Real Mas: Costume and Culture at Mas Dominik

February 26, 2012

Words and Photos by Erin MacLeod—

Over the past week, the Eastern Caribbean spent quite a bit of time out in the streets partying. Trinidad and Tobago has, by far, the most famous Carnival, but the island of Dominica, located between Martinique and Guadeloupe, hosts its own unique version.

Dubbed the “Real Mas,” it’s a carnival that maintains focus on traditional costumes and community involvement. Carnival itself kicked off with J’ouvert on Monday morning, followed by a youth parade, calypso road march and costume parade, ending with Wednesday’s Téwé Vaval in the Kalinago territory, where a coffin, supposedly containing the spirit of the Carnival, is buried. It was also the indigenous Kalinago, who led the parade opening the Carnival season on January 31. The Kalinago people, who Columbus referred to as “Carib,” number about 3,500, out of Dominica’s population of just over 73,000. Columbus was also responsible for the name “Dominica,” as he landed on a Sunday. The Kalinago still call the island by its original name: “Wai’tu kubuli” (And the local beer is known as Kubuli). In 1903, the northeastern coastal portion of the island was designated Kalinago territory. Under pressure at various times throughout the last century, the Kalinago have maintained hold of the land and their culture.

Nadira Lando, Miss Dominica

Making this point clear was Nadira Lando, who on Friday, Feb. 17 took the crown of Dominica’s Carnival Queen. Her Carnival costume featured imagery and elements of her traditional Kalinago culture and her bejeweled, flowing, fluffy red gown out-sparkled the other contenders. But what really pushed Lando over the top for the win was the talent segment of the competition. She presented a monologue discussing her people’s history: “They have been taken advantage of and have over the years been fooled, disrespected, used and abused by people,” she said, “But today Caribs will no longer be fooled. Caribs are now VIPs and have gone to the next level. They are teachers, doctors and more!” She finished her performance with a riff on the tourist board slogan “I am Dominica, are you?,” saying “I am Kalinago; I am Dominica, and so are you!”

Dominica’s mas also maintains a connection with culture of the past. The smaller (some might say manageable) scale carnival marches through the streets of the capital Roseau, with little divide between those playing and those observing the mas. Bwa bwa (folks on stilts), lapo kabwit (drums), and sensay costumes–shredded rope or fabric costume featuring horns and masks–have all been a part of the various parades for as long and longer than anyone can remember. Sensay is from the Twi word “senseh,” meaning feathered, and the frayed costumes are similar to those used in numerous West African cultural ceremonies. Men dress as women (some in the context of absurd gender-bending Pappy Show weddings), and both bats and devils roam the streets.

Devils in repose

Sensay man resting

Immediately following Carnival, Dominican government cultural consultant Adwin Bully suggested moving the Carnival date to the summer so as not to compete with other Carnivals. Given the strong connection between culture and Carnival in the country, it seems unlikely. And, after all, every Carnival has something unique on offer. It won’t be a “Real Mas” at any other time.