It is difficult not to sound a sober note this Carnival Sunday, when the whole country seems to be in a state of ecstasy. After nearly two years of sudden, bewildering imprisonment – sometimes in solitary confinement – owing to the pandemic, it is reasonable that we all want to break out and celebrate being alive and well, being able to hold on to our neighbour and dance and shake our grateful bodies to the irresistible sound of Carnival music.
I, personally, feel a deep sense of joy, although I will not be hitting the streets during the next two days. J'Ouvert is pulling me like a magnet, but I am resisting, fearing the price of taking part in a super-covid-spreader event that could result in a bout of solitary confinement, leaving me unable to be with my mother – who is heading for 102 – if she were to fall ill.
That worrying, I realise, is the antithesis of this season of break loose and personal rebellion, of forgetting your troubles and the losses and grief of the last three years. This is the time of year when we expect and look forward to reinventing ourselves, at least for a few therapeutic hours, and emerging cleansed.
It is hard to describe to anyone who has not experienced J'Ouvert how transformative that feeling of abandonment can be, of the childlike pleasure of being thrown into a barrow of mud and/or being daubed from head to toe in colour and oil – cocoa if you are lucky – and not to care. Small transgressions, such as sitting on the curb, drinking more than you should and dancing in the street with strangers, no longer feel like extreme acts.
I have played pretty mas too, but that now has no attraction for me at all. It has changed so much that I cannot imagine what it must be like to play mas today in a costume that covers only your nipples and the tiniest portion of your private parts, from which all the pubes have been painfully removed, with the cheeks of your bottom left free to jiggle around and be pinched and gauped at by leery-eyed admirers or detractors.
The phenomenon of the modern, very expensive, and ridiculously skimpy costumes of the modern bands is something I find hard to wrap my head around. It must be a more indulgent form of abandonment that allows a person to present themselves almost naked in public by convincing themselves that they are not nude because the feathers and other accoutrements create a sensation of being covered. Perhaps it is a desire to flaunt what one has in the way of a “shape” or legs or boobs or whatever else and to contest received ideas about what is a standard “shape” or beautiful.
The important question is, who is Carnival for?
The answer is the masquerader. People over a certain age, who remember the joy of watching the different sections of a big band that depicted a time in history, for example, could sit or stand for hours to see the costumed interpretation of those events. The differences in design and colour were marked, the styles of each bandleader was easily identifiable. Simply, there was something to see that made the hot sun bearable.
Carnival used to be for both the onlooker and the player. In the 2000s, unless you are an avid voyeur, there is little to attract the average onlooker. And there is nothing worse than watching people having a good time and feeling left out.
Much has been said about the destruction of our Carnival and the loss of craft skills as we increasingly order baubles and feathers made in China or Taiwan, and the question is constantly asked, where are we going with this?
It’s a pertinent one. From the wonderfully positive vibe in the build-up to this year’s Carnival, fed by the most incredibly good pan music that has filled our ears and hearts for the last few weeks, and the many and various creative events that lead up to Carnival Monday and Tuesday, one can easily understand why this 2023 Carnival feels like the mother of all Carnivals despite the many behind-the-scenes management and financial travails.
It is an upbeat post-covid emotional response that may not last into Carnival 2024, when that question about "whither the Carnival?" will resonate louder.
Nothing stays the same, and that is in order, but we must adapt our thinking to suit. Perhaps we should accept that currently Carnival Monday and Tuesday are for business people and their masqueraders, and invent alternative events for those wanting another experience.
What people seem to most enjoy in this pre-Lenten season is the music, dancing, finding a form of release, liming. Carnival time is a reaffirmation of life and there is joy in life, there is hope, and we need that now more than ever.
Come Ash Wednesday 2023, Trinis should pray for guidance on how to make this unique and joyous event we have created called the Trinidad Carnival something for everyone.