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A Carnival like no other

Thursday, March 6, 2014
London Calling
Trinidad Carnival takes the French planter tradition of masquerading, blends it with the African articulation of freedom, release, revelry, rhythms, drums and dance, and modernised it. PHOTO: KRISTIAN DE SILVA

It’s quiet in town today, Ash Wednesday, as if a bomb went off and post-apocalyptic calm has descended. Half the city is on its way to Tobago by plane or boat, to lie on a beach. Go, Trinidad. Go take your rest, you’ve earned it. Repent for Lent. Give up Carnival. Just for a few months, before the cycle begins again.


Lying on my bed early evening on Carnival Tuesday I needed sleep, but sleep would not come. Mind and body were trying to process what had happened. What word is there for huge truck after truck with speakers piled 20 feet high coming through the beautiful Woodbrook streets whilst, all about, thousands parade, jiggle, smile, drink and preen their feathers like a million tins of paint have been splashed over them? Carnival. 


Not like any Carnival I’ve ever seen. Not like Notting Hill, where we wear Nike shoes, baggy jeans and baseball caps and embarrass ourselves until the trouble begins once night falls and gangs of teenagers maraud through west London. In England, we turn fun into carnage. Here in T&T—a more violent society—people know how to suspend the stupidness and have fun.


Throughout the Carnival week I repeated to the English girls staying with me, “What do we have in terms of national culture that comes anywhere near to this?”


Nothing, that’s what. Any traditions we once had went out the window after the war. We have Coronation Street, salt-and-vinegar crisps, pints of bitter and rain. 


Here, you have taken the French planter tradition of masquerading, blended it with the African articulation of freedom, release, revelry, rhythms, drums and dance, and instead of losing touch with this heritage you’ve modernised it. Yes, there are many nods to the past but the nostalgia is not tinged with solemnity the way the English see morris dancers, a greyhound race or a National Express coach and realise England is stuck in a continual loop where nothing will ever change.


What is beautiful about your Carnival is that it does not discriminate. On the Saturday the cutest kids I ever saw marched across the Savannah stage followed by teenagers from the Keylemanjahro moko jumbies, daubed in blue, not just walking on their ten-foot-tall stilts but stomping, twirling and dancing. At first I was scared they would fall, but soon I was just elated and amazed. I ran down from the North Stand to congratulate them as they exited the stage. On Tuesday morning, citizens as old as 80 or 90 turned out, dressed just as extravagantly, beautifully and revealingly as the younger generation. 


All races were there. The whiter shades of Harts, the blacker shades of Yuma, the Indian and Chinese shades mixed into both. In the stands tourists sat politely while youths gyrated their bottoms and humped the ground. 


Gay men dressed in flamboyant chequered tights and multicoloured headdresses rubbished the myth that T&T is intolerant of different sexualities. And all these people moved to the same ear-splitting soca and calypso beat.


My English contingent left our house at 3 am for J'Ouvert. By 4 am we were covered in clay, mud and paint. I didn't think it would all affect me: I can be quite staid and sober, even when roaring drunk. But something took over as the truck pulled away down Ariapita Avenue. Like a warlock I began leaping, stomping, even wining! I didn't stop until the sun was searing in the sky. Through the posh streets of St Clair we carried on. Outside the Office of the Prime Minister we partied hard.


Back where we had parked the car, I stripped down to my underwear like Benjai, my clothes too wet and dirty for the hire-car seats. "You will be arrested!" somebody warned me. But I wasn't. I even asked police directions.


Coming back round the Savannah at 10 am we tailed the DJ Phoenix truck, supplying music for 3Canal. A thousand people were getting on bad, wining on our car bumpers, leaving painted handprints on the windscreen.


"Come out de car!" two women instructed me. I couldn't, I was semi-naked. So they opened my car door as I halted my 2mph cruise and both stuck their own bumpers inside and wined on me right there in the driver's seat.


Late afternoon we drove up to Paramin through hissing, shrieking blue devils drooling red blood from fangs and doing strange things to teddy bears, cows and dolls. We went up and up to where the air is clear. The beauty of the mountains and the serenity of birds chirping and puppies yapping were like being in actual heaven. We could see the towers of Port-of-Spain. We could hear the bass bumping far away. We could have stayed up there in the clouds forever—but there was more partying to be done.


My feet and calf muscles ache still. Like a true Englishman I could do with a deep, hot bath. I also need a remedy for this Carnival tabanca.



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