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Monday 22 July 2019
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Carnival of resistance

Culture Matters

Behind The Mas

“... in 1919, the Port of Spain Gazette, which represented the rich upper class and the old proprietors, renewed its call for the abolition of Carnival. The Gazette’s call for abolition was supported by the Catholic News. Both papers felt that Carnival was a case of “an orgy in which hypocrites from the supposedly respectable classes under disguise joined denizens from the demi-monde to indulge in behaviour which undermined the morals of the entire society...”

CARNIVAL Tuesday afternoon. Downtown, Port of Spain. The city streets are mostly free of activity expect for the few masqueraders looking for their band, foreigners and police. Our 18th century buildings, similar to the ones so beautifully preserved in New Orleans, look out at the emptiness from their once ornate balconies, through their steady decay and neglect.

On the outskirts, music trucks dominate, leaving the steel pan and traditional Carnival characters to their usual battle for space in the celebration. The scenario is almost the same on Monday, though thankfully, some of the bands with DJ trucks also include rhythm sections with drums, percussion and iron.

Why do we continue to have Carnival? There are many who still believe that the festival is pagan or not of the Bible – these very words were uttered to me just this week by a taxi driver intent on converting me.

Business people certainly have no doubts about their purpose in this time. Over the years, they have created spaces within the celebration designed to generate considerable income, but also to fill a need for new experiences. Outside of national Carnival structures, they have invented J’Ouvert separate from Carnival Monday, different parade venues such as Socadrome and themed fetes at sunrise, at 2 pm, on boats, in the forest...

Externally, commercial motivation has also spurred the making and selling of our pan for exorbitant prices in the US and other countries. The absence of a philosophical approach to Carnival has thus provided the foundation for its leakage away from us, whether from a monetary or sociological perspective.

After the call in 1919 for the cancellation of Carnival, the then governor gave the responsibility for the festival to the Trinidad Guardian and its evening paper, the Argos. They were mandated to ensure that “the Carnival was to be free from violence and vulgarity.”

Efforts to frustrate and eliminate the jammette Carnival of the ordinary people thus seemed to be working, as acceptance and participation by the middle classes grew. However for ordinary people, the people of African heritage, Carnival was a celebration of freedom. Further, the banning of their various cultural manifestations – whether it was the drum, tamboo-bamboo or masking – simply led to other forms of expression being invented.

But the crux of the Carnival was resistance. From the jab molassie, to baby doll, stick-fighting and the Kambule, ordinary people were intent on using the celebration to disrupt upper class sensibilities, while pointing out the reality for the economically disadvantaged.

Prof Hollis Liverpool notes that bands between 1900 and 1962 “targeted the colonial government, the US authorities and the rich elites as bodies whose dominance, as expressed in their laws and administration, was to be resisted and subverted.”

So why do we continue to have Carnival? For me, in 2019 as in 1919, the principle of subversion must stay at the forefront. That is, subversion of the goal of people who repeat phrases like “calypso dying,” subversion of Carnival bodies that have contributed to the decline of the festival, subversion of leaders who continue to intimidate the makers of the mas, and subversion of business objectives that are threatening to swallow everything in their path.

Resistance is important because our festival has a central role to play in teaching us about our history, impacting our education curricula and operating as a positive healing force within our society. It must be remembered that people of every ethnicity, political and religious persuasion take part in this spectacle.

Our Carnival is also a prime example of hard work and commitment. Rehearsing in the panyards until 4 am, making costumes in the mas camp for months, practising calypsoes, preparing for bois bataille...all of these require a singularity of purpose and focus, hardly seen at other times of the year.

After Carnival, we laugh, lounge by the water and relax. But we must remain vigilant. As the words of the Pharaoh calypso from the 1800s say: “Bend the angle on dem/ Is to blow dem down/ Is to blow dem down.../ Sans humanite (without mercy).”

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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