Island Effect interviewed Saint Lucia’s well-known “Auntie June”, officially June King-Frederick, who has determinedly led a revival of Saint Lucia’s traditional Christmas Masquerade. For many of us, me included, we were ‘terrified’ as kids when Papa Djab and his entourage would show up around town at Christmas, so read on and learn what it’s all about…
Finola Jennings Clark: June, tell us, Masquerade – what is this tradition about?
June King-Frederick: This tradition consists of characters who dance to the music of the traditional masquerade band, and characters that are not accompanied by a music band but move to the rhythms of chants and perform rituals in an exciting street theatre performance on stage.
FJC: Where did it come from, who are the characters and what’s the ‘story’ about?
JKF: Traditional Masquerade has its roots in Africa with adaptations of European traditions. As Africans were brought to the Caribbean during slavery, they brought traditions from their homeland and used whatever they saw to tell something of their predicament.
Characters who dance to the music of the Masquerade band include Masquerade dancers, Pay Bannann (pronounced Pie Banan, made of dry banana leaves), Chouval Bwa (pronounced shooval bwa made with a wooden horse frame within which the character stands with costume draped over the frame) and stilt walkers, Uncle Sam (dressed as Uncle Sam of the US) and his St. Lucian wife Seraphina.
The characters who perform rituals on the street and are not accompanied by a music Band include, Papa Djab (the all-powerful leader), Mary Ansèt (his pregnant wife), Acrobat (second in command to Papa Djab), Ti Djabs (little devils who do Papa Djab’s bidding), Kabwit (Black Djab).
In the early days, all masqueraders were men who role-played as males and females according to their characters. During slavery, slaves used to have moonlight dances around the plantations, from house to house and then to a large field. They would perform with characters they had from the motherland and as time progressed, with freedom, the performances became community performances in the streets for the people with whom they worked.
The Death and Resurrection rituals are all dramatic and full of intrigue, with Papa Djab using his four-fingered staff to kill and his long arrow-point tail to revive. The chants for the ritual follow a particular sequence. The only character who does not die as he is far removed from Papa Djab is Kabwit (the Black Djab).
FJC: When it is traditionally practised?
Our Masquerade is a Christmas tradition. Papa Djab and his entourage only come out at Christmas time, although the Masquerade dancers perform during the year at private and public functions.
FJC: What has changed in modern masquerade compared to the older tradition?
Long ago, all masquerade performers were men. They would wear a variety of ladies’ clothes that included dresses, “stepping” or petticoats and large frilly panties and would dance to show off their undergarments in a way that women would never do. They would wear cone-shaped hats made of bamboo strips, brown paper and wire, covered with beautiful coloured strips of crêpe paper or cloth.
Modern Masqueraders wear uniformed costumes made of brightly coloured cloth with white cotton and lace pantaloons although the pretty cone-shaped hats have remained the same. Both males and females dress as characters who perform to the music of the masquerade band.
Masqueraders would perform around the streets of Castries from Christmas Day right through to Assou Skwè on January 1st and 2nd, although small groups of masqueraders would perform in their communities earlier than Christmas Day.
Presently, the Masquerade Season begins on December 13th and performances consist of a parade in the north of the island on that day, and private and public performances continue during the month of December right through to January 1st and 2nd on Assou Skwè. The Masqueraders do not belong to a particular community but are performing groups and members of dance companies.
There is however, a Djab Dèwò movement found in Soufriere that have remained true to form and perform during the Season in their community.
FJC: Would you be so kind as to tell us some of the call-and-responses in Kwéyòl and the English translations?
Call: Ohhhh Langlitèèèè
Response: Mi Djab la
Call: Woy Woy
Response: Mi Djab-la
Call: Ki lè-i yé
Call: Bay Djab-la manjé an timanmay
Response: Yonn dé twa timanmay
Call: Piti kon nou piti
Call: Sé lanfè nou ka alé
Call: Bay Djab tizing
Response: Tizing, tizing ankon
Call: Ohhhh Englandddd!!
Response: Look at the Devil
Call: Woy Woy
Response: Look at the Devil!
Call: What time is it?
Call: Give the devil a child to eat
Response: One, two, three children
Call: Little Ones Little Ones
Call: We are going to Hell
Call: Give a little something to the devil
Response: A little something, just a little something
JKF: Please note that some of these chants were used to signal specific activities and rituals.
FJC: I’ve read and heard that people think it’s a pagan or dangerous practice, what do you say to them?
JKF: Our devils are mischievous devils, and their street theatre performances are designed to instill fear especially in children and to create excitement with their rituals. They are not evil devils as created by religious teachings.
The slaves used the European Christmas tradition to tell the story of the evil of slavery. The costume and character of the main devil according to our local stories, was patterned off Santa Claus and his white face and white hands denotes the white planter who the slaves considered evil because of what was done to them and their families during slavery. To complete the story, his pregnant wife is Mary, patterned off the European Christian Virgin Mary, the Ti Djabs are the black slaves who did the bidding of the planter and the European Acrobat was used to show the infighting among the colonial classes while Kabwit is the Black Djab or the strong black character whose character is a developing one, who is physically outside of the entourage but who strikes whenever he has to.
The performances then and now are exciting and fun filled for children and adults everywhere.
:FJC: What’s your role in the current popularity of Masquerade. You are somewhat of an advocate, even more than that…what gives? Why the passion for this?
JKF: Simply put, Christmas traditions during my childhood included real Christmas trees, fruit cake, sorrel, Christmas carols, midnight Mass at the Cathedral and traditional Masquerade. On my return to St. Lucia in the early 1990’s I could not find traditional Masquerade. I was horrified. It meant that children had grown up and were growing up without this exciting tradition full of fun and fear, so I tried to put it back on the road.
First, I found folks who understood Papa Djab and his rituals and created an event, the National Trust’s Christmas Folk Fiesta while I was there as Administrative Assistant. At Folk Research Centre I then wrote a proposal with the support of the Chairman Patricia Charles with assistance from Alwin Bully then of UNESCO, and research and documentation began.
With my kids from the television programme KiddiCrew.com and the late Athenatius LaBorde and his Lapo Kabwit and the Silver Shadow dancers, we brought Masquerade back on the street in the late 1990’s early 2000’s. I produced a children’s activity book with DVD on Masquerade, started Project Masq’ Camp to teach in schools and now have a young adult group of masqueraders YIA (Youth in Arts) Masqueraders. Performances have been on the streets, for private and public functions since 2010 along with the masqueraders from the Silver Shadows Dance Company.
I am passionate about the survival of this wonderful tradition, unique to us in many ways even though Masquerade can be found in most of the Caribbean countries and beyond. I continue to teach where needed and my dream is to have groups in every school performing annually in a Traditional Masquerade Festival.
I am presently working on the documentation of our Masquerade Music which if not recorded and scored will soon be non-existent as the machine-made version is already on the airwaves. The musicians like Niger Nestor, Mr. Jean, Jason Alcide, Cuthbert Popo and young flautists understand the uniqueness of the trills of the flute, the rolls of the snare (kettle) drum, the infectious rhythms of the bass drum and the local shak-shak, and these must not be lost. My aim is not only to preserve it but to ensure it is taught to the present and upcoming generations.
FJC: You’ve been active in culture for quite a while – can you tell us a little about your career(s) in culture?
Love of my traditions and culture was passed on to me by my parents, Winville and Thelma King, historian and educator who took us to every cultural activity and taught about as many traditions as they could remember. I developed a love for everything that is ours, and my work with the St. Lucia National Trust and Folk Research Centre ignited my passion even more. I participated in Folk Dances, attended La Wòz Séances, and was part of the Jounen Kwéyòl Documentation Crew…
I am first and foremost a dancer (was) who started in St. Lucia at the age of 7 with black American Eloise Coker at one of the first workshops hosted by the St. Lucia Arts Guild under Mrs. Pat Charles. I continued dancing in Barbados, St. Vincent, Montserrat, St.Kitts and Antigua.
In St. Kitts, I co-founded Vivace Dance Company with Julie Martin and Lester Grant, introduced a Creative Arts class to Basseterre High School and started BHS Culture Club after a successful design and execution of an Independence dance production “Our Journey”. When I returned to St. Lucia I focussed on bringing traditional Masquerade back to the streets, and creating fun programmes for children…Kids Safari Summer, Christmas Folk Fiesta, ”Folk Theatre and along with my studio/videographer partner the late Fimber Anius, “KiddiCrew.com”, a children’s television programme for kids, by kids. I created branches of that programme to provide us with a more varied content, namely KiddiCrew Travel Club and KiddiCrew Summer Programme. I also created a programme for La Clery Summer Fun, managed by Dahlia François.
My focus on Masquerade, coming out of the FRC project produced Project Masq’ Camp which was a Masquerade teaching tool in the schools, culminating every year in a performance of Masqueraders in the north of the island.
KiddiCrew Theatre Company came much later which produced one Roderick Walcott production, “The Legend of Tom Fool” and then Youth in Arts (YIA) Theatre Company the umbrella company for KiddiCrew Theatre Company of 7-12 year olds, YIA Theatre Crew (13+) and YIA Masqueraders.
Our Youth in Arts (YIA) Theatre Crew has produced two other Roderick Walcott plays, “Papa Diable, the Devil at Christmas” and “Shrove Tuesday March”, and a production by Kendel Hippolyte “Pan Beating”, along with short pieces for Dinner Theatre, including a story by Dawn French. “Masquerade Master” was the 2018 Production written by Drenia Frederick.
In 2019, YIA Theatre Company has focussed on documenting the Masquerade and will be working towards a Dinner Theatre piece that will merge theatre and traditional Masquerade.
The Cultural Development Foundation (CDF) contracted me a few years ago to create and manage a new children’s summer programme that includes training in script writing from a story line based on one or more of our cultural forms and culminates in a stage performance. In 2019, YSAP or Youth Summer Arts Platform as it is called worked towards presenting a film based on the history of St. Lucia
FJC: Can you tell us any stories of how your work with kids in these areas has led to positive changes in them or even in others, their family, public perceptions and so on?
JKF: The Vivace Dance Company is still in existence in St. Kitts and now has a company for little ones and young adults, thanks to the hard work of Julie Martin who is the only one of the three founders still living in St. Kitts.
My work with students in the region created in many of them an interest in their history and the Arts and, in St. Lucia. The children’s programmes also created an interest in their culture and traditions. The television programme opened their eyes to things of interest around them and in other countries visited for shoots. Even adults would comment on how much they learnt about St. Lucia because of our programmes. Most of my hosts for the television show have developed a self-confidence that has served them well in their careers in St. Lucia and overseas.
The theatre Productions provided an opportunity for youngsters to perform on a big stage with all the varying experiences, and has instilled a love and appreciation for theatre, the writers and directors, and most of all the discipline they need in any sphere of life. One of them has gone on to be a writer and actor whose work has won awards in his country of residence; others are performers and keep me abreast of their progress.
The Theatre audience has grown since our 2015 Production and folks look forward to our performances.
Continuous teaching has led to increased support for our traditional masquerade and many students of Theatre Arts in secondary and tertiary institutions use traditional masquerade as their subject of choice for one or more of their papers. I continue to teach classes and work for the continued development of this rich and exciting traditional art form.
FJC: Well June, thanks so much for shedding some light on this fabulous revived tradition. I hope you get lots of new people interested in taking part both as Masqueraders and as audiences. Please be sure to tell us when and where your group will be performing and we’ll make sure to put it up on our What’s On in Saint Lucia Calendar