MASQUERADE JAMBOREE/Festival of Guyanese Masquerade: Post # 6
In 2014, Stanley Greaves, was presented with a Lifetime Award for his achievement in Guyanese art. A December 2014 news release from the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport stated that the high honor was in recognition of his distinguished artistic career. Greaves celebrated his 80th birthday a year later.
Also in 2014, four (4) patterns for Guyanese masquerade costumes, prepared by Stanley Greaves were used in the costume design workshop organized by the Guyana Cultural Association of New York, Inc. and the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport. The three-day workshop held at the E.R. Burrowes School of Art was in response to concerns expressed during the 2012 Masquerade Lives symposium about the unfinished look of contemporary masquerade costumes compared to those of the past
Masquerade has a special place in Greaves’ aesthetic consciousness. He grew up close to the Cummingsburg masquerade scene. His father, Barbadian-born, “Sweetie” Greaves, was in demand as a masquerade drummer and a costume maker—“the triangular hats, the breast pieces, and aprons.” Greaves’ painting “Masquerade” was celebrated in the 1960 edition of The Chronicle Christmas Annual.
During the symposium, many participants said that Guyanese masquerade costumes, especially those worn by bands seen in the city during masquerade season, were lacking finish. This situation, some participants felt, contributed to the perception that these bands were nuisances that tied up traffic and extorted money from motorists. Others pointed out that economic conditions and public policy contributed to the decline in the quality of masquerade costumes.
Masquerade life is a hard life.
At one time in the history of masquerade in Guyana, urban masquerade bands were called Santapee or Centipede Bands by the authorities—suggestive of their so-called evil and criminal nature. Guyanese-born Dr. Juanita De Barros offers another perspective. She has suggested that Guyanese masqueraders, like their Caribbean counterparts, may have named themselves—an assertion of their right to define themselves. As we will see later, Guyana’s masquerade costumes share many similarities with regional traditions.
In the post-independence years, the state was pro-active in ameliorating the situation facing Guyanese masqueraders. State patronage, operationalized through the Pilgrim brothers (Frank and Billy), has been the dominant model since independence. Over the years, the state has been an infrequent employer, provider of materials for costumes, and the funder of the prizes for the junior and senior masquerade competitions held during the annual Mashramani season.
Guyana masquerade has always been a community-based Christmas tradition. Historians of the Christmas Masquerades in the Caribbean associate the origins of the festival with Christmas on the plantations during slavery. The enslaved Africans were given time off during the season. Many donned costumes and masks representing their ancestral roots and contemporary reality to reflect and comment on the human condition. They combined dance movements and parading styles West and Central Africa masquerade traditions with some European elements, especially Scottish and Irish dance steps (see Scottish Highlander and Boy Robin in Post # 2 in this series) to create something new. An important stop in the parade was a performance the grounds of the “Big House.”
Writing in 1899, Frank Van Sertima, reported that masquerade bands were among the groups of performers that visited neighborhoods in Georgetown during the Christmas season. Their circuit included the homes and business places of anticipated patrons. The other group identified by Van Sertima were the Portuguese troubadours.
The Christmas season was crucial in the economic life of masquerade bands. This brief reflection on the economic practices of the Boysie Sage All Stars will illustrate this harsh reality. When Julio Thijs joined the All Stars in 1969, it became an eight (8)-person band. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the band’s circuit included visits to the homes and business places of known patrons. At the end of each day, the “Bag Man,” invariably the Fife Man or the Kittle Man, would publicly count the money collected and distribute it in nine parts. One part was for “Mother.” “Mother” represented the band’s investment fund. Money from this fund was used for costumes and other materials. Money from the fund also supported a rainy day fund from which members could access short-term loans. Money from the fund was also invested in a business. Boysie Sage was a vendor of fruit, vegetables, and fish in Albouystown. The “Mother” fund is another informal saving scheme, similar to the “box hand” which characterized African economic practices during and after enslavement.
Migration of rich urban benefactors, along with the seasonality of state support may have contributed to the demise of Georgetown-based masquerade bands. By 2012, Georgetown had become an important stop for masquerade bands from the East Coast.
For Greaves, it is the Flat Foot Flouncer’s costume that defined the masquerade band. Here are some photographs of Guyana’s masquerade costumes. We start with the patterns Stanley Greaves prepared for the 2014 masquerade costume design workshop.
Support a masquerade band this season. This post is another contribution of the GCA to the Festival of Guyana Masquerade.
Vibert C. Cambridge. Musical Life in Guyana: History and Politics of Controlling Creativity. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015.
Juanita De Barros. Order and Place in a Colonial Society: Patterns of Struggle and Resistance in Georgetown, British Guiana, 1889-1924. Montreal: McGill University Press, 2003.
Frank Van Sertima. “Christmas in Georgetown.” In Scenes and Sketches of Demerara Life. Georgetown, 1899.