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Real, True, Not-Fake Carnival History, Pt 1

Published: 
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

As a service to our many tourist visitors, real and imagined, it might be interesting to look at some Carnival history based on facts rather than the nonsense cult-yere mavens routinely pull out of their asseverations. And what better place to start than with the notion of Carnival as the national festival, the soul of the nation and everything to all people, which I think is now “taught in schools.”

 

Carnival as a special festival of T&T’s repertoire was present in the national consciousness by 1960. The difference from the 1950s was that interest in it had intensified, transforming it from fete to formal cultural phenomenon. At Independence in 1962, the notion of an Independence Carnival celebration was scoffed at. By 1969, Carnival was firmly entrenched in the national consciousness, and Independence Carnival was a given.

 

From the start of the 60s, anthropologists and artists were beginning, and continuing, to study the festival more formally. Andrew Carr, in the Guardian (March 4, 1962), referred to it as the most spectacular national festival. He noted the multi-ethnic participation, and even identified bands of Indian origin.

 

He also reported that the focus of bandleaders was traditional pageantry. Band themes were current or historical events, and researched by “special committees who work for the better part of eight to nine months” to ensure authenticity of costumes.

 

Derek Walcott, also in the Guardian that year (March 5), commented on the visual and verbal artistry of the festival, and anthropologist JD Elder (March 25) began examining the gender issue in calypso. One of Elder’s more interesting propositions was that “it may be that calypsonians are compelled to make up for masculine subordination by showing up the female as being without virtue.”

 

There were no reports on what the public made of all this. But when the Midnight Robber-in-chief, Eric Williams, was asked about an “Independence Carnival,” the Guardian (August 19) reported that “he wanted the persons involved to know that if there was going to be a Carnival during the Independence celebrations, then he intended to stay far away.”

 

Steelbands played at the opening of the Parliament, and as the decade wore on, more and more reports appeared on the steelbands’ spreading throughout the world. Nonetheless, Carnival remained a middle-class affair, though attempts to dislodge its centre from the middle to the lower classes had begun.

 

The agenda became clear in 1964. In this year, a history of calypso, which looked at the greats from about 1900, by Atilla (Raymond Quevedo), was posthumously published in the Guardian (February 7), and a documentary film on Carnival, Mamma dis is Mas, premiered.

 

By the following year, it was evident that scholarly interest in Carnival and calypso was intent on entrenching it in the nationalist dialogue. On January 1, 1965, the Guardian’s front page headline was Steelbands: A New Era. The story reported the Government’s new “godfather” plan, where, via the Government, sponsors were to be found for steelbands in the corporate community.

 

But the obvious conflict with the notion of Carnival as the national festival also surfaced that year. On February 7, 1965, the Guardian reported that Simon “Pinhead” Williams had decided to bring a mas called Gods and Worshippers of India. Hindus, personified in Bhadase Maraj, objected strenuously.

 

Much debate followed, ending with the police commissioner’s publication of the Carnival regulations, which forbade the “portrayal or representation of the deity of a living religion.” And in the following years, two things are noticeable: the evident racial context of the transformation, and the curious enthronement of Sparrow as the dominant personality in society rather than just in Carnival.

 

If a single figure’s experience through the 1960s illustrated the evolving status of calypso and Carnival, it was The Mighty Sparrow. In 1962, though he was crowned king, his prize of $1,000 was confiscated by the State for back taxes.

 

But by 1968, a young scholar named Gordon Rohlehr delivered a public lecture, The Social Context of Calypso, which proposed that while the calypso was accepted by the middle class, it remained a lower-class phenomenon, as evidenced by Sparrow’s status. The Guardian published the first instalment of the lecture, which was headlined Sparrow and Calypso (February 21, 1968).

 

From having his earnings confiscated, and one or two other seamy legal issues in 1961-62, as the decade wore on, Sparrow’s pronouncements were sought and his activities prominently reported on a variety of issues. The lyrics of his calypso on Patrick Solomon were published in the Guardian (September 26, 1964).

 

 

The Guardian’s front page of February 6, 1965 transmitted his warning to the Carnival Development Committee. On November 16 that year, Sparrow’s marriage was front-page news.

 

On October 8, 1966, the Guardian reported an Anglican clergyman’s suggestion that Sparrow sing on mental health to apprise an apathetic population. On October 27, the Guardian carried a report of a public lecture on calypso, delivered by Sparrow et al, wherein he berated the national public for their attitude to calypso. This coincided with other reports of debates, like on the steelband (November 27).

 

By 1968, Sparrow’s business ventures (going into the record business, November 2) were news. In 1969, the Guardian reported Sparrow was at the top of the CDC’s payroll (February 2), and his opinions were sought on UWI students’ protest against the visiting Canadian governor general. But it wasn’t Sparrow alone that changed a fete in 1960 to a central cultural rite in 1969.

 

The other element of the transformation is made evident in an article in the Guardian on March 4, 1964, headlined Pedlars of Hate Seek to Sever Links with the Past. The statement was made by the president of the Junior Chamber, the organisers of the Carnival Queen competition.

 

 

Continued next week