GUYANA: Masquerade Gaff- A Conversation with William ‘Billy’ Pilgrim and I – By Ian E. Harris + video

  Dec 25, 2022 Kaieteur News – By Ian E. Harris

“Christmas comes but once a year
And everyone must have his share
But poor Brother Willy in the jail
Drinking sour ginger beer!

It happened one cold, overcast, December Friday some years ago in the then Invaders Steel Orchestra Pan Yard which was located on Charlotte Street.

William ‘Billy’ Pilgrim, now deceased, was at that time, the band’s Arranger and he was very good at what he did. Most people referred to him as a Musical Maestro as he was one of Guyana’s and the Region’s Cultural Icons. In fact, he was a Musical Composer and a Former Director of Music. He told us all when he first came into the pan yard as Arranger, to simply call him Billy. Ever since that day, that is how we always referred to him.         

“Fellas, we had a good jam today but just hold for a few minutes and you will see something special,” Billy said grinning wickedly at me and the other players in the band. Knowing from time to time, Billy would often break out of his professional character to become mischievous, we all burst out laughing to see what mischief was at hand.

No sooner had Billy spoken to us, the pan yard was swarmed by members of a prominent Masquerade Band at that time, who had been playing all day on the road but had also come up to play against us in musical rivalry.

“Masquerade Band meet Pan! Yes the boys from the Mighty Banks Invaders! Tonight we’re going to have a sound clash to see who has the best rhythm on the road,” said a now excited Billy.

A few minutes of small talk with us and other players from the Masquerade Band was soon transformed into a pan yard lime of ‘kittle and boom drums’, ‘pipe flutes’, ‘Mad Bull’, ‘Mother Sally’, ‘D Stilt Man’- all characters of a conventional Masquerade Band, and with our rhythm section of our band countering- attacking with ‘shots’

In most bands, conventional instruments apart from Singers consist of three drums, metal percussion (triangle), and the flute. The man who controlled the boom drum controlled the band.

Both the Masquerade and Steelpan Band genres have strong afro-centric roots but the older of the two genres is the Masquerade Band, and there is enough evidence to support this statement. But it was my gaff with Billy about a particular aspect of Masquerade Bands, in a corner in the pan yard that night, that has motivated me to tell you what I know about Masquerade Bands.

Traditionally the emergence of the Masquerade Band was a signal that Christmas had officially arrived. It was said that children gleefully wanted to see the ‘Flouncers’ but literally ran and hid if the band had a ‘Mad Bull’ and ‘Mother Sally’. But the character that stole the show was the ‘long lady’ (men on stilts which made them some seven feet tall, dressed as women and wearing a mask and wig.).

Masquerade Bands have their roots in West Africa and formed part of the traditions of the African slaves who were brought to Guyana during the slave trade. Slaves, who were forbidden to practice their traditions on a regular day, were slightly less restricted during the Christmas season and were allowed to visit other plantations and revel with other slaves-drumming and dancing in the streets was also allowed at this time.

On plantations, the Ashanti Tribe and other Africans were known to use the ‘Tom Tom’ drums to speak to fellow slaves and to plan uprisings and that drum soon became a banned item. The penalty for being found with one was severe. However, Slave Masters believe that British-type regimental drums could not be used for ‘speaking’ and these became the musical instruments of the slaves along with flutes. The colourful breast-plate tops used by ‘Flouncers’ also  have a British origin.

On the road with the Masquerade Band pelting out sweet, pulsating, and infectious music, it was an expectation that ‘Flouncers’ when playing the mas, must pick up a dollar  note without breaking a step. It was also standard for the Masquerader, flouncing with his palm outstretched, to not wear a smile with the explanation being that the ‘Flouncer’ is coming to you to fulfill a need, and the absence of a smile often symbolizes a state of sorrow more than of passion.

The dancing, drumming and elaborate costumes and effigies of conventional Masquerade Bands reflected religious festival traditions of the Ibo and Yoruba tribes of West Africa during the time of the Harmattan and harvest celebrations. The Ibo and Yoruba believed that this was the time when their gods, dressed in costumes and masks, came to visit and perform dances.

While the slaves danced for entertainment, many of the spiritual traditions were retained in the masks and symbols that represented ancestors and gods, along with the acrobatics and costumes, which represented, or perhaps theatrically portrayed, stories of strength, agility, fertility, battle, evil, and terror.

Today the traditions and presence of the Masquerade Bands are under threat, but may the spirits of the Masquerade Band continue to live and grow stronger despite challenges. Season Greetings Everyone!

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