Grenada shows off its Shortknee mas


Carnival is a ritual of reversal, a kaleidoscope re-enactment of society’s power struggles and a cultural stage on which the triumph and lustful flesh mainly of working class people make way for the advent of soul, says cultural historian, Caldwell Taylor.

“Carnival is about overthrowing the existing order and it’s about reversion and reversal,” he said at an event last week at the St. Lawrence Hall to present a cultural exhibit titled, “Showcasing the Shortknee: The Iconic Image of Grenada’s Traditional Carnival. “It’s about envisioning a new world. On Carnival Day, the masquerader attempts to re-live the social relations in a particular country. Carnival is about jump up, dance and ways of re-making the world.”

Taylor suggested that the annual Caribana celebrations that started in 1967 used the Trinidad & Tobago carnival as its template.

“What is interesting about this is that Trinidad & Tobago was the last country in the Caribbean to have a carnival and that had to do with the country’s  history and the fact that it did not become British until 1797,” he said. “By that time, Grenada had had a carnival for over 100 years.”

He said the mask-wearing Shortknee is a compelling icon of Grenada’s annual carnival and a living synthesis of the country’s cultural history, drawing on masquerade traditions that have been made in Grenada, the rest of the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.

The word Shortknee was coined in the 1920s when Creole English was supplanting French patois as the language of the Grenadian people and the Shortknee is a clear reference to the masqueraders’ knee breeches.

The Shortknee, said Taylor, wears a wire screen mask over a powder-whitened face. The character fully covered from head to toe, with a white bath towel on the head to give the masquerade a hooded look and women’s stocking covering the Shortknee’s lower legs.

“The Shortknee mask is the most important item of his costume ensemble because in African cultures that came to Grenada from West and West Central Africa, a mask suggests the presence of a dead person,” Taylor said. “A masquerader who wears a mask is impersonating a dead person so one has to be extremely careful in the presence of a masked person in an African-influenced culture.”

Taylor said Shortknees appear in bands consisting of between 30 and 40 masked and identically dressed men who are led by a captain who recruits members, identifies the fabric for the band’s costume, schedules pre-carnival practice sessions and composes the refrains to be sung on Carnival Day.

This year’s Grenada Carnival celebrations end on August 11.

Grenada’s honorary Consul General in Toronto, Jenny Gumbs, collaborated with the Caribana committee and city councillor Michael Thompson to stage the exhibit.

T & T Consul General Michael Lashley, St. Kitts/Nevis honorary Consul General John Allen, Member of Parliament Jim Karygiannis and Caribana’s Festival Management Committee Operations general manager, Sam Lewis, attended the oral and visual art presentation. 

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