IT’S impossible to talk about the history of Carnival without examining the role that colour or ethnicity played in the celebration and the role that calypso eventually played in the festival.
In his book Trinidad Carnival, Errol Hill says that “according to legend, calypso was introduced to Trinidad in the late 18th century by Gros Jean, an appointed 'Maitre Kaiso' to Pierre Begorrat, a settler who had come from Martinique in 1784."
Begorrat supposedly had his African slave singers perform for his guests. Some he wished to entertain; others he wanted to insult. These performances on plantations were the slaves' only connection to the early French Carnival.
From 1783-1838 – spanning the time when the British captured Trinidad in 1797 – only the white plantocracy celebrated Carnival. It was a festival tied to the French Catholics – not the British Protestants, once they arrived.
“During slavery, free people played Carnival, so Carnival was almost a definition of freedom,” says pan historian Dr Kim Johnson. “When emancipation came, the ex-slaves decided, 'We’re free, so we are joining the Carnival.' They joined with their African practices and their rage against ex-bosses. That became the Jamette Carnival which became rowdier and rowdier.”
The French planters bowed out of the Carnival celebrations after Emancipation. Horrified by the licentious behaviour, the Protestant British rulers tried to stop the celebration, which they perceived as a danger to their rule.
“The British wanted to get rid of obscene mas, topless women, jammettes and stickfights,” says Johnson.
But calypsonians had an important role to play in Carnival after slavery. Hill says, “The calypsonian was attired to represent one of the principal characters in the (Carnival) band, second only to the king. He would act out his songs, and sometimes he would act as king of the band and lead his subjects.”
In the second half of the 19th century, the battle over Carnival became a cultural battle between the British bureaucracy and the French plantocracy. Middle-class and upper-class Trinidadians who had fled from Carnival eventually rejoined the celebration. Carnival became increasingly rebellious.
Between 1851 and 1881, the Trinidad Gazette reported that “it was common practice for the vilest songs, in which the names of ladies of the island are introduced, to be sung in the streets.”
A proclamation in 1868 reminded Carnival participants about the law against singing “any profane song or ballad.”
As more freed slaves participated in Carnival the Port of Spain Gazette reported, “the great change in Carnival. Rival bands met in streets or in one another’s tent, not to test superiority by blows but to engage in friendly competition in song directed playfully against each other,” writes Hill.
“The first calypso competition in 1914, was arranged by an enterprising businessman.”
Calypso continued to grow in popularity because it found a way to appeal to all ethnicities. It used African and Shango rhythms; Venezuelan, Irish and French musical influences. Eventually it would use East Indian musical influences as well.
It was “an instrument of social criticism and an escape-measure for resentful public feelings,” says Hill. Humour grew and picong remained an important part of early calypso performances.
“People are always willing to be entertained by criticism of the actions of their fellowmen,” says Hill. “When this criticism is expressed in songs with catchy melodies, an irresistible rhythm witty and pungent lyrics…a strong popular following is ensured.”
Calypso had many purposes as it grew in popularity, and it would always test the boundaries of good taste.
Next: The earliest calypsonians