The object presented here is a can from a popular drinks producer. The drink long-ago consumed, the empty can has been customised for carnival use as a drinking vessel, by the welded addition of a wire handle constructed for two-finger grip.
Along the route the mas player will constantly need to quench their thirst, and the practised player will have their own mug ready on them to accept any water, or the traditional carnival spirit of rum, offered along the way.
This can was given me in Trinidad Carnival 1989 by born Trinidadian carnivalist Rose-Lee Brown, then a teacher and now a lawyer. I have tied the can to my waist since then at many a carnival at Notting Hill, quenching my thirst from it and drinking her health.
Participants at Notting Hill Carnival are keen customisers. Possibly the mas band T-shirt is the most popular item to customise, with the original standard T transformed to individual taste and invention through cutting away sections of cloth, lopping off or fringeing sleeves and creating patterns through scissor-slitting.
Carnival designers are sometimes keen to control customising that may ‘interfere’ with the overall appearance and design of a band and its costuming. Other designers may think ahead and take account of a player’s needs; for example, rather than leaving players to come ‘on the road’ with their own bags for their personal things, they may ‘design in’ a shoulder bag that merges with, or complements, the costuming.
Originally in carnival, players made their individual decisions about the character they would play and each designed and made his own costume. Playing mas was a very personal matter and of enormous importance to the individual psychologically and in terms of self-esteem. The novel by Earl Lovelace, The Dragon Can’t Dance gives a remarkable insight on the essential nature of such autonomy.
Today, few if any, choose their individual mas to make themselves and to play on their own or in a small group. Most join a band whose designs they like or to which they have a special loyalty, paying for the costume to be made for them. Perhaps customising, whether with T-shirts, drinking vessels, bags, nail colour or footwear, represents the survival of many people’s desire to play a mas that has something of themselves in it, and that serves a personal need to contribute to creating the mas they play.