Criticism of the Trinidad Carnival hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years. The Port of Spain Gazette in 1919 described Carnival as a festival which undermined the morals of the entire society. Even Carnival’s defenders, such as the Argos evening newspaper, called for improvement in the costumes and calypsos, editorialising in 1912 for “regulation and re-organisation rather than abolition” of the Carnival.
Novelist Earl Lovelace, who has become an Afrocentrist-Creole icon, wrote in the Trinidad Express in 1968: “Today we may rightfully ask, what has happened to the calypsonian? What has become of him? His cleverness is fading; the finesse—the polish—is going. With a few exceptions, his subjects are about sex, the details presented in the raw, the approach growing tired.” Scholar Gordon Rohlehr, the world’s leading authority on the artform, traces this to the 1940s, arguing in his book Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad that lyrics and melody changed because “the effect of singing for the entertainment of American Marines had been to shift the emphasis in calypsos from social relevance to diversion.”
And, in 2012, writer and culture critic Raymond Ramcharitar writes: “Carnival is not ‘we’ culture, it is PNM culture, and only survived because the PNM was in power from 1956-1986; and finally, calculations of cost-benefit do not account for the costs of Aids, stress on the judicial, protective, health and educational systems, and the erosion of productivity, work ethic, and social relations.” (Trinidad Guardian, January 25.)
Now even by the tendentious intellectual standards of cultural theory, Ramcharitar’s thesis is over-stated. If, as the historical record demonstrates, Ramcharitar’s complaints have been voiced in virtually the same form from the 19th century onwards, then both the Carnival and the PNM are products of the wider culture, rather than, as he argues, definers of the norms and values of the society (or, specifically, the Afro elements of the society). Laws which tried to “clean Carnival from its vulgarity and obscenity” were passed in 1883 (the Musical Ordinance) and 1884 (the Peace Preservation Ordinance). One commentator in the 1870s, condemned the jamettes (who are now called ‘skettels’ or ‘hos’) for their bawdy behaviour, which included “opening their bodices and exposing their breasts…openly soliciting men (particularly of the middle-class), wearing sexually revealing clothing and dancing indecently on the streets.” So, contrary to popular belief, women masqueraders nowadays are less lewd now than their 19th century sisters. Also, culture researcher Jocelyne Guilbault, in an essay titled “Making and Selling Culture”, observes that “By 1953, most of the elements that have given the calypso industry its unique configuration could be said to have been put in place…the organisation of the national competitions of so-called traditional calypso has, by definition, been intertwined with the government.” This was a full three years before the People’s National Movement came to office.
This does not mean that Ramcharitar’s basic argument—that Carnival has pernicious effects which far outweigh any socio-economic benefits —is wrong. The problem is, Ramcharitar does not prove his thesis, which is grounded in cultural theory which itself has little empirical basis. In other words, his apparent scholarship is mere dress and dross for the same critiques expressed 100 years before. Nor does his implied corollary—that stopping the Carnival would redound to the benefit of the society—necessarily hold, since the underlying norms of the society would remain unchanged.
So, even if there were sufficient data, predicting the effects of a non-Carnival Trinidad would be problematic. And, with the paucity of data, even tracing the festival’s past effects is virtually impossible. For example, the “Carnival babies” phenomenon may be real, since there is a 15 percent increase in the birth-rate between September and December. (But, for all we know, this could be due to climatic effects on fertility and sexual behaviour.) Even if Carnival was the cause, however, we need a profile of these additional mothers to estimate social effects: are they married or single, what is their socio-economic status, how do they participate in the Carnival? Similarly, although there are continual assertions that STDs increase during Carnival, this is unprovable by existing tracking systems.
Ramcharitar sidesteps such complications by claiming that the two-day festival has year-round effects. “This has generated a whole range of behaviour and, indeed, a culture,” he writes, asking, “How does this culture of noise, public displays of sexual crudity and general disrespect for the law affect children’s worldviews, academic performance, attitudes to authority, and young boys’ attitudes to women?” then taking the response as given: “No one at UWI dares to do the research to find this out, because we all know the answers.” Ramcharitar does not prove that the Carnival’s norms shape the generalised values of the society, save by citing his cultural theorists. However, UWI sociologist Roy McCree’s survey (Table 1) does support Ramcharitar’s claim about the pervasiveness of Carnival.
At the same time, Ramcharitar in his January 18 column asserts that “the main, post-independence national culture was designed to be in direct opposition to Indo/Hindu culture”, which would logically imply that Hindus and/or Indos are ontologically resistant to the Carnival influence.
American sociologist Garth L. Green, in an essay titled “Authenticity and the Construction of Identity in Trinidad Carnival” notes that this issue of values is “subject to wide interpretation, deeply problematic and highly contested.” However, Table 2 suggests that the progress-resistant values inculcated in the Carnival far outweigh the progress-prone ones, as listed by research from 22 countries in the Culture Matters project.
Green delineates two broad views of the festival: “In the first, Carnival is full of merriment, colourful pageantry and street theatre. In the other, it is a form of cultural resistance in which the marginalised strive for liberation, express their identity and achieve a psychosocial catharsis. Discussions about Carnival as a touristic cultural product and as an object within the national cultural patrimony take place within the poles marked by these two visions. On the one hand, Trinidadians fear that foreigners will see them as ‘carefree natives’…on the other hand, Trinidadians want to be recognised as having created unique expressive forms that should be respected, appreciated and valued by the world.”
It is this perspective which appears to have informed the clumsily-worded and meretricious core statement of the Vision 2020 committee under the last PNM administration, which described the future T&T society as “a united, resilient, productive, innovative and prosperous nation with a disciplined, caring, fun-loving society comprising healthy, happy and well-educated people and built on the enduring attributes of self-reliance, respect, tolerance, equity and integrity.”
How does Carnival fit into these goals? The festival appears antithetical to unity (calypsonians serve a tribal function); productivity (the two to three months of weekend fetes and related activities probably reduce national productivity); discipline (Carnival’s core ethos is abandon), care and respect (not for those not playing mas); health (many people get fit for Carnival, many more drink and smoke and eat more); education (also suffers like productivity).
There is, however, little chance that the Carnival will stop any time soon. If, however, the core values of the society become more progressive, the festival will adapt itself to the new ethos. And, insofar as Carnival promotes a liberal attitude, the festival is necessary for such change in a society where the narrow-minded and conservative still hold the real reins of power.