Behind the Mask: Playin’ Mas

“Playin’ Mas”
Sensay Carnival Troupe at Bermuda Festival

As we are in the midst of carnival season, I would like to share something interesting that I learned about carnival in Dominica. The other day I visited my family in Brooklyn and one of my cousins let me borrow his book, Ma William and Her Circle of Friends. Written by Giftus John, who taught my father in Dominica, the story centers around a storekeeper, Ma William, and the people who visit her store in the village of Senjo. The book depicts the characters coping with the rapid changes on their island and their effort to hold onto their traditions. I reached chapter four, called “Playin’ Mas,” a common Caribbean carnival phrase. I actually learned about it from Trinidadian dancer and singer Michael Manswell of Something Positive at the Carribean Cultural Center’s Roots and Stars Praise Dance event. “Play Mas” means to put on a mask or be part of the masquerade.

One interesting costume I read about in the chapter is the sensay costume. The sensay costume is of West African Twi (Akan/Ashanti) origin. It is one of the oldest forms of costume, made either of frayed rope and other fibrous material such as pounded leaves of the agave (called sisal or “langue beff”) or strips of paper, cloth, frayed plastic sacks and dry banana leaves (pai fig). A mask with cow horns is usually worn with the costume. The name comes from the Twi word senseh, which is a fowl with curled or ruffled feathers. The fowl is known for having spiritual properties amongst the Twi people.

Read more about costumes in Dominica here.

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