The judge's mas.. tales from a strange land


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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 03 Mar 96

“How did the judging go?” I asked casually, poking my head out of the car window. “A farce, they gave us sheets and then said don’t worry to fill them, and they just in it for the whisky and... and... and...” The words were tumbling out, in a breathless and unstoppable torrent. I got out of the car and talked for an hour. I recount what he told me because he is a respected Carnival practitioner, had nothing to lose or gain and I believe him. There must be other sides to it, but this is his story.


People are you ready for Carnival?

Alan (not his real name) was a Carnival judge this year, who saw the ad, sent in a CV, sat before a panel, and was recruited as one of the 120 Carnival judges. This was the first time in years that the process has been thrown open, a stipend offered “to recruit good people.” And this was the best thing they could have done. A closed circuit of people, it seems, had been judging for the past 10, 15, 20 years. At first all went well. All 120 judges had to attend compulsory seminars. “The one on calypso was excellent. It was conducted by Alvin Daniel, and Jocelyn Sealey. They gave us papers that explained melody, rhyme, and rhythm, suggested further reading, provided a wonderful historical perspective. It was well researched. I felt that at least I had a good start. “Things fell apart on the mas seminar. Speaker after speaker spoke about his day in the sun. Nothing about material, traditional mas, the evolution, history or economics of it. We heard about the technicalities of judging, which was ironical because we didn’t need it. “The seminar on pan was useless. Pan Trinbago refused the invitation to teach. We learned nothing about the instrument. We got lots of memories of judging, were told how the system works. Pan judging is handled separately by Pan Trinbago who bring in “musicologists” to do it.”


If you see her with a cold Carib beer.

“Why do people judge, year after year?” I asked him, “if they don’t get paid, and aren’t particularly good at it?”  “Alcohol and the lime. Their glasses are never empty, when whiskey runs out they go onto rum and when that runs out... well, the beers never run out. Many of them just get sloshed. Not fall down sloshed. One said to me, ‘You know how hard it is to drink all this and sit up straight.’

“Remember last year, when the judges were late in announcing a certain king? People assumed that there was a complicated technical hitch. In fact, one judge, having had a little too much to eat and drink, went to the bathroom and stayed for over an hour. The others had to wait for him before announcing the winner.

“And this year no one registered for certain categories which were to be judged at South Quay. But those judges still sat and drank from 6 pm to 1 in the morning.”

I would give anything to know how much the alcohol costs the NCC. He didn’t know.


Bounce and bounce and bounce and bounce and bounce and bounce. Calypso Competitions. The system sounds straight forward: score sheets, tabulation, the winner gets the most marks, the highest and lowest marks are dropped, the winner is the contestant with the highest aggregate, right? Wrong. Although judges make the rounds of tents, score sheets are discarded: “It’s my 24 against your 24 and who argues better gets it.” Competitors would be interested to hear that they placed 12th on one person’s list and 24th on another. The judging is about seven people sitting around, finding a consensus. Evidently the loudest voices decide the winner, and not just in the stands.


Where de wavers? Where de wavers? How are the costumes judged? There is a multiplicity of criteria and the system seems foolproof. Judges for the Kings and Queens competition are divided into two committees of five for the skills. One committee is supposed to give marks for portability, craftsmanship and design; another for wire, moulding, carving, use of aluminium and metal. The rule book tells the competitors they are going to be judged for a total of 100 marks. “When we asked for the score sheets to record marks, we were told that we didn’t need them. On Dimanche Gras night, we would be given an award sheet to sign. The NCC officials decide.


“Most judges, especially the new ones, have no say. In essence, the committee heads say ‘that costume, that’s the one which is going to win.’ Sometimes judges have a say, like the man who was judging his own wire work on a king competitor.

“And many are asked to judge over areas they know nothing about, designing, wire or moulding, or how much materials cost. Minshall’s use of the chicken wire to create a head piece was part of the earliest kings and floats. But most judges thought it was new, something he’d dreamed up. If they only understood the history they would understand that he is bringing back things that are very much in the mas. They should then give him marks for application rather than invention but they don’t know any better.

“We sit there and look like we are judging costumes, so the process seems to work to the masqueraders. NCC adjudication commissioners have the last word. Last year a certain king was late for on track judging and he was given marks anyway.


 Dus’ in dey face.

 How is the pretty mas judged?

 “There is no natural sensitivity and this is because they don’t understand it, they want to take away marks for bands where people wear sneakers. We tried to explain to them that band leaders cannot control the women who don’t want to wear the loin cloth or the man who leaves his standard home. The band should be judged on its exuberance, its overall impression. When Minshall talks about his tribe playing mas and freeing up that’s what its about. But they hold masqueraders and bandleaders to ransom on silly points.”


 Another day in paradise. And how many judges were used?

 “All 120 of them. Even when they were not needed. So everybody could get a little ‘tush’.”



Anything good about it all?

“I saw extempo judged on marks, on score sheets... I saw the system work there.”


It’s a mad man’s rant.

He breathes easier, he’s got it off his chest and onto mine. He has lots more to say but I’ve run out of space. So he contents himself with this epilogue. “It was a waste of time.” And I drive off thinking it’s a little selfish of a band of Carnival judges and NCC Adjudication Commissioners to have been making mas all these years and leaving us all out. Now that we know about it, I think they deserve the chance to be judged like the rest of us.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur