YVONNE BOBB-SMITH recounts two chance encounters that sent her reflecting down Carnival memory lane
The carnival offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things’ (Bakhtin, 1984)
I recall a friend’s frequent saying, “You only to have to live long enough” whenever I remarked in awe about change. This is the lens through which I look at Carnival today.
I have lived long enough to compare and contrast, starting from my childhood experience of mas, when fear ruled my mind. Persuaded and inspired to play mas on Carnival Tuesday this year,, I proceeded down Richmond Street to the South Quay judging point.
To my delight I ran into a handsome Band of Amerindians, totally recognizable as such, and commonly referred to as “Wild Indians,” an appellation which I reject because of its racist connotations. It is interesting that when the colonizers forced First Peoples to change their fashion – nakedness – their creativity and intelligence rose to the magnificence we see reproduced in these Carnival costumes. I was overjoyed to be in the presence of some 40-plus people who beautifully portrayed the formal and different design of dress of the First Peoples. I observed without making any special effort to study them that the group bore rural and semi-urban demographics.
The band consisted of sections each carrying a tribe name. It had been formed not too long ago in San Fernando, and is not associated with the House of the Black Elks, a historic icon from that town. Long ago, being close to an Indian mas would scare the life out of me as I felt the awesome power, authority and respect which this masked person exuded. As was the case with Sailor mas, my fear of Indian mas would send me scurrying under a bed. But on this Carnival Tuesday, that feeling was no longer there as, up close to the men and women of the band, I felt I was integrated psychically with a pride that people had continued, through masking, to honour so definitively the presence – more accurately the absence – of First Peoples.
These masqueraders were clothed in gorgeous head-dresses of large feathers, each tribe made significant through different bold colours – red, blue, yellow, purple, and so on, with flounced gowns for women and pants for men. The elements of authenticity not only in dress but in performance made me reflect on days long gone when bandleaders in Belmont, the area of my birth and childhood, insisted that masqueraders had to know who or what they were portraying and therefore required them to practise playing their mas behind closed doors.
Even when I was a young adult, I remember librarians who made sure coffee table books of artistic or historical content were made available, before Carnival, to band leaders and designers who rushed to the libraries to research and make copious notes. In those days, there were no photocopiers. The result was that mas players, when tutored, portrayed with dedication and veracity their leaders’ vision and research. (A Minshall mas of the 1980s and 1990s comes to mind.)
On Tuesday, this San Fernando band showed some evidence of this preparation and tutoring as they re-enacted a dance at the judging point in an unmistakable tribal fashion. They circled and made the trademark Amerindian birdlike whistles. I watched the performance of the band in awe, thinking as I did so that modern technology has done very little to project the cultural tradition of the First Populations who owned and managed the lands we now claim – and consume – as ours.
By the close of the day, my experience was just the opposite. Though modern and popular, the band TRIBE evoked fear in me. I was first struck by the mountains of mechanical equipment in the form of long trucks, seeming to form articulated carriages of a train. People, scantily costumed, dotted the areas around these massive moving objects. I was scared to go close. There was no grandeur to pull me there, only trepidation, the thought that someone would “lose control” and spectators and mas players would have to scamper away for their lives. What really, I heard myself asking myself, is this band portraying?
Mikhail Bakhtin, in 1984, writes “Carnival is the people’s second life, organized on the basis of laughter.” In European history, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, folk culture manifested itself in spoken and written parodies, as well as in rituals of pageants that created spectacular events called Carnival. Thus, the comic and ridicule of this culture shattered barriers in which the serious and the religious were encaged. This behaviour ignored protocols of respectability and produced a satire of the dominant authorities in society.
These peasant cultural activities produced laughter and, through the transmutation of “pagan” rituals, became a comic sideshow to religious feasts. Eventually, they took on a life of their own, becoming part of tradition and fulfilling an important role in society. The Church capitalized on these events and scheduled them in keeping with religious feasts. They felt like some kind of rebirth, arguably because, according to Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool (2001), they arose from celebrations that had originally served as a form of protest against European domination.
In African history, Kimani Yehusi, (2000), identifies festivals in ancient Egypt as fundamental to the lives of its people. Masking and mystery theatre marked these festivities. In Western Africa, the tribal ceremonies associated with the people’s cosmology produced masking traditions in many varieties. There were traditions of ancestral worship, spirits and beliefs which were as diverse as were African communities. Masking in particular can be identified as having influenced European carnival when encountered in the Caribbean.
In the nineteenth century, the Caribbean European colonizers’ memory of parody and masking modified ancient carnival traditions in the islands. They held these activities during the Christian feasts: Christmas and Easter. In particular, the English who had begun to reap great economic benefits and yield from slavery and colonizing Africans, conjoined harvest celebration with Christian religious beliefs. This, of course, produced a great deal of cultural domination. However, theirs was an event divorced from issues of oppression and was instituted in the realm of domination, along with self-praise and commendation – totally opposite to the medieval to Renaissance traditions.
Therefore, in nineteenth century plantation society, planters allowed Africans, not without violent restrictions, to mask, sing and dance in the great or estate houses. Yet, the recreation of African masking, singing and dancing was linked to the politics of oppression and anti-slavery consciousness, as Hilary Beckles argued in 2001. But the cultural activities of Africans seem to be in parallel with the folk culture of ancient Europe. That is, cultural activities increasingly would become a spectacle of protest against slavery and imperialism as well as an attempt to contain inter-culturation of Amerindian culture. Carnival became a creation of a “second life.”
Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, the process of creolizing the cultures was entrenched and the transition from slavery to emancipation changed plantation life dynamics. It became quite clear that cultural activities depicted a struggle against social difference and material inequality. Carnival generated new meaning among the emancipated, who had become the working class, to ensure that Carnival developed their vision. Thus, it would contain elements of masking as well as theatrical aspects which criticized, satirized and ridiculed the effects of imperial domination, as Philip W. Scher (2009) pointed out. However, it was more their African “Carnival” at Emancipation declaration, 1838, which for 9-10 years hence, with a reason to celebrate, emancipated Africans made great their mas. But similar to the transformation of European Carnival during the Renaissance period, the Church and colonial politicians in Trinidad and Tobago took governance away from an African lower class and regulated it in keeping with the religious ritual of Lent. Encouraged by the middle class, with its particular issues of marginalization, there was no objection to the manifestation of Carnival’s highly celebratory nature. That class, as well, had its oppression. Yet, in general, people with established status or those becoming socially mobile, decried anything that, to them, displayed lack of respectability. However, we have to admit that, in general, Carnival was used as a weapon of cultural/political resistance.
Carnival evolved and peaked in the twentieth century mainly in this vein of parody, mask or masquerade, strongly depicting a mix of African re-creation and a process of borrowing from similar cultures, but retaining an emphasis on providing information about socio-political and historical conditions through realistic to surrealist presentation. We saw a gradual lessening of this process during the close of the last century.
Today, as the 21st century leaves its first decade behind, what we see is a largely widening gulf, one in which we have traditional masking, like the dozen Moko Jumbies who just travelled down Richmond Street, seeming to be overseers, and the Amerindian band from the Southland paying tribute to their ancestors. At the other end of the spectrum, there are bands like TRIBE, hardly discernible in traditional masking character, where neither spectator nor mas player knows why she/he is costumed. Or cares!
I just want to live long enough!