The Making of the Mas
Sadly, many of us have forgotten that VAVAL is not CARNIVAL
VAVAL is the SPIRIT of CARNIVAL… the GOD of CARNIVAL just as the
greco-roman god, Bacchus, is the god of bacchanal in western cultures.
The accurate understanding of VAVAL is VERY important because it shows how successfully our ancestors -the descendants of slaves in a repressive colonial society – created their own mythology along with new rituals of community and celebration to replace those traditions that had been outlawed and systematically denied them.
This they did, right under the noses of the colonial establishment, by aligning their rituals with those of the dominant and oppressive Catholic church.
Thus the “pagan” rituals of CARNIVAL became part of Lent … and the “pagan” spirit VAVAL became part of Ash Wednesday.
This process is called syncretization.
For oppressed cultures, it is the art of hiding your culture under the symbolism of the dominant, oppressive, imposed culture.
This is the same strategy deployed by the friendly societies of La Woz and La Mag’wit whose colorful, often ribald celebrations begin with morning church services.
Before the black celebrants mocked and parodied their white colonial masters, they went to church like good little Catholics and received the tacit blessing which could not – in good faith – be denied them by the white French priests. Remember, these same priests – Spanish and then French – were agents of the colonial oppressors.
But this was no funeral. This was a third day of cathartic celebration … a last lap … a ritualistic dancing back into darkness … a dancing which had begun in darkness on the night of Dimanche Gras … and emerged into light on Carnival Monday.
TAYWAY VAVAL was therefore full of chanting and percussive instruments: the beating of utensils, pans, bottles, iron, etc. They would parade through the town, led by an effigy which they called VAVAL… the Spirit of Carnival … a male figure in a dark “goll” or suit, made of stuffed clothes, and remnants of carnival. The parade would pass through town, specifically in front of the Catholic cathedral, then proceed to the very end of Micoud street which was – at that time – also the place where the town ended … where land met water … where daylight met darkness … all highly symbolic… our version of Golgotha.
The parade would pass through town, specifically in front of the Catholic cathedral, then proceed to the very end of Micoud street which was – at that time – also the place where the town ended … where land met water … where daylight met darkness … all highly symbolic… our version of Golgotha.
Hundreds of people would dress in Black and White – the colors of mourning – to signify the death of frivolity and festive things during Lent.
Always fearful of rebellion, the white establishment would not otherwise tolerate any gathering of black people in large numbers, nor the making of loud music, the beating of drums, the wanton consumption of alcohol and the singing of bold, licentious songs. Such things could ignite fuses of festering discontent.
The colonial class, knew full well that as a minority, they only held power by intimidation, economic domination and by the threat of state sponsored violence against dissenters. More that anything else, they feared the sharing of strategic information among blacks, so festivities of any kind were discouraged because they offered too much opportunity for the fermentation of revolt.
But the masses had their own weapons. They eroded the semblance of white superiority by making a mockery of their insubstantial pomp and splendor. Sharpened tongues cut worse than sharpened cutlasses.
And so it came to pass that the RITUAL called TAYWAY VAVAL … the burying of the Spirit of Carnival traditionally took place in St. Lucia every Ash Wednesday at sundown.
That area is now known as Queens Lane, but its alternative and more common name was Shit Alley. That was where townspeople, lacking proper sanitation, went to throw their night soil – their banchay – in the predawn half-light of each morning. The authorities would hardly care what else went on there.
With the sun setting in the mouth of the Castries harbour, VAVAL would be set on fire and left to drift upon the water into the dying sun. It was a perfect ending to Carnival and another “JUK” in the tender flesh of the white establishment.
And so… as in so many other instances … our subversive black culture found a way to survive, to celebrate, to merge its rituals of resistance and revolution with those of the dominant faiths…Catholicism and Capitalism.
We did this so successfully that TAYWAY VAVAL became accepted as the ceremonial extension of the religious ritual of ASHES.
Unfortunately, we are forgetting… Despite the replacement of the white colonial establishment by a black post-colonial establishment, our elected leaders continue to frustrate cultural and creative expression.