The Story of the Shortknee


Featured Article - by Caldwell Taylor
July, 2009
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Caldwell Taylor

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The Story of the Shortknee Part 1/2

The mask-wearing Shortknee is not just the most compelling icon of Grenada’s annual Carnival, it is too a living synthesis of the country’s cultural history, drawing on masquerade traditions that have been made in Grenada and the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.  The word “Shortknee” was coined back in the 1920s at a time when "Creole English” was supplanting French Patois as the language of the Grenadian folk; prior to the 1920s the mas (masque) was known as "Grenade Pierrot" The Pierrot, a clown, was one of the more colourful items in the cultural portmanteau brought to Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique by the French, who ruled the islands from 1650 to 1763 and again from 1779 to 1783.

Though it took many routes  to various places around the world, the  Pierrot’s  roots are securely located in what came to be called commedia dell 'arte, an improvised  theatre that was born in sixteenth century Italy. Italian players took the commedia to France where one of its stock characters, Pedrolino, was transformed into Pierrot, the Shortknee's European ancestor. In Grenada, the Pierrot figure will eventually be syncretised with Creole and African elements.  

The word Shortknee is a clear reference to the mas’s knee breeches (trousers extending down to or just below the knee) which, like its bodice, are made of brightly coloured cotton fabric. The Shortknee's bodice is fitted with overlong bag sleeves and these are fastened at the wrists. The front and back of the bodice are "dressed up" with tiny mirrors. Though decorative in part, these mirrors function essentially as talismans, for they "protect" the wearer by "reflecting" his enemies.

This latter fact explains why mirrors adorn the costumes of various other masquerade characters across the Caribbean: the Midnight Robber and the Stickfighter (batonnier) in Trinidad and Tobago; the Wild Indian in St Kitts-Nevis; the Major Jonc and Roi Lwalwadi in Haiti's Rara and Dominican Gaga ; various characters in the Jonkunnu of Jamaica, The Bahamas, Belize, and Bermuda. Cuba's defunct "Black Carnival" – Dia de Reyes (Day of Kings) held on January 6 of each year, also dazzled with glass and mirrors. In a January 11, 1891 article in Havana's El Hogar newspaper, Cuban  scholar Ramon Meza wrote:

"The profusion of peacock feathers on the heads of dancers, quivering from their agile movements, shone with metallic iridescence in the glaring sunlight that bore heavily down on that motley crew... the tiny mirrors on the hats..."
- Ramon Meza

Another writer, P. Riesgo, had this to say:

"They ["the negroes"] are ludicrously dressed, with a profusion of ribbons, glass beads, mirrors, old feathers and multicoloured strips of cloth.
- P. Riesgo

It is worth pointing out that in Africa and the Caribbean diviners (seers) often use mirrors to discern the identities of their clients' friends, enemies and tormentors.

The Shortknee wears a wire screen mask over a powder-whitened face; these masks were once upon a time imported from Austria and Germany. Before the coming of the Austrian and German imports, the Shortknees made their “false faces” (masks) from vegetal matter such as dry banana leaves and calabash gourds (Cresentia cujete).

Proceed to Part 2 of 2 of The Story of the Shortknee