Saint Lucian Masquerade

The Masquerade art form originates from the plantations of the 16th and 17th centuries. Masquerade is indigenous to the Caribbean, with influences in West African and European tradition. Slaves were allowed to practice their own rituals and have celebrations at Christmas and New Year’s. They brought their parade to other plantations and houses of planters. The processions were an opportunity to be elaborately masked and adorned as the slaves pleased. The male slaves dressed in women’s clothes as a tribute to their hard-working wives and also because they thought such activities were unfit for women to participate in.

After slavery was abolished the parade moved to the streets of villages and the most festive was in the city of Castries. Masquerade served as both socially and economically beneficial to communities. Performers and the audience took delight in the activity and looked forward to it every Christmas season. Simultaneously it encouraged a community effort to make the celebration come to life. Women, although not permitted to perform by unspoken rule, played the key role in creating and planning costumes. The musicians and masqueraders were equally important in the performing aspect. Performers terrorized much of the younger audience, but Christmas was incomplete without Masquerade. During performances, the audience would throw money to the masqueraders, which would be shared with all the parties involved.

Most of the history of Masquerade recorded is collected from oral traditions. The Kwéyòl language/dialect was also not formally written or printed until recently. Because of this many of the names of characters are not spelt the same in all written descriptions of Masquerade. In the1980’s the art form began to die out, and it is rarely performed by adults now. Females have also become masqueraders but all performers are still hidden in costume.

Some costumes and characters varied or were more prevalent in certain villages. The universal characters were Ti Djabs, Pay Banan, Uncle Sam and Seraphina, Chouval Bois, Mary Anset, and stilt walkers. Some others included Santa Claus and dancers on parallel sticks, which may not likely to be seen now.

Papa Djab is usually the leader and the scariest character. He is dressed in red, with horns, a pointy tail and a pitch fork. This character was mostly found in the city. Ti djabs, who are painted in black, are his trouble-makers. Long ago the role of Papa Djab would be inherited by a worthy follower. Mary Anset is said to be Papa Djab’s girlfriend and is always pregnant. The name Mary Anset really does translate to “Mary is pregnant” and the character is said to be a derogatory representation of Mary, mother of Christ.

The Pay Banan is one of the most interactive and recognized characters. The costume is made of dried banana leaves and the he bounces up and down in the parade. It is believed that the Pay Banan was once banned in the 1970’s because someone purposely sent a lit match at the Pay Banan. His dried leaves caught fire and the Masquerader had to roll on the ground to put it out.

Uncle Sam and Seraphina are characters that were introduced in the 1940’s. The inseparable couple is presented as very large people. Uncle Sam is dressed exactly like the American Uncle Sam with a top hat and clothing decorated with the American flag. Thanks to his stilts he is tall enough to reach high verandahs and he uses his hat to collect money from people in balconies.

The Chouval Bois, directly translated to wooden donkey, is a decorated wooden frame donkey with an individual inside. This performer supposedly has to be particularly skillful to be able to move like a donkey.

Another crucial element of performances is the music of the Masquerade. It is a band with only acoustic instruments and objects including the flute, shak shak, drums, kettle and a piece of iron. Masqueraders shout chants and dance to the music while trying to get the audience to join.

Uncle Sam and Seraphina