Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : February 11th 2016 Contents By the time you get to read this, it ll all be over,
officially that is. Although as we all know, until the
fat lady stretches her vocal chords and wind down,
wind up last gaspers at Maracas, Mayaro and every
yard from Moruga to Maraval, the Carnival is still
breathing and really never switches off but lies dor-
mant in the blood and belly.
Writing now in an unnervingly silent hiatus, which
is Tuesday morning, seems a good point to reflect on
the confluence of currents and controversies, which
constitute our national festival.
First I ll come clean, mostly because it s easy to do
so as I haven t as much as dipped my finger in a pot
of mud, imbibed fire-breathing spirits, or lubricated a
lower back with the oil-down of wining.
Too many years of having my liver, spleen and solar
plexus convulsed by monster sound systems have made
me wary of noise, and it does seem the volume on the
road continues to rise, so that all that is distinguishable
is a generic howl.
But howling might be good right now---so much to
howl about. The elusive point however is---I ve played
distant observer, rather than active participant, so far
at least. So I ll take this early morning amble, from a
position of relative detachment. Lost memories, recon-
structions, fragments, eruptions, the push and pull of
power relations, submerged and emergent identities,
celebration, creativity, release, resistance, confronta-
tion---all of these and much more are focused, condensed
and then dissipated in the many rituals and spaces we
know as Carnival.
Like any other social ritual, Carnival is an organic
(for some orgiastic) beast, shedding its costume/skin
annually, before lurching onwards. It can be viewed
historically as a succession of interrelated phases.
As far as I know (although the professional historians
would have to confirm this) there are no records of
Carnival during the lengthy period of Spanish rule. It s
more likely that the handful of forgotten scrunting
settlers would have celebrated Dia de los Reye---
Epiphany---if they d had time off from eking out an
existence far more pitiable than the free range lifestyle
of the surviving Amerindians.
Carnival most likely arrived with the predominantly
French Creole Roman Catholic cedulants, during the
latter half of the 1780s, who came initially from Grenada
(fleeing English oppression) and then after the French
Revolution s reverberations in the Caribbean, from Haiti
and Martinique. So the origins of Trini Carnival lie in
a Roman Catholic festival, grafted onto a much older
European pagan fertility festival which the church,
unable to eradicate, had appro
Even before Emancipation, Carnival was being cre-
olised---subjected to other influences besides those of
the French Creoles who would mostly have belonged
to the ancient regime, the old pre-revolution monar-
The behind-the-doors celebrations featuring cos-
tuming, masking, feasting and music was essentially
recreation for the French Creole elite who were effectively
the power brokers, despite nominal Spanish control.
Formal ballroom dances---waltz, mazurka, polka,
quadrille---were accompanied by musicians playing
Besides the Carnival the French Creoles brought their
slaves with them, who were initially excluded from the
celebration, but who nevertheless observed it surrep-
titiously and who would have recognised certain ele-
ments---the feasting, costuming, masking, singing and
dancing---which resonated with memories embedded
in oral history of similar ancestral
After all, fertility rites and placating the spirits of
the land to ensure bountiful harvests and the safety of
the community were not a European pagan monop-
oly.There are records of slaves being inducted into the
musical ensembles which accompanied these early
Carnival balls and out of sight of the plantation and
town houses, slaves were already adapting and modifying
the European dances they had peeped at, adding them
to their repertoire of remembered and creolised dances.
Emancipation brought Carnival out of the houses
and control of the elite to the streets, which became,
if only for a few weeks, a reclaimed space for the ex-
slaves. The Jamette Carnival of the 19th century set
the recently liberated on an inevitable collision course
with the recently installed British colonial system.
Political and cultural hegemony, power relations
along with Scientific racism dictated that "civilised"
society would repress expressions of the so-called
"primitive"---the violent, noisy, lewd, anarchic Afro-
The flashpoint of the 1880s, with Hosay as well as
Canboulay riots, is only one part of deliberate policy
which saw the demonisation and banning of mostly
Afro-Creole cultural practices from the 1880s, right
through to the Shouter Baptist Prohibition Order of
1917, which was only finally rescinded in 1951.
Given the undeniable plurality of the society, it
becomes disingenuous to dismiss Canboulay as mere
lawlessness and its participants as criminals. This is a
disservice to the Creole nature of both the society and
its festival, which cannot now be held responsible for
an implosion which has as much to do with our inability
to decolonise and jump the plantation boundaries, as
it has to do with globalisation.
There is no single national narrative or culture; despite
commercialisation, Carnival still grants the spaces for
our diverse stories. Ask Minshall.
Thursday, February 11, 2016 www.guardian.co.tt Guardian
Contesting the Carnival
"Given the undeniable plurality of the society, it becomes disingenuous to dismiss Canboulay as mere lawlessness
and its participants as criminals. This is a disservice to the Creole nature of both the society and its festival," writes
Simon Lee. This photo captures a moment during this year's Canboulay parade. PHOTO: MICHEAL BRUCE
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