Writer SHEREEN ALI examines a debate about if Carnival is sacred or profane tracing the existence of religious symbolism in the mas.
Trinidad Carnival is a polymorphic creature: it changes every year, and perhaps it’s true that you make your own meanings from whatever you bring with you to the festival. Carnival can be beautiful or crass; it can be fun, commercial, supremely uplifting or trashy; it can be rife with conflict, rich with communion, sinful, sexy, shallow or deep, and sometimes all in the same day or night.
Parts of Carnival can be awe-inspiring. Some have felt moments of spiritual ecstasy either playing a mas, listening to the sublime crescendos of a steel orchestra, or watching a heartfelt, high-quality mas-art performance unfold itself, such as Peter Minshall’s dramatic River trilogy, with its own creation myths, which enthralled the nation in 1983 (River), 1984 (Callaloo) and 1985 (The Golden Calabash).
Meanwhile, other expressions of Carnival have emerged as proud ethnic rites of affirmation, such as the Kambule street theatre, accompanied by African drumming, songs, stick-fighting, and the flicker of flambeaux which all remind people of vitally important parts of our history and African heritage identity. Yet other aspects of Carnival can be truly silly, ridiculous, or deliriously, deliciously weird and fantastical, such as the calypsoes of the Mighty Spoiler (Theophilus Philip), the capering of eerie jab jabs, and wacky costumes that bob up in the mas like pieces of cork, then are carried away in the flow. To top it off, contemporary Carnival is also full of sexually suggestive dancing by hordes of sweaty, half-naked women in feathered, sequinned underwear. In the midst of all these titillating displays, is there still any space for the sacred in Carnival?
It depends on where you look, and how you choose to become involved. While some people choose to withdraw from Carnival entirely from a sense of disgust (at the occasional lewdness), boredom (at the increasingly poor quality of costumes and ideas), or even fear (at the threat of rising crime in some carnival parades), others embrace the festival and find (or create, or channel) spiritual aspects in the humblest and most secular of carnival spaces.
For some people, it is the music and sounds of Carnival which hold a power to raise your pores and communicate a spiritual essence. Musician Etienne Charles, for example, celebrates folk sounds linked to traditional mas: “The sound of the bois, the sound of the blue devils’ biscuit tins, the sound of the tamboo bamboo, the sound of the jab jab whips, the chants of the black Indian, the voice of the midnight robber” are all an intrinsic part of Trinidad Carnival for him, he says in the documentary photography book In A World Of Their Own: Carnival Dreamers and Makers by cultural researcher/photographer Maria Nunes. Here, folk sounds take on a spiritual significance in people’s authentic expressions of survival, resilience and cultural warriorhood.
For other people, it is the very festival itself that is like a rite of renewal. Poet Shivanee Ramlochan, in Nunes’s book, speaks of Carnival like a spiritual talisman that can make the rest of your year sweeter: “Perhaps you keep Carnival like Christmas: in your pulse, and in your prayers, year-round. No matter how you celebrate, dingolay and dreevay, the objects of your daily life acquire a heft, a supple and vibesy spirituality, when they pass through the flame of the Carnival.”
Carnival came to Trinidad from a meeting of the traditions of French Catholic settlers and enslaved peoples of Creole (Caribbean-born) and West African heritage over two centuries ago. While the French partied in exclusive carnival fetes, free and enslaved Africans partied on the streets. For cultural activist Eintou Pearl Springer, Carnival as a street festival in Trinidad reflects the deeper struggle for African-descended peoples’ right to selfhood, basic human rights, and free expressions of their own culture which was influenced by West African religious drumming, dance and masquerade traditions.
So in its very beginnings, there were at least two main religious influences in Trinidad Carnival – Roman Catholicism (indirectly) and forms of Orisha (done secretly, through symbolism and masquerades, because African religions were demonised and outlawed by the Catholic ruling class).
French, RC-influenced culture determined Carnival’s timing as a period of sensory indulgence before the lean times of Lent, when staunch Catholics would give up meat and other pleasures of the flesh.
In France, carnivals have a long and colourful history, celebrated since the Middle Ages. French carnivals often lasted not just for a couple of days but for a whole month, from the medieval January 1 Feast of Fools festival (which included elements of parody, a burlesque of Christian morality, and some wild partying) until Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday.
In Trinidad, Carnival borrowed from the French tradition and went on to mix up, fuse, adapt and invent different forms and meanings drawn from African, and. later, other ethnic cultural heritages.
The widely travelled American art historian and anthropologist Daniel Crowley (1921-1998) saw both sacred and profane elements in many New World carnivals. In his 1999 essay The Sacred and the Profane in African and African-derived carnivals, he wrote: “Carnival is truly profane since it seeks specifically NOT to be sacred, and indeed to do violence to propriety and respectability by irreverence and even contempt, often made all the more effective through the use of indirection, humour and irony.”
Crowley then went on to discuss significant expressions of African spirituality in carnival, giving examples such as the use of Afro-Brazilian mythology and Yoruba religious drum rhythms and songs in street carnivals in Bahia, Brazil. He observed that far from desecrating religion, carnival in Bahia was seen by some practitioners as an open forum to display African-inspired sacred rituals, costumes, symbols, songs, dances and drumming, all right alongside the more secular forms. Crowley writes: “For some devout carnival maskers, the street parade is both an act of worship and a statement of racial (and political) identity and pride, utterly distinct from the ‘merrymaking’ of maskers of other classes and/or ancestries who reverse their everyday life to glory momentarily in all that is profane.”
“There is a deep heritage of African spirituality in our carnival traditions, a heritage that is often not known or widely recognised,” says Eintou Pearl Springer, who every year helps organise the Kambule street theatre production in Port of Spain on Carnival Friday. The National Library website notes that by 1802, Trinidad’s enslaved population numbered 20,000, and included Yoruba, Hausa, Congo, Ibo, Rada, Mandingo, Koromanti, and Temne peoples.
Kambule (also called Canboulay, from the French “cannes brulees,” or burnt canes) was a torchlight procession of African-descended peoples in Trinidad. It used to take place from midnight on Carnival Sunday. On August 1, 1834, enslaved Africans were formally declared free, but “apprenticed” or still compelled to work on plantations; it was not until August 1, 1838 that they were declared fully free – “free,” yet without being given any reparations for their enslavement, without receiving much if any education or training for a better future, and with little money or progressive job opportunities with which to advance their lives. Kambule, with its drums, singing, dancing and chanting, was their celebration of themselves, and the precursor to our forms of Carnival.
The National Carnival Commission (NCC) website says that by the 1870s, around carnival time, “hundreds of men, carrying lighted flambeaux and sticks, some drunk, most of them masked, marched around the streets of the capital. There was drumming, hooting, singing, shouting, and fights between rival bands.”
The restless street roaming and fighting with bottles, sticks and stones disrupted the peace in sporadic forms of mob violence, but it was also very likely an expression of anger and defiance against the many legal, social, educational, economic and religious oppressions of a deeply unjust society which tried to erase African cultural identity and religions though propaganda, religious conversion and prejudiced, racist British colonial attitudes and laws.
The prejudice was real, and legal. One British ordinance in 1869, for example, cited any African form of religion as “obeah” and “black magic,” with practitioners subject to imprisonment or flogging, notes anthropologist Frances Henry in her 2003 book Reclaiming African Religions in T&T. She writes: “Playing drums or any other musical instrument between 10 pm and 6 am was made illegal, and even bongo and drum dances could not be held without official permission….the music bill of 1883 prohibited drum playing of any kind.”
British colonial laws banned the African-influenced Spiritual Baptist religion for 34 years. from 1917-1951. People were banned from holding a flower or a lighted candle in their hands at public meetings, banned from ringing a bell, banned from wearing a white head tie, and banned from shaking their bodies in public, notes Henry. During the prohibition, the Spiritual or Shouter Baptists fled to the hills to worship and hold services in secret, but police would still raid them.
Much has happened since those years: the end of formal colonialism: political independence and self-rule; the transfer of power from white to Afro-TT (and later, sometimes, to Indo-TT) leaders, the widespread right to vote – universal adult suffrage – in 1945; multiple migrations of different ethnic groups both into and out of the country; the expansion of educational access to the poor; the shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy; and the eventual state legitimation and celebration of African-derived faiths in the late 1980s and 1990s, marked by the UNC government granting in 1996 of the first annual Shouter Baptist public holiday on March 30, under then prime minister Basdeo Panday. And as times changed, so too did carnival expressions, often reflecting the society’s increasingly diverse ethnic, religious, cultural and business influences. But one thing has remained consistent: the Trinidad Carnival continues to channel and express people’s energies in ways that can be sacred, secular or profane.
* Next Sunday, in Part 2, writer Shereen Ali examines: Different spirits in the mas.