By Shobha Gupta Gallagher

The sound of tin drums and muffled shrieks wafted from the top of the steep winding road. What seemed like undulating blue flames emerged from the womb of darkness — and from the parchment of history.

We were in the mountain village of Paramin, north of Trinadad’s capital, Port of Spain. Paramin’s 4,000 or so inhabitants have Spanish roots, and speak a patois dialect based on French.

The waiting crowd gathered on the slope and the village square parted to make way for the Paramin Blue Devils, who swirled, leapt and shrieked, jabbing the air with pitchforks, machetes, long sticks and other farm tools. They opened their mouths wide, exposing their crimson red tongues.

Four young boys and a plump adult, swishing a kind of long-grass contraption, swarmed toward us, with rhythmic shrieks that kept beat with the biscuit tin-drums, or pans, as they were called, and the plastic whistles of their strange orchestra.

Humoring them by shaking my hips to the music, and waving my hands gleefully, did not help. The shrieks became louder, and the young ones sprang against the fence like spider-gremlins and slithered up, jabbing their fingers at us. Another scampered from the side and danced before us, a frenzied zombie. He too jabbed his finger. Now what were we being accused of? It struck me then that this jabbing in the air meant they wanted Trinidadian dollars from us.

I cursed myself for leaving behind my wallet of foreign currency.

I lowered my camera, and gazed with unfazed sphinx-like steadiness at the gyrating beings in front of me. It worked. They retreated, leaving fragments of a blue-rimmed surreal behind. For they were not really in pantomime — but in true character that resonated through the ages and the drumbeats of the past.

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There is in each of us a mystic fascination for the raw, primal carnal energy and its mesmeric tribal rhythm and dance. It takes us in its flood, and swells your soul with an ancient call. The whole expression of the parade is rooted in a culture based primarily on oral history and tradition. The blue devils are a form of “jab-jab” as they are called, and are part of the pre-Lenten rituals and festivity.

That very morning, close to sunrise, I had experienced the j’ouvert, or opening day, of the pre-Lenten Carnival, in Port of Spain. Participants caked with mud, ash, black grease paint or ghostly white colors had paraded down the main streets, dancing or wining (a very suggestive dance in which two people or more gyrate together back-to-back, or front-to-back, swiveling and grinding their hips). Their attires were a mishmash of flaming colored wigs, strange headgear and the masks of devils or beasts.

The widely-held belief here is that the jab dance dates back to the days of slavery. In the 1770s, the French overlords celebrated Carnival with flamboyant masks and costumes, as a last fling before the penitence and abstinence of Lent. The slaves held separate dances in their yards and barracks.

With the abolition of slavery in 1838, there was an unleashing of the pagan Carnival celebrations, with wild dances, grease paint and grotesque masks out on the streets, accompanied by loud drumbeats that sent the alarmed gentry fleeing behind closed doors. Attempts to abolish by force behavior that, in those times, was considered outrageous and obnoxious, only led to rioting: opposition burst the floodgates of its turbulent expression.

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Heady over their freedom, the natives of Paramin reputedly mimicked their former masters by painting themselves exaggerated shades of blue, made from laundry bluing tablets ground and mixed with water. In Paramin, it is customary for the blue devils to dance on Carnival Monday, a February or March evening. On my night there, we flowed with the stream of people.

I was mesmerized by one of the main figures, a king devil who opened and closed his gigantic white-and-blue splotched dragon wings. His assistant restrained him with a rope, as he swirled and yawed at the crowd, the pupils of his eyes glinting. On the rim, a very young masked devil poked a puppy with his trident, sending it yelping to safety.

The children watched this drama with unperturbed interest. One toddler jabbed his finger right back at a devil who wore a scary beast mask, with horns and a mane. Amazingly, the beast slithered away like a wounded repentant snake.

One devil especially caught my attention, because he was so different from the rest. His tragicomic mask topped was decorated with a bulbous red rubber nose and drooping mouth. He beseeched onlookers for dollars. When he was honored with the booty, he turned up the corners of his mouth with his fingers into a winsome smile. He was by far the tamer version of the retinue from the netherworld.

Most of the others were either bald, or wearing wispy silver-white or multicolored woolly wigs. These strange and gruesome creatures either dribbled foaming beer down their throats, necks and chests, confronted the crowd with mock savagery or swiveled on the wet ground, while the rest danced in short steps legs wide apart.

All of a sudden a lithe young devil with red wings pranced into view and jabbed a finger at me. I indicated I had no money. To my blushing embarrassment he bent backwards in slow motion with the beat and began to suggestively move his fingers in circles on his bare body while flicking his tongue. I turned towards a local girl and asked her to “please send him away. I have no money to give. ” She smiled right back and said, “He will go away if you don’t have any…he won’t stay.”

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But the creature before me spread his legs wide, bent further backward and placed his hand flirtatiously behind his head. “He wants you to photograph,” the girl said helpfully. I readily flooded him with a torrent of flashes from my camera as the grotesque model proffered several poses and best angles. He finally and thankfully oozed away towards another victim, tilting his head — a precursor of another brazen drama of foreplay.

I realized that what I thought was a long stick one of the blue devils was swinging was actually a phallus symbol. A pretty teenaged girl ran away giggling, as he brandished and prodded it playfully towards her. No room for prudishness here. I was awed by the raw sexuality displayed – in front of the very young, the pubescent and the very old. Yet, after my initial shock, I realized that the show wasn’t downright sexual. An unwritten code of conduct kept the participants from crossing the boundaries.

I surged through the crowd towards the spot where the spectators were being entertained by the gremlins from hell, who were raking the money with their pitchforks. By now some of them were rolling on the ground in contortions to the hypnotic beat of the tin drums.

Though the whole performance seemed raucous, raw-edged and ribald, it had embedded in it hours of firing the tin drums to tune the beats, hours spent on creating the characters they represented, practicing the dance that had to keep in step with the pan drums, grinding the tablets of bluing agent to make the paint, rubbing baby oil before the color is applied so that it stays on the skin. As one of the persons in the documentary film “Jab-The Blue Devils of Paramin” states, “”My father used to tell me as long as you put that blue on your skin and you hear a pan, you just totally different…”

Some of the blue had smeared on my arm and elbow … and with it I carried the beat of the pan, the infectious dance of the Paramin devils. And I realized that I had been more than a spectator.

Indo-Canadian writer and photographer Shobha Gupta Gallagher is based in Ottawa.