Carnival of resistance

Culture Matters

Power to the People

Down by the bus stand

after election

A PNM Shango man

was giving a sermon

He said, my friends come

I have a vision

Of what could have happened

If Raffique Shah had won...

I see Burroughs gone crazy

Half-naked with a posy

Begging for tea by Salvatori...

Lord Harris and Victoria

They run them out of the square

I see statues of Geddes Granger standing there

Eric run way from his desk

They hold him down in Crow’s Nest

Wearing Erica’s lipstick and dress

Then he sang

Ogun la la ooh ray ray

Ogun la la mon day

– Extract, Shango Vision, Mighty Chalkdust

IN 1977, the Mighty Chalkdust seized the Calypso Monarch crown with Shango Vision and Crying Protest. Liberation, a National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) publication, hailed the victory as a sign of “Carnival returning to the people.” Chalkdust’s calypso explored concerns raised in 1970: dissatisfaction with the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) and its leader Dr Eric Williams, distrust of authority figures and the chasm between the wealthy and underprivileged.

Chalkdust’s winning calypso was significant for other reasons. Ogun is the Orisa warrior God of iron and metals. In the Yoruba spiritual belief system, Ogun is the inspiration behind our steel pan. By reaching into this spirituality, Chalkdust made a link between Africa, Carnival and the repressive actions of the ruling classes against the celebration.

As in the 1900s, there were renewed attempts to “organise” the festival. NJAC commented that “more mas bands were being organised like commercial ventures...The result of this was gradual alienation of the masses.” Worse, some felt that there were deliberate attempts to marginalise steelband, calypso and Carnival.

Apart from little airtime for controversial calypsoes such as Shango Vision, there was an overwhelming presence of American and western music on the airwaves. Further, there did not appear to be any overarching philosophy of Carnival to preserve and promote local culture. For instance, in 1972, there was some controversy when American star James Brown performed “in the height of the Carnival season.” Local stars like Lord Blakie, Carol Addison and Catelli Trinidad All Stars performed, but the headliner was clearly Brown.

Throughout the decade, Brother Valentino quietly but powerfully kept the focus on issues such as social inequality, racism and corruption. Dis Place Nice (1975) remains one of the most powerful indictments of the time:

“...Three quarters of a million people/ Cannot get up and do something '’bout the struggle/ But could plan for the next holiday/ To fete their lives away/ And forgetting that they own the soil/ Of which their fore-parents toil/ For the people who form the constitution laws/ For the oppressors and foreign investors/ Trinidad is nice, Trinidad is a paradise.”

The year 1979 saw a changing of the guard, a shift of focus. Peter Minshall swept the mas with his presentation Carnival of the Sea, winning Band of the Year, King and Queen of Carnival and People’s Choice. Sparrow and Kitchener were absent from the Calypso Monarch, while the Road March was Soca Baptist by a nashy newcomer called Blue Boy.

This week, a small group of us marched in Port of Spain, drumming and singing to recall that day in February 1970 when thousands took to the streets to express their disgust with the status quo. As we walked, more than one person asked me what we were doing. Their smiles were polite, but they obviously had no idea what I was talking about. Fifty years later, the revolutionaries marched and danced, but their eyes revealed the disappointment. Much has changed, but too much remains the same.

Today, we struggle still for our culture. In 1971, when poet Gil Scot Heron wrote The Revolution will not be Televised (You will not be able to...skip out for beer during commercials/ Because the revolution will not be televised/ ...The revolution will be no rerun brothers/ The revolution will be live) he poked fun at the dominance of television, asserting that change must happen in the streets.

Heron could not have predicted our 21st century dependency on devices and its dulling effect on revolutionary spirit.

In the Shango man’s vision, 1970 restored balance. African heroes and culture were respected, authority figures got what they deserved and the nation’s wealth was shared. The ageing revolutionaries know that this vision has eluded us.

If Carnival is about resistance, then we must ask Baba Ogun to remove all obstacles and focus on building our communities. We need to restore the twinkle in the eyes of the revolutionaries. And return power, power to the people.

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


"Carnival of resistance"

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