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Trini carnival much like day of kings
“All half-naked, kings and subjects, in their different groups, form the most repugnant sight possible to the eyes of civilised man. Some play the discordant instruments…that are damaging to the hearing, while other wretches dance feverishly, contorting their bodies in such a way as to be offensive to the sight.”
As our Carnival season lurches into overdrive, we might expect to encounter some of the hostility manifested in my opening quote: the affront to ‘civilised’ values; the noise pollution and cacaphony which passes for music, and last but not least, the dirty dancing. We can delve into the local archives and find many similar expressions of distaste, but my quote is extracted from a mid 19th century article describing, what up until its abolition in 1884, was Cuba’s most important festival—Dia de Reyes, the Day of Kings.
What we know in Trinidad as Lewah, can only be a muted echo of this one day of ‘freeness’ for Cuban slaves, who were only finally emancipated in 1880. Dia de Reyes may well be the post-Columbian Caribbean’s oldest festival, considering that the first slaves were landed in Cuba in 1504 and the Epiphany, or Adoration of the Magi on January 6 was a significant date in the Roman Catholic calendar.
It’s interesting to note that while Dia de Reyes was essentially African (“Countless groups of African negroes go through the streets of the capital…they chant in disagreeable montotone, in African language, the memories of their people; and hundreds of voices, some shrill, some hoarse, all wild, respond in chorus…They are all children of Africa’s ardour in their frenzied January 6 celebrations …they all commemorate the tradition of their homeland”) the same Creolizing process which has defined Trini Carnival, was evident in its Cuban predecessor.
Although much of the costuming may have been derived from the fertility, cleansing and protection from evil rites of west and central Africa, there were modifications ‘not entirely in the style of those of Africa but changed and modified by civilised industry”. Some of the slaves like their Trini counterparts opted for European costumes: “they would dress up as Paris dandies…Others would be dressed as sailors…minstrels.”
There is even a hint of our own Fancy Indian: “Some dress as Indians with feathers, bells, and necklaces of nuts or buttons; others paint their faces, arms, chest and legs, going barefoot for greater agility.”
Violent clashes, picong and fatigue harking back to a Guinean festival consecrated to driving out evil spirits (“during which the invectives of slaves and poorer classes of the population against their kings and superiors are perfectly acceptable”) are just some more of the elements we will recognise in our own Carnival, whose genesis like that of Dia de Reyes lies in the Winter and Spring solstice rites common to many cultures.
While Trinidad prides itself on being home to the “Mother of all Carnivals”, few in the Eastern Caribbean are aware that the Anglophone region’s oldest ‘Carnival’ is celebrated in St Kitts, over the Christmas season, so that quite literally the Christmas Sports, as they’re called, become Christ’s Mas. It’s possible to leave midnight mass at the cathedral on Independence Square (the former slave market) and jump straight into a J’Ouvert band.
In contrast to those regional carnivals shaped by Roman Catholic, Afro-French Creole heritage (Haiti, the French Antilles, Dominica, St Lucia, Grenada and Trinidad) St Kitts (as English mother colony) still retains vestiges of medieval English rural folk traditions. The strolling Mummers, creolised to become ‘Mummies’, perform long dramatic pieces reminiscent of Morality Plays, like St George and the Turk, David and Goliath, and Giant Dispear (based on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress), along with the secular Shakespeare Lesson.
Another European retention, which probably dates from the time St Kitts was partitioned between the French and English, is the Clown troupe, in court jester costumes. The clowns are thought to have originated in the elaborate entertainments staged by Governor de Poincy at his La Fontaine estate, whose magnificence now reduced to bush, rivalled the palace at Versailles.
But like Dia de Reyes and Trini Carnival, the Christmas Sports is both a site of creolisation and more recently of globalisation which is rapidly homogenising carnivals in the Caribbean, Latin America and their diasporas. Creolisation finds kinetic expression in the Masquerade dance, performed by dancers with Yoruban-style peacock feather headdresses and mirrors sewn into their costumes.
Besides references made in their dancing to European forms like the quadrille, jig, fine and waltz, the climax is the Wild Mas set, with call and response and acrobatic dance, culminating in the limbo position. The Masquerade is accompanied by the Big Drum ensemble, which like Tuk Bands of Barbados, adapted British military band instrumentation for African rhythmic and percussive purposes.
While St Kitts like Trinidad heads the bikini and beads, all-inclusive consumerist experience way, dictated by regional as well as global economies, what the older festivals remind us is that carnival celebrates natural rites of passage, as a communal cleansing, a warding off of evil, which cannot be anything but expedient in T&T 2013.
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