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Carnival: a celebration of freedom, creativity

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The excitement that a Carnival season holds for creativity and cultural satisfaction continues to be potent even after more than 200 years of “the mas”—that time frame depends on when the Carnival is dated. Carnival (carne vale) was a time of celebration for the French planters away from the monotony, for them, of plantation life. Living in the Caribbean amounted to a kind of sentence away from the sophistication of Paris and French civilisation. So the elegant balls and the masking gave them the opportunity to free themselves of whatever restrictions that were placed on them—from the historical records they generally placed few limitations on themselves. In order to cope with the privations during the period of Lent, Carnival gave the planters opportunity and licence for one last great fling at life before the ritualistic adherence to religious practices and ablutions set in.  


For the freed African who had observed his masters high-flying lifestyle during the great balls and grand parades, Carnival was an opportunity to be made use of to give vent to creative expression. He flung himself into the spirit of the Carnival at the first light of dawn, thankful that he too got an opportunity to express cultural creativity through masking of the personality. But it was more than that for the emancipated African. It was a time to reflect on his condition and do so in a manner he chose, whether that be through pathos, self-mimicry and/or aggressively, through hitting back at the society which had reduced him to almost less than a human being. Decades ago I was quite amused but understanding of an Invaders J’Ouvert band of the brown and black middle class man and woman, freeing themselves along Independence Square. The masking was painfully comical; here on the streets these middle class black women, who had worked diligently through the education system and the office to achieve social mobility and greater self-realisation, now identifying themselves with their less fortunate sisters still stuck selling themselves to survive.


The men in the band were “wutless,” drinking beer and rum out of “poes;” a few of them masking as men who were following a sexual lifestyle that was against the then status quo. Think how it must have been for our ancestors 174 years ago (almost a milestone), freed from the brutal and soul-destroying imposition of slavery, to be able to conceive of creating their own celebrations to define themselves as a people. They did so in parody of the grand balls and genteel living, almost laughing at themselves—although as we know every “skin-teeth” is not a grin. To do so they had to find characterisation and depiction that were raw and close to the earth for the masking to be meaningful to them. The molasses devil, greasy, half human, swollen eyes and all-consuming with passion and rage was the quintessential mas. Contemplate for a moment the self-inflicted pain, the mental anguish of the freed African, even two generations removed from the plantation, to characterise himself in the manner that he was cast by the planter.


Errol Hill was the first writer I read who put into perspective the mas as it evolved and had meaning for those who played it. He should be required reading for primary and secondary school students and deep analysis for those studying at the tertiary level; maybe that has the potential to salvage the Carnival from the civilisation of today. But I began writing this column intent on highlighting a magical moment at Starlift panyard last Friday. I reached terribly late but in time to hear Brazil and to be thrilled and refreshed anew by the band’s interpretation of McCartney’s Penny Lane. Forty years ago when I heard this rendition (Gallus and Warren Streets) I became entranced and in love with it. On the night, in this era of sometimes melodyless and unrhythmic speed in the pan music, the music once again had its spell. Holman had turned a wonderfully delightful British country-village music into a bustling Charlotte Street bram that created space for the Trini personality to play itself.


On the night a woman, who looked like she came from that aspiring black middle class of the 1960s and had moved away from Invaders, the band of her parents and into the new vitality of Woodbrook, recreated in rhythm how it was then done. She took the flag, with all of the accomplishment of Kitchener’s Flag Woman, and the experience was complete. J’Ouvert morning will find me at Park Street by Victoria Square, but between now and then All Stars, Invaders, Blanca, Tokyo and Silver Stars must give us reason to recreate again. Another platform for the recreation of the society and so Carnival is the Canboulay re-enact- ment on Carnival Friday. A few years ago I commented that it had become the most important element of the Carnival. Why? Because it opens the window (for those who want to look through it) on what the Carnival meant.


So God willing I will be at the Piccadilly Greens on Carnival Friday morning, experiencing, bawling and attempting to understand anew what this Carnival thing is all about. When we truly begin to understand our festivals, we will learn a little more about ourselves. We will understand that in similar manner our Muslim brothers and sisters also fought against colonial arrogance and sense of cultural superiority when the attempt was made to stop the Hosay festival. Like the jamettes did with the Canboulay, the Muslims insisted that they would not be prevented from celebrating their festival in the manner they so chose. Back in 1988, I wrote to the effect that not only were Africans freed from slavery and Indians from indentureship, but so too was the French-Creole society released from the self-reducing state of assaulting the humanness of others. The Carnival has room and potential for all segments of the society, even those parts which have developed differently and have had different kinds of cultural and religious experiences. Even the Catholic Church, from whence the planters came 200 years ago, has re-entered the arena hoping to influence and bring change to aspects of the vulgarity of the age.


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