Dressed in black with a flowing cape and extravagantly oversized hat, performer Kurt Layne’s distinctive macabre ensemble blends influences from film depictions of the American wild west with West African culture. He cuts an imposing figure as he struts along a road bringing to life a traditional Carnival character, the Midnight Robber.
He recently performed in Tobago Carnival, where he took the opportunity to share his story about staying safe during the pandemic. His performance aimed at educating people was personal.
“My mum had passed away from COVID,” he said. “I would tell anyone, and especially those close to me, to always stay on the right track in terms of keeping up with the COVID protocols.”
“Pow pow, I shot COVID dead,” he declared, grabbing the attention of a group of kids with his ‘Robber Talk’.
Kurt Layne’s ominous delivery invokes the best of the character’s oral skill and energetic delivery to drive home a message of hope and optimism to his young listeners.
“Join hands with we; each other do their part and for sure, we’ll have a great start!”
The twin island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago was dramatically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 4300 died from the disease and the economy which is largely based on oil and gas production suffered as demand for fuel plummeted during the global lockdown.
The Caribbean nation reopened for public gatherings in April 2022 and six months later the inaugural Tobago Carnival was launched on the smaller of the two islands, where Kurt Layne and other traditional festival favourites performed.
Dame Lorraine, a temptress with exaggerated voluptuous curves, is another of the traditional mas (short for masquerade) characters found in Caribbean carnival celebrations.
Played by Lesley-Ann Ellis, the character performs provocative dance moves wearing costumes inspired by 18th and early 19th century French colonial plantation owners.
Dame Lorraine isn’t associated with verbose social commentary but in this case Lesley-Ann Ellis works a calypso song into the traditional dance in order to focus on encouraging people to continue sanitizing hands and wearing protective masks.
“This thing has to end so cough in your sleeve; stay your distance, let this virus leave.”
Both performers worked with the Verified Initiative which was developed by the United Nations with the support of the social impact agency Purpose to fight disinformation about COVID-19 and to provide trustworthy, life-saving information and fact-based advice about the disease.
In Trinidad and Tobago, guided by the United Nations Information Centre for the Caribbean Area – based in Port of Spain – Purpose worked with such local stakeholders as the Tobago House of Assembly to deliver messages that were relevant to the national cultural context.
Oral traditions are perfectly suited to getting across COVID-19 information.
Pupils of Signal Hill Secondary School in Tobago worked with the Verified Initiative to develop messaging encouraging vaccination against COVID-19.
Student, Clorysa Gill explained how the performance, known as “speech band” can captivate a crowd. “When you say, ‘stop yuh bow, Mr. Fiddler,’ the way you project your voice and the tone you say that, that could tell you OK, people listening to my speech now.”
Those pro-vaccination and anti-disinformation messages will resonate at, arguably, the largest cultural festival on the twin islands, the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. The event which brings together the 1.5 million inhabitants of the islands and which attracts thousands of international visitors is taking place for the first time since 2020, on February 20-21.
“Carnivals like the one held in Tobago are the ideal setting to reach a large number of people with the messages of the Verified campaign,” said Liliana Garavito Canon, the Director of the United Nations Information Centre for the Caribbean Area.
“Among the many positive messages is one which says that healthfulness and celebration can co-exist,” she added. “Everyone just has to act on accurate information to protect themselves and remain COVID-19 free.”