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Contesting the Carnival

Published: 
Thursday, February 11, 2016
This photo captures a moment during this year’s Canboulay parade. PHOTO: MICHEAL BRUCE

By the time you get to read this, it’ll all be over, officially that is. Although as we all know, until the fat lady stretches her vocal chords and wind down, wind up last gaspers at Maracas, Mayaro and every yard from Moruga to Maraval, the Carnival is still breathing and really never switches off but lies dormant in the blood and belly.

Writing now in an unnervingly silent hiatus, which is Tuesday morning, seems a good point to reflect on the confluence of currents and controversies, which constitute our national festival. 

First I’ll come clean, mostly because it’s easy to do so as I haven’t as much as dipped my finger in a pot of mud, imbibed fire-breathing spirits, or lubricated a lower back with the oil-down of wining. 

Too many years of having my liver, spleen and solar plexus convulsed by monster sound systems have made me wary of noise, and it does seem the volume on the road continues to rise, so that all that is distinguishable is a generic howl. 

But howling might be good right now—so much to howl about. The elusive point however is—I’ve played distant observer, rather than active participant, so far at least. So I’ll take this early morning amble, from a position of relative detachment. Lost memories, reconstructions, fragments, eruptions, the push and pull of power relations, submerged and emergent identities, celebration, creativity, release, resistance, confrontation—all of these and much more are focused, condensed and then dissipated in the many rituals and spaces we know as Carnival.

Like any other social ritual, Carnival is an organic (for some orgiastic) beast, shedding its costume/skin annually, before lurching onwards. It can be viewed historically as a succession of interrelated phases. 

As far as I know (although the professional historians would have to confirm this) there are no records of Carnival during the lengthy period of Spanish rule. It’s more likely that the handful of forgotten scrunting settlers would have celebrated Dia de los Reye—Epiphany—if they’d had time off from eking out an existence far more pitiable than the free range lifestyle of the surviving Amerindians.

Carnival most likely arrived with the predominantly French Creole Roman Catholic cedulants, during the latter half of the 1780s, who came initially from Grenada (fleeing English oppression) and then after the French Revolution’s reverberations in the Caribbean, from Haiti and Martinique. So the origins of Trini Carnival lie in a Roman Catholic festival, grafted onto a much older European pagan fertility festival which the church, unable to eradicate, had appro

Even before Emancipation, Carnival was being creolised—subjected to other influences besides those of the French Creoles who would mostly have belonged to the ancient regime, the old pre-revolution monarchy.

The behind-the-doors celebrations featuring costuming, masking, feasting and music was essentially recreation for the French Creole elite who were effectively the power brokers, despite nominal Spanish control. Formal ballroom dances—waltz, mazurka, polka, quadrille—were accompanied by musicians playing European instruments. 

Besides the Carnival the French Creoles brought their slaves with them, who were initially excluded from the celebration, but who nevertheless observed it surreptitiously and who would have recognised certain elements—the feasting, costuming, masking, singing and dancing—which resonated with memories embedded in oral history of similar ancestral 

rituals. 

After all, fertility rites and placating the spirits of the land to ensure bountiful harvests and the safety of the community were not a European pagan monopoly.

There are records of slaves being inducted into the musical ensembles which accompanied these early Carnival balls and out of sight of the plantation and town houses, slaves were already adapting and modifying the European dances they had peeped at, adding them to their repertoire of remembered and creolised dances.

Emancipation brought Carnival out of the houses and control of the elite to the streets, which became, if only for a few weeks, a reclaimed space for the ex-slaves. The Jamette Carnival of the 19th century set the recently liberated on an inevitable collision course with the recently installed British colonial system. 

Political and cultural hegemony, power relations along with Scientific racism dictated that “civilised” society would repress expressions of the so-called “primitive”—the violent, noisy, lewd, anarchic Afro-Creoles. 

The flashpoint of the 1880s, with Hosay as well as Canboulay riots, is only one part of deliberate policy which saw the demonisation and banning of mostly Afro-Creole cultural practices from the 1880s, right through to the Shouter Baptist Prohibition Order of 1917, which was only finally rescinded in 1951.

Given the undeniable plurality of the society, it becomes disingenuous to dismiss Canboulay as mere lawlessness and its participants as criminals. This is a disservice to the Creole nature of both the society and its festival, which cannot now be held responsible for an implosion which has as much to do with our inability to decolonise and jump the plantation boundaries, as it has to do with globalisation. 

There is no single national narrative or culture; despite commercialisation, Carnival still grants the spaces for our diverse stories. Ask Minshall.