The Blue Devils are among the most vibrant and energetic traditional characters in the Carnival of Trinidad, one of the largest in the Americas. Akin to “jab molassi” (or “molasses devils”) and sometimes identified simply as “jabs,” blue devils paint their clothes and skin blue, often by using 'azulillo', an ordinary bluing laundry tablet. It is difficult to date the origin of the blue devils accurately, but they can be traced back at least to the period before World War I, and some claim much earlier. Blue devil “bands,” as the groups are known, appear throughout Trinidad, in places like Point Fortin and Arima. But they are often associated with the mountain district of Paramin, about a half hour from Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad.

Though in the 1930s Paramin Blue Devils are reported to have used instruments carved from bamboo, known as tamboo bamboo, for their percussive accompaniment, they now ordinarily move to rhythms established by beating biscuit tins, which have sometimes been given a higher pitch by tempering them with fire. According to Ashton Fournillier, a Paramin King Devil, you identify the Blue Devil by the colored paint, generally blue; the pitchfork; and the “blood guts” on the tongue. There is a dance that involves hooking the foot to walk together with movements of the head and shoulders simultaneously while thrusting the pitchfork forward and screaming to the beat of the biscuit tin. Blue devils also sometimes carry painted replicas of cutlasses (machetes). Whereas once they dressed only in cutoff shorts without masks, they now often sport wings, sometimes decorated with swastikas, wear other kinds of clothes, increasingly use animal masks, and until they were recently outlawed at times carried snakes. They sometimes uproot small trees, have been seen to eat small raw sharks snatched from fish vendors, or dismember live chickens. Like some other aggressive traditional characters, they scamper up hills, climb poles and occasionally buildings. In addition to the popular blue, they sometimes paint themselves red, green, black, or white. The staccato beat of their biscuit tins, their glistening body colors, combined with their traditional dance step and skillful maneuvers identify them at once. You distinctly hear them comin’ down de road. One of their most popular antics is to blow large gusts of fire, either on the ground or in the air, by spitting kerosene into the flames of their flambeaux (torches made out of bottles of kerosene).

Though Blue Devils have no formal training, they do often pass the Mas (as masquerading is known in Trinidad) down to their children. And since the bands are largely communally based, children absorb the moves and traditional steps from an early age, sometimes participating themselves. Blue Devil bands are, thus, on the one hand aggressively intrusive -- drooling blood, sometimes carrying baby dolls skewered on their pitchforks, miming overtly sexual acts, often on each other, and pushing into the faces of the crowd with their demands for dollars. On the other hand, they also have a sense of decorum, seldom invading the actual space of or dirtying unwilling bystanders. With increasing numbers of children and women included in their bands, they are not only protective of each other but generally contain their own festive violence. The best of them come close, creating the feeling of fear without actually touching bystanders. They do sometimes appropriate bottles of beer or snatch bread, ice cream, or other pieces of food from bystanders or vendors and play eagerly with willing watchers.

Among the devils there is a King Devil, who leads the sometimes aggressively threatening demands for "titi" (Trinidad dollars). The King Devil is usually on a leash controlled by another jab, sometimes called an imp, who restrains the King, whether as an emblem of enslavement or a figure of authoritative restraint in the festive context. Though the role of King Devil is an honorific that is usually held for some time by one band member, and then sometimes passed to his son, other devils can exchange roles. The usual move is from percussion to performance, so that a person that this year provides the all-important percussive rhythm, next year might become a bulging eyed, drooling monster who moves and writhes with dexterity as he pleads for and plays with the dollars thrown or dangled in front of him. Despite the fact that for the most part they keep within their own boundaries, the ferocity of their demeanor and their elemental, transgressive threats are often frightening.

Blue devils appear throughout the Carnival season, and increasingly -- because of their popularity -- at various functions throughout the year. They participate in the Carnival Friday traditional character festival on the streets of Port of Spain and in other venues for traditional character competitions. But they are specifically associated in Paramin with Carnival Monday evening, when bands of devils appear in random sequences from various directions in Fatima Trace (a village square), in a competition that began spontaneously but for the past few years has been organized by the National Carnival Commission. Unlike the traditional carnival character masquerades that are being restored and revived throughout Trinidad in special training camps set up for children, the Blue Devils thrive largely on their own.

Trinidad Carnival has a variety of mud masking forms. Jouvay, a welcome the dawn Mas that takes place in the very early hours of Carnival Monday, is largely composed of bands that cover themselves with mud or paint themselves in the colors of the Blue Devils. Sometimes mud bands will appear even on Carnival Tuesday. But Blue Devils, and their forebears the Jab Molassi, have sustained their traditions and even expanded their numbers in periods when other traditional Masquerades have tended to fade away or die out. They remain one of the strongest Mas traditions in an island in which “to play your Mas” has become for many a metaphor for how you live your life.

2011 Devils of the Americas. Some rights reserved.

 

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