Of Recession, Trinidad Carnival and Ole Times
Tony Fraser in Port of Spain reflects on how Trinidad cuts its Carnival cloth to suit the recessionary times.
The global headlines highlighted more banking crises, neighbouring Venezuela on the verge of economic collapse and continuing oil price declines.
So how did oil-rich Trinidad mark Carnival 2016?
As the song goes: “Don’t stop the Carnival”...
As could be expected and in typical Trini style, there were recession fetes and costumes. Just when you thought the bikinis could not get smaller, they did, to save cloth and expense in these recessionary times.
But the recession triggered by the precipitous fall in the international prices of gas, oil and a range of petrochemical products also had an impact on imagination and creativity in the Carnival arts: calypso, mas [masquerade] costuming and steelband music.
Lower levels of prize money for the creators of the Carnival were necessitated by the shrinking of government grants to the National Carnival Commission (NCC).
However, there can never be a recession in bacchanal and Kahng, defined in the Creole dictionary of T&T (Cote’ ci Cote’ la) as shoo shoo and commesse; if you don’t get it, forget it, stick with bacchanal and confusion for the definition.
Sadly, the Carnival ended in the killing (still unclear why and by whom) of a Japanese pan player, Asami Nagakiya.
But as Trinis are wont to do, instead of focusing on who committed this appalling crime against a woman who had been coming here over the last five years because she loved the pan and the culture, they shifted their attention to a rather foolish and badly timed statement by the Mayor of the capital city, Raymond Tim Kee.
He sought to hold up the tablets of the Commandments to scantily clad women, telling them that they contribute to their exploitation by what they wear, or don’t wear, and how they wine on Carnival days.
“Pastor” Tim Kee has since resigned his mayoral office, so perhaps the onus will now be on finding the perpetrator/s and saving the Trini image from sliding further into disrepute.
The high-priced pre-carnival fetes and shows were badly affected by the recession.
In recent times, when revenue had been flowing from the export of energy products, the cost of attending one of the “all-inclusive fetes”, which served items ranging from wild meat, roti and doubles to champagne and other blends of high-priced imported liquor, ranged between US$150 to up to US$300 for individuals going by themselves, hoping to find a man or woman in de fete.
The prices came down this year and so, too, the quality and quantity of the fare offered to patrons. Indeed, a few of the fetes were cancelled, ticket sales being slow. “Bacchanal Queen” Destra Garcia cancelled her show. But not Machel “Monk Monte” Montano (he alone knows what that sobriquet means).
His “Machel Monday” show and fete survived the recession. Fete goers and soca men and women simply cannot resist the winer boy; especially the winer girls who are always on the hunt for ah lil wine back: girl to man; girl to girl, the wine is de important ingredient.
Apologies about the coarseness of language; but I assure you it does not come close to describing the real thing.
One piece of social-class bacchanal developing in de Carnival has to do with a few of the large masquerade bands (in which a costume can cost the masquerader US$1,000, whatever the colours on the bikini and beads) seemingly wanting to distance themselves from the traditional parade route through the old city and to the Savannah stage.
Instead, such bands paraded around the middle-class urban sprawl of Woodbrook and went to the National Stadium to a high-class party called the “Soca Drome” [maybe they want to create another Brazil Carnival].
One local government councillor, who felt he could cross the rope held around the band to blockade outsiders from entering, was beaten up by big strong security officers. This episode took the Carnival back to the 19th Century (1881), when British Constabulary officer Captain Baker ordered the local police recruits to beat sense into the Jamet (persons considered to be of low virtue) Carnival crowd to cease and desist from playing mas related to their sufferings on the estate at the hands of “massa”.
Indeed, the Soca Drome resembled the social class divisions of recent times (1940s-1960s), when the French-Creole elite played their mas on a truck and the intention was not to engage the natives.
The chairman of the National Carnival Commission, Kenny De Silva, a man of Portuguese decent but a 150% down-to-earth Trini, says this East-West Carnival has to end.
But in fairness to the organisers of the Soca Drome, they say they are acting in the best interests of their masqueraders, who want to stay far from the clogged traditional route. This will give their band members room “to play themselves”: “Just to wine and have a good time”.
We shall see where this one goes.
But while that negative drift backward is happening on the western fringes of the masquerade route, in the old City in the East Driver area, colourfully referred to as “Behind de Bridge”, there is a return to the origins of the Carnival.
The Canboulay Re-enactment is street theatre in its highest form. Translated into English, Canboulay is burning canes. It was the time when fire caught the canes and the planter wakened the slaves in the early morning to put out the fires and save his crop.
Freed of the shackles of slavery, the African, with an alarming capacity for satire and the ability to laugh at himself, began celebrating freedom day, referred to as Emancipation Day, with searing portrayals of the times on Massa’s plantation: and so the Carnival was born.
Now the Canboulay is being recreated and, in addition to the re-enactment of the 1881 riots when an attempt was made to stop de Carnival, the morning is filled with the goat skin drums, with pulsating rhythms that reach down inside. There are stick fighting battles and Chantwells (the forerunner to today’s calypsonians, who led the bands in verbal war against each other). Meanwhile, the masquerades depict characters including the molasses devil, the Jab Jab; the midnight robbers full of empty threats; big dragon mas; and Moko Jumbies (stilt walkers) who dance to the gods above them.
One particular character who always gets a howling laugh in the Canboulay re-enactment is the young African woman, light-skinned pickney in arms looking through the masquerade band for Bacra, the planter who entered the barracks at night filled with one thing on his mind….!
In the Canboulay, the young woman attempts without success to find a father for her mulatto baby; but the young powerful black stick fighter, who she says is her baby’s father, makes it known that “my bois [stick] cyah produce nutten like dat”.
The scene is hilarious in the extreme, but painful in its representation of the experience of the young black woman in the barrack yard established in the old parts of the city.
On this foreday morning of the Canboulay, I ran into Etienne Charles, a young Trini Jazz-calypso trumpeter now making his way in New York. He told me he is researching the sounds of the Jab Jab, the blue and black devils and the bloodcurdling tall tales of the Midnight Robber and the Tamboo Bamboo bands (the players in the band beat different lengths of bamboo on the ground to get a sound approximating that of the goat skin drum, taken away from the masqueraders as the sound of the drums sent fear into the hearts of the French-Creole planters.
“This is the real Carnival, the real stick men, the real drummers; if it wasn’t for this we would not have Carnival today,” Charles told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“I am actually working on a project now, the stick fighters, the whip devils, the Pierrot Grenade (Grenadian Parrot – that’s a long story to explain). I am going all over the island recording these musicians and I am about to compose a suite of music about all of the different aspects of Carnival. This Canboulay experience fills my soul and it takes me back to where I am from and it is so good to see all these people here checking out the real aspects of Carnival.”
So while the recession is licking-up the spectacle of the mas, Peter Minshall, the mas man and major designer who has been out of the Carnival for a decade now, brought a king this year to the King of Carnival competition: Nijinsky, the dying Swan. While his opponents simply boasted of how much money they were spending, Minshall came with a Moko Jumbie mas that, despite the recession, was replete with imagination, creativity and meaning. That should tell you something about recession and dealing with the Carnival.
As the song goes: “Tweet, tweet yuh mocking pretender, bow yuh knees and drop yuh keys and pay de devil….”
This year, the NCC paid tribute to the man who preserved the Canboulay and traditional mas for my generation.
It’s important to know his name: John Gladstone Cupid.
John is still amongst us, but a musician known all over the Caribbean and the North American Diaspora where he toured for 60 years, “Pal” Joey Lewis, left us on Jouvert morning: play one for Joey.
Tony Fraser is a veteran journalist and editor based in Trinidad.