Despite Grenada being a relatively small and quiet island, islanders sure know how to party especially at carnival time! Known locally as ‘feting’ or ‘playing a mas’ the biggest island-wide fete is the annual Spicemas carnival.
For two weeks, leading up to Spicemas which falls on the second Monday and Tuesday of August, the whole island is alive with concerts and competitions – in beauty, song, pan music and costume – in addition there are all kinds of parties hosted just about everywhere – beaches, fields, stadiums, boats, road junctions, restaurants, back yards, front yards, goat and cow pens (I kid you not!).
My favourite Spicemas event is the Traditional Mas Festival, a traditional costume competition celebrating historical carnival costumes. It is held in the town of Victoria in the parish of St Marks, on the West coast of Grenada. Victoria is a quaint and quiet fishing town with lovely wooden houses and a homely feel. It also boasts the recently opened Diamond Chocolate Factory which produces the delicious Jouvay Chocolate.
I made my way to Victoria on a bus from Grenada’s capital, St Georges. The journey took around 50 minutes from the main bus terminal and cost EC $5. Once in Victoria it was a short five minute walk, up Diamond Street, to Hero Square where the judging of the competition takes place.
When it comes to carnival costumes, we are accustomed to the ‘barely there’ bikinis and shorts of today but centuries ago masqueraders dressed for carnival very differently. They tended to be covered from head to foot and represented either creatures or mythical figures and most came with a distinctive dance or chant.
The traditional mas bands in Grenada tend to fall under one of the following categories: Shortknee, Wild Indians, Ole Mas, Vieux Croix, May Pole, Ju Ju Worriers and Apache Indians with each parish in Grenada having its own brand of traditional mas band and costume.
Past and present Grenada bands to have taken part in the traditional mas festival include: House of Justice, Hermitage Shortknee, Coast Guard Rebels, Demonic Angels, Waterloo Veteran Shortknee, Mt. Rich Shortknee, Tivoli Shortknee, Julien Fedon Foot Soliders, Telescope Shortknee, Telescope Apache, Invaders Apache, The Cultural Maypole, Windsor Forest Maypole, Red Rose Wild Indians, Northern Chantwells.
The afternoon kicks off with the Shortknee and Vieux Croix bands stomping, singing, banging tins and chanting their way up and down the streets of Victoria. This can go on for hours – a true display of both stamina and athleticism – before arriving at the final judging point in Hero Square where most spectators, like myself, gather.
The Shortknee is a particularly interesting Traditional Mas character because it is unique to the island of Grenada, no equivalent can be found anywhere else in the world. It is also a national icon with its form making up part of the logo for Spicemas Carnival.
The main function of the Shortknee is to protect the moral order of the country and the songs they chant can report on the wrongdoings of an individual, a village or society as a whole. There will be lots of slandering, denouncing and ridiculing – so listen carefully, you will learn a thing or two.
Shortknee costume, movements and chanting is thought to be inspired by blended traditions from Italy, France and Africa. An Italian theatrical form, popular from the 16th to 18th century called Commedia dell’arte was picked up by the French who brought this tradition to Grenada, as colonisers, from 1650 to 1762 and again from 1779 to 1783. It is thought that the Shortknee is influenced by a French character called Grenade Pierrot.
Shortknees are a joy to watch, vibrantly attired, dancing wildly, legs kicking high up into the air, ankle bells ringing out with every stomp, their long sleeves flailing from side-to-side. Sometimes they move quickly or maybe they stand in one spot swaying to the rhythm as they chant back and forth. They also throw white powder, usually talcum powder, over themselves and whoever happens to be near by, a fully engrossing and mesmeric experience for spectators.
So the next time you visit Grenada to jump up in carnival, be sure to take in some of the more local events, you will be in for a treat! To stay across all carnival related activities visit: www.spicemasgrenada.com
Here is a still from my you tube vlog on Grenada’s Traditional Mas Festival 2018. Please watch and enjoy!