept.

“There've been many converts who are now diehard fans that are not even a part of this culture but they appreciate the beauty and togetherness of it all and in some way, their participation also adds to the flavor,” she explains.

The final day of Notting Hill Carnival is Aug. 28. Rajpaulsingh will be on the road with her band Bacchanalia. Lynch-Foster is in Kadooment because that was Aug. 7, and the next sighting of Bartels will most likely be around 2 a.m. Feb. 12, 2018, jumping up and down with the band 3canal.

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