Mon | May 29, 2017

Bhang the drum slowly

Published:Saturday | February 21, 2015 | 2:00 AM

It is carnival week here in Trinidad even though the actual two days of the masquerade, Monday and Tuesday, have already gone. The promoters are still trying to scrape the bottom of the money pit with various events, and I am back to 3 o'clock on Monday morning when the masquerade starts with J'Ouvert (pronounced Joo-vay but aka 'Old Mas'), which translates into dawn or daybreak.

I was taking my two daughters, Marsha and Jasmine, clad in their $500 costumes (essentially a white T-shirt with the band's name and black shorts) to join with the other members of their band through streets already crowded with other people doing the same thing. I had succumbed to a virus that was so severe, harmful and hostile, that I believe the word 'virulent' derived from it, except that 'sick like a dog' should have been added with perhaps 'feeling to dead' as a lagniappe.

It must have been the virus, but my mind went back to what seemed like several centuries and I was a little boy in the cane field and coconut community of Carapichaima in Central Trinidad, and early one morning, before daybreak on what had to be carnival day, my cousin Joe and I jumped out of bed, woken by an increasingly loud clatter of many biscuit and oil tins and many voices raised in what we first thought was some kind of fight.

 

Demons in the mist

 

We stood at the side of the roads and could barely discern in the mist a group of what we thought were demons but later identified as residents of the nearby village of Orange Field in various stages of undress and inebriation who passed by in a cacophony of bottle, spoon, and mixed accompaniment shouting the words of the popular calypso song Drink JU-C (a popular soft drink) with the chorus, "In a calabash." Some of the men were in full display and Joe's eyes opened wide.

"Dey real?" he asked in shock. Even if they were not, there was a lot of old hose around.

My adventures in the J'Ouvert trade resumed many years after. I was interested in a band named Go Naked in the World, but found out that you had to pay for the costume. All costumes come with a ubiquitous 'band' or 'music' fee and some presume to be all-inclusive. Your fee includes food, but as my daughters experienced, the food they paid for in their $500 ran out - straight to the bank, I presume to join the profits on the T-shirts and shorts.

Since most of the rest of the paraphernalia was sponsored by a local beer manufacturer (a plastic cup and bandanna) and the only other item was a mask with some feathers, one must conclude that despite the attempt at anonymity and obfuscation, financially, there was indeed a domino effect.

The one I remember best was a gathering of the literati and glitterati in a band that was meant to be a delicious pun. A couple of the prominent figures in the band were recovering addicts and decided to spread the message and celebrate their status with a J'Ouvert band. From the moment we met, it was clear to me that the name and pun 'A Band On Drugs', a play on the word 'abandon', was in deep trouble.

It was not the members, but the steel band, that had been chosen to provide the musical accompaniment. There are many different disguises available to the masquerader on carnival day - masks of all description, paints and powders, wigs, moustaches and beards, dresses and stuffed bras even, but the one thing you cannot disguise is the smell of marijuana.

From the moment I stepped into the gathering crowd, doing a preliminary and tentative chip to warm up the legs and increase the circulation, I realised that the marijuana was in greater circulation than I was and had circulated several times already. Now this was nothing to sniff at. These were recovering addicts who, given the ways of Trinidad, started their slide to cocaine via marijuana, and here, in the half-darkness, could not be easily identified and in that anonymity and the familiar atmosphere could lapse into a relapse.

 

Cops on their own high

 

I know that on carnival (and most other days), the police tend to be on their own high from a combination of power and smuggled drinks passed on the sly to them by their buddies and batchies. But there we were, when daylight broke, heading east along the main drag, Independence Square, to the big stand full of people guarded by hundreds of police waiting to view the mas, and the marijuana smell rose to a new high, either from nervousness or the anticipation of the big event ahead.

We call it 'baddening' the head, and clearly, the heads of the panmen were badder than John Wayne and Lee Marvin combined, or Jason Statham on his own. They were obviously transported and transporting and playing to the beat of a definitely different drummer altogether.

Some time during my initial bout with the virus (which it won by a massive knockout by lifting me off my feet like George Foreman did to Joe Frazier), I tried reading. In good times or in bad times, this has been my way, my respite and my sanctuary. With this virus, though, it got mixed up with a lot of other stuff, but I distinctly remember reading about O'Shaughnessy's On the Preparations of the Indian Hemp, or Gunjah: Their Effects on the Animal System in Health, and Their Utility in the Treatment of Tetanus and Other Convulsive Diseases. Gunjah's other name, in India and among Indians is 'bhang'.

T.S. Eliot wrote, "This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper." It comes from the final stanza of his poem, The Hollow Men. In the starkness of the morning sunlight, I left the hollow men with their hollow pans and walked away, not with a bhang, but a whisper. "Ah gone," I muttered and left despondent.

- Tony Deyal was last seen looking at his daughter at J'Ouvert and watching his money jumping up.