In Brief: The Midnight Robber is one of the most widely recognized and well-liked traditional carnival characters. Marked not only by his costuming, that includes a wide-brimmed hat and cape, the robber is also noted for use of “Robber Talk”, a boastful, articulate, and rhyming catalog of the robber’s deeds, conquests, history, and various abilities that often approach the supernatural. A conflation of many cultural influences, the most easily recognized influence on the robber is the costume profile and mannerisms of old west novels and cinema. A robber often relates his great ancestry as well, which, accompanied by rhythmic use of language and a detailed chronology has lead many say that ”Robber Talk” is derived from the tradition of the West African Griot (storyteller). Themes of speeches and confrontations between robbers often include quotations, rhetorical pyrotechnics, riddles, and allusions to popular history, religion, and mythology. Robber Masqueraders often have a variety of skulls on their person, and have been known to carry weapons (knives, swords, and guns) and coffins. In all cases, Robbers use a shrill “scout” whistle to punctuate their speeches and command the attention of an audience.
Mas Origins and History:
Hill notes that, “in 1906 a novel carnival pageant was held at the Queen’s Park Oval in Port-of-Spain. The proceedings began with a wild gallop by a dozen cowboys, careering frantically round the cycle track to the accompaniment of revolver shots. With the passing of years, the cowboys became known as Wild West Ranchers, American Hunters, American Bandits, and finally Midnight Robbers. The last named…was the type that survived”
Commonly cited costume elements include a wide brimmed hat emulating the structure of a sombrero, though ornamental variations (thematically linked to the robber’s origin and disposition) may be used, i.e. a robber satarizing politicians may choose to wear a red house on his head. Traditionally, a black hat decked with skulls is worn. A satin shirt is commonly worn, and layered pants (made of rice bags, etc.) were fashioned together and died black, giving the appearance of frilled chaps. A cape (often black, but with notable exceptions) is also generally worn (emblazoned with a logo or name in most cases) and boots of some kind, often decorated with symbols related to the robbers name, skulls, or wild animals are also worn.
Sounds and Speech:
Most robber costumes do not in themselves generate sound. However, the shrill scout whistle is generally carried by a robber and used to capture the attention of passers by and other robbers. Robber speech is often colorful rhythmic choices and performed in a heightened vocal timbre; a vocal production quality that in some way underscores the power, might, and other qualities of a specific robber. The following are examples of robber speeches:
Joseph as “ Agent of Death Valley” I am the Agent of Death Valley. From the day my mother gave birth to me, the sun refused to shine, the earth started to tremble! Terror hit the city streets! At the sage of one, my toys were cannons and machine guns. At the age of two, I have met and slain all mockmen like you. At the age three, my anxiety was to rob, murder, plunder leaving men and women to suffer. At the age of nine, whilst increasing my techniques of crime in the year 1990, my great grandfather’s treasures were stolen, his life was taken. From thence I became a Midnight Robber!
Andrew ‘Puggy’ Joseph: “Away down from the height less regions of the Phantom graveyard came I the invincible, son of the undauntible Agent of Death Valley. Now the motive of my sudden appearance here today is to accomplish the destruction of my father’s deadly expeditions. For within these two bloodthirsty hands of mine lies that woeful book of challenge, headed by the warrant of death, written with the hands of kinds and sealed with the blood of monarchs”
Rahaman Mohamed as King Calabar (from the 1978 Publication): “Now my man the hour of your death is in my hands, so stay still right where you stand. My powers of sorcery and witchcraft have held fascination of mankind throughout history. I am the ghost of King Calabar, the robber master, a demon in the for of a man. This, the devil himself could not understand. I I must remind you Lucifer was the first devil who entered hell, I went there in his dungeon and there he rebelled. I went fighting for certain rights, but the devil said I am fighting with power and might, so if you don’t want to get hurt throw up your hands high in the air and keep them right there, while I go through my criminal profession to rob you out of your possession. (Tweet, tweet, tweetet, whistle blown at this point).”
Movement: Midnight robbers often walk with a wide hip forward strut, non unlike Spaghetti Westerns. However, robbers will modify their movement substantially to match their costume and story. For instance, a robber may imitate a snake to further the effect of his snake-ornamented shoes, etc.
Other Behavior: At the conclusion of speeches, Robbers will often ask for money. By virtue of the name, robbers use their speeches to “rob” standers by. When confronting another robber, a battle of wits, rhetoric, and threats emerges, but physical altercations are not a facet of the mas.
Variations and Developments of Note: Costuming materials have changed significantly. Additionally, the advent of hip hop’s approach to bravado, rhyme scheme, and colloquial expressions in the context of rhetorical competition has impacted many modern Robbers in their approach to themes, robber identities, and performance.
References in Arts and Popular Culture: Pervasively recognized in Trini culture and used widely in commercials, for instance this KFC advertisement.
Related Characters: No characters are directly related to the Midnight Robber, but it shares combative boasting and showdowns with its carnival cousin, the Pierrot.
Bands and Individual Performers:
Andrew “Puggy” Joseph (Champion Robber in 1985, 1986, and 1987)
Mystery Raiders (Active Band)
Other Information: n/a
Interviews and Scholarship: Please note the video interviews above. No additional scholarship is currently published on this archive.
Green, Garth L., and Philip W. Scher. Trinidad carnival: the cultural politics of a transnational festival. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Print.
Hill, Errol. “9. The Masterqade: Theatre of the Streets.” The Trinidad carnival; mandate for a national theatre.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972. 87, 90-91. Print.
Irwin Ottley. Battle dress and Fancy dress – An inquiry into the origin of the customs and traditions of the T&T carnival.
Mohamed, Ali. A glimpse of Carnival in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago: King Calabar robber speeches manual no. 1. Couva, Trinidad: A. Rahaman Mohamed, 1978. Print.
Razack, Sherene. Looking white people in the eye: gender, race, and culture in courtrooms and classrooms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Print.
Riggio, Milla Cozart. Carnival culture in action : the Trinidad experience. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Seidman, Karmenlara. Mas’ is desire: the erotic, grotesque and visionary in trinidad carnival.. S.l.: Proquest, Umi Dissertatio, 2011. Print.