The Blue Devil is one of the few traditional Carnival characters that has endured over the years, withstanding the proliferation of ‘pretty mas’, to carve its place in T&T’s history books.
Covered in blue paint, the Devil dances and prances along the streets on Carnival Monday, striking fear in the hearts of spectators and mas players alike.
In a recent interview with Guardian Media, Eustace Pierre, the founder of the Undertakers-the Paramin Blue Devils band explained how the Blue Devil got its colour and how the art of being a Blue Devil has changed over the years.
“The devil is traditionally a brown character but Paramin didn’t have cane, so our forefathers were instrumental in getting to use ‘Blue’, Crown Blue that you wash your clothes with to white it, they mixed it with grease after a process of boiling it after how many hours to put on your skin and we just get the simple thing of buying Samaroo’s body paint and putting it on your skin,” Pierre said.
The Undertakers, Pierre said, have been able to secure a spot for the Blue Devil in most Carnival fetes, as they are often hired to blow fire at fete entrances and on-stage when artistes perform.
During the interview, other members of the band struck out the Blue Devil rhythm on metal biscuit tins. Pierre said the tins are filled with paper and the paper is then set alight and left to burn to tune them, a tradition that has endured for as many years as the Devil has been dancing.
He said growing up the hills of Paramin, playing the Devil came as a rite of passage to him and many others.
“We have got it in Paramin, we can sell ourselves besides the seasonings, we can sell ourselves this way in entertaining people as a traditional character in terms of entertaining people,” he said.
If you have ever seen a Blue Devil in action or heard Pay de Devil by Winston Bailey (The Mighty Shadow), you know the Devil must be paid when he accosts you on the road.
Pierre explained that paying the Devil is not just about handing over your money when he blocks your path on the road.
“The devil not supposed to take money from somebody driving in a car, we eh begging, you supposed to dance for that money, you supposed to throw it on the ground and the devil has to dance, the devil comes enslaved to that money,” he said.
Being a Devil does not come without its own stigma, Pierre said, as the person portraying the character is often viewed as evil. But Pierre said in order to play the Devil, you must know how to separate portrayal from manifestation.
“The first thing we formulate as a devil, is a line, there is a line between what is portrayal and what is manifestation so the rhythm can manifest you as much as how much your spirit is into it,” he explained.
He said in the early days of the Paramin Blue Devils, frogs and snakes were a part of the play and Devils could often be seen with a frog dangling from their mouths as they danced.
However, he said time has refined and dignified Blue Devils for their audiences.
“We are doing it now with a little more decency and respect for the patrons out there, there is a rite of no touching so as the devil, you are not supposed to touch patrons, so you can invoke fear up to a point of ‘Oh gosh, he go touch meh’ but no, that is what we test. So as children, the devil would have tested that in you as a child, they would have come to see your fear level and during the year your mother would have said, I will let the devil come for you so we used to pay homage to that as a discipline,” he said.
Fire-breathing is also a major part of the Blue Devil portrayal. It involves taking a mouthful of kerosene and spitting it into the air over an open flame, in this case, a flambeau, to create a plume of fire in the air.
While it is one of the more fascinating aspects of the Blue Devil performance, Pierre said it is very dangerous and should not be practiced by those who are not experienced.
“I would say its a dangerous thing to do, you have to have your wits about you. You would have learned in your shower at home a long time ago to put water in your mouth and blow to make a rainbow, it comes like you are doing that with pitch oil or kerosene. We line our stomachs with milk sometimes to help but it is something you shouldn’t just be trying if you don’t know what you are doing.”
Pierre said his band does its part in keeping the tradition of the Blue Devils alive and well in Paramin by ensuring that the upcoming generation learns the ins-and-outs of the portrayal.
“A child in the neighbourhood, five, six or seven years old, is somebody who might be influenced because their father might come out for Carnival, it’s like a way to keep the children constructive, like come, I go beat a pan for alyuh and alyuh go dance. We teach them to beat the pan, so in that way we ensure the generation down the road have a little skillset as how the pan is beat, what they do to tune the pan, what you say, how you bawl, how you blow the fire,” he said.
Pierre said being able to ‘free-up’ on the road for Carnival is one of the best parts of being a Devil.
And while he said modern-day Blue Devils are a little more gentle with spectators, Pierre has a warning for those who line up to watch the Devil play: “You can’t tell the devil how to behave, you can’t play mas and fraid powder, you coming to be entertained and that is what we do.”