Most places, you can choose half a dozen ways to drive from any point A to any point B. In London, I could make the five-minute drive from Clapham to Balham every day for a fortnight and never take the same route twice. In tiny Barbados, drivers have even greater choice.
In the heavily-populated areas of Trinidad, however, no matter where you start or finish, you have to use one or more of the same half-dozen major roads.
And, in Carnival week, the only times those roads are are not jammed chock-a-block with cars are the times no one wants to go anywhere. From the Croisee to Chaguaramas, from Blue Range to Belmont, from Cobo Town to Cascade, from St James to St Ann's, Port of Spain’s road system, at Carnival, is one big firetrucking car park. Minshall could have designed a King of Carnival: Mankind Car Standing Stick Right There Like a Frozen Metal River.
Nine times out of every ten I left my digs, I gave up at the first corner, where the stalled traffic began, and turned back. There wasn’t much worth leaving home for (though I was glad to go to Panorama finals and sorry to miss David Rudder Under the Trees).
Although the bits of the Calypso Monarch competition I saw on TTT were harder to endure than the traffic. Its most noticeable moments came when it collapsed from mediocre-but-largely-inoffensive to clichéd-and-gratuitously-insulting, like when some singing sojourner singled out the Winos for some sampat. (Keith Smith, awesome advocate of alliteration, you’re almost lucky to be dead, if only to avoid bearing witness to this cultural carnage.) With a melody stolen from Walt Disney’s animated feature, Lady & the Tramp – We are Siamese if you please/We are Siamese if you don’t please – what was passed off as calypso commentary was out-and-out racist mockery of American stereotypes of Chinese people.
That could itself have inspired a real kaiso. If there were a real calypsonian under age 60 around to first discern and then document it. Terri Lyons clearly didn’t fall all that far from her father’s tree and last year’s winner, Rondell Donawa, should’ve won again this year, and probably next year, too, I reckon, for at least trying to do something with music, lyric and melody.
But you do not do yourself any favours by making any assessment at all about the music, or anything at all about Carnival. It’s like trying to weigh cotton candy on a sugar factory cane-truck scale. For me, only J'Ouvert has stopped me saying Carnival has been dead for years.
This year, the first time I’ve been in Trinidad for Carnival week in a decade, I found out that, too, is finished. I played a good J'Ouvert, a visually striking ole mas. I know. Because everyone we met in the portions of town now deemed safe enough for the stush to sashay through took selfies with us. To put on Facebook.
At 6 am, I could no longer keep up the pretence that strangers flinging abeer powder in your face could lead to the spiritual rejuvenation J'Ouvert is supposed to bring. This sterile, superficial posturing wasn’t even playing yourself, I said to myself; it was just playing the a--.
In my head, I began composing a three-part repudiation of this rubbish, a trinity of Carnival columns beginning with an ode to the death of J'Ouvert, Bringing Off Rope, that would attack the notion of using physical violence, or its threat, to prevent “outsiders” from joining the party.
The whole point of Carnival, or at least of J'Ouvert, is the loss of the Self in the Other. How do you do that when there is no Other?
But I realised that modern Trinidad Carnival isn’t even worth derision. And sneering at it couldn’t hope to fill three columns. There just isn’t enough of Carnival left to even take hold of so you can tear it apart. This is not madness in here, it is a fete. One of those all-exclusive ones. Where you’re far, far, far better off if they don’t invite you.
BC Pires is a ghost in the modern Carnival machine but they will oil his short a--e soon enough.