A veteran bandleader fears that traditional ole mas is in danger of being wiped off the Carnival calendar and is calling for measures to be put in place to revive the art form.
Val Ramsingh, leader of Blue Boys, one of the oldest traditional ole mas J’Ouvert bands in the country, is determined to keep showcasing and preserving the culture.
“This is our 38th consecutive year of traditional ole mas which is dying in San Fernando and we are refusing to give up because we believe it is something worth fighting for,” he said.
Ramsingh said except for a few traditional characters spotted in Port-of-Spain for J’Ouvert, ole mas in the capital city is dead and he does not want that to happen in the southern city. Regarded as south’s ole mas champions, Blue Boys has won the title for 32 years, including 24 consecutive times.
He said out of 32 J’Ouvert bands registered in San Fernando last year, only one and a half were traditional ole mas bands.
This year Ramsingh’s presentation is, Ah Blue Pollyma, and as usual, the band will be accompanied by a steelband.
“We have placards and props and we portray street theatre, but over the years they have been chucking aside, hustling us off the stage,” he said.
Reminding the public and stakeholders about the importance of J’Ouvert traditional ole mas, Ramsingh said in the colonial days Carnival was the only time of the year that people got a chance to mock their masters and governors. They would use paint and other things to disguise themselves.
“But, of course, we know how thin-skinned governments of today are, both of them, and Blue Boys have no sacred cows,” he said.
Ramsingh said it is not uncommon for his band to face political victimization.
“We are stubborn in preserving our culture,” he said as he recalled when the late Holly Betaudier fought for the revival of parang. Betaudier got a business to sponsor a truck which he used as a mobile parang caravan that went to the different communities. Betaudier, a radio and television personality, was also on the airwaves begging people to participate in and support parang.
He said in years gone by there were at least four traditional ole mas competitions leading up to J’Ouvert.
Ramsingh recalled: “A couple of years ago Bmobile sponsored San Fernando Carnival to the tune of $900,000 and that is when they had the present Carnival Committee . . . change the dynamics of the mas to bring in modern mas. They gave prize money ten times the amount they gave us which was $2,500 and they gave $25,000 for modern mas which doesn’t belong in J’Ouvert.”
He complained that J’Ouvert traditional ole mas is being replaced by bikini and beads.
“They are going to destroy the traditional ole mas. You have Monday evening mas, you have Monday night mas and you have Tuesday mas. What you interfere with J’Ouvert for? But they did not have the creativity, the experience to bring an ole mas band so they put modern mas bikini and beads,” he said.
Ramsingh said the traditional artform is not attractive to young people because it is not being properly marketed. He suggested that a programme be introduced in primary schools with members of his band or another band teaching and training the children in the art form.
While he agrees that change is important, Ramsingh said critical aspects of Trinidad Carnival ought not to be compromised.