Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago: Ferocious Spirit, Enduring Identities

The rhythmic, colourful and divine Carnival is one of the main windows into the soul of the people.

The Arts

Carnival Trinidad and Tobago
 Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Source: Pexels

 

The world over, humans have always demonstrated an innate ferocity of spirit in the face of adversity. For every era of human history there has been a singularity that has become the iconic representation of the willingness and capacity of humanity to not just struggle in the face of adversity, but to strive and flourish. They take the broken pieces of their lived experiences and in a feat of resilience and resistance create something beautiful, and poignant, expressive of their essence and how they have managed to continue on, and have changed over time.

 

In our time, we have witnessed many such creations, from hybrid cuisines, to new language forms, to creolised music trends, but by far one of the most intriguing forms of this phenomenon is the spectacle of the public parade. From the sublime Mardi Gras of New Orleans, to the hot, intense, and passionate Kye Marn of Haiti, to the rhythmic, colourful and divine Carnival of Trinidad and Tobago, the public parade has and is one of the main windows into the soul of the people. In witnessing the movement of bodies through the streets it is possible to trace the ways in which societies have changed, the places from which they have come, and the experiences through which they have lived.

 

​​Milton’s etching of first Carnival in Port of Spain, Trinidad
Milton’s etching of first Carnival in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Wikimedia

 

Before colonialism the term carnival was exclusively associated with the western Christian festive season that precedes Lent and is marked by parades and public street festivities. However, now it has come to be associated with expressions of reclamation and reunification of identity and self. One such incidence of reclamation of self through the use of the public spectacle is that of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago.

 

Carnival has, in one form or another, existed in Trinidad and Tobago for more than 200 years, and through those years the festival has become one of the greatest cultural representations of this country and of its people. Trinidad and Tobago is a small twin island republic whose carnival has been recreated regionally and internationally. Locally, the Carnival season unofficially commences a week before the High Mas that takes place on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.

 

Carnival Monday and Tuesday follow the Christian tradition and fall every year immediately before Ash Wednesday. This pre-Lenten celebration attracts thousands of tourists and visitors to the shores of this twin island state, significantly contributing to the country’s economy. Leading up to these climactic two days, the islands are filled with an intense sense of purpose, passion, and promise. It is as if the nation inhales and dives into preparatory festivity, to exhale and breathe finally, fully, on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. The previous Friday, titled ‘Fantastic Friday’, is the beginning of the final countdown.

 

Fantastic Friday is the day of the International Soca Monarch and from this night forward, as they say, “de ting start!” Pre-dawn fetes start off the Carnival Saturday, followed by Kiddies Carnival during the day and Panorama finals that night. Sunday plays host to the Calypso Monarch and Dimanche Gras competitions. In the past, these led directly into the J’ouvert street parade, however, in modern times the start of the J’ouvert has been pushed from midnight closer to 3 a.m. or 4 a.m.. J’ouvert — a sublime occasion where revellers ‘play a mas’ completely covered in oil, paint or mud — takes us through to ‘Ole Mas, Monday’s early morning procession of traditional mas characters and the caricature of notable citizens and occurrences.

 

Carnival Monday is a splendid mix of dirty, wayward, half pretty, oily, polished, and ready masqueraders. What follows is Carnival Tuesday or High Mas. It is the moment most, if not all revellers have been waiting for. Pretty Mas, as it is also known, parades and gyrates itself through the streets from as early as 6 a.m. into the wee hours of the night toward a Last Lap, when the season closes off at midnight before descending into the ashes of Wednesday’s impending Lent.

 

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Historically, the term carnival in Christian appreciation was understood as a festive time associated with the copious consumption of meat and engagement in the public caricature of authoritative personas and ideals. The period, which preceded the holy days of Lent, was a time of abundance, abandon, and excess. This very Christian endeavour was marked by street parades and parties and the use of masquerade. The first occurrences of this Christian tradition in Trinidad and Tobago dates back to the 18th century during the period of enslavement and colonial rule when Spanish invaders and French Catholic enslavers inhabited the island.

 

Over the decades much has been extracted from and/or substituted into this Christian masquerade. It has become a singular identity of the people of Trinidad and Tobago; and as we have changed so too has our Carnival. The Christian underpinnings have given way to something much more primal, much more carnal in its origin and desires, a need for freedom — freedom of expression, of identity, of self, and of the body.

 

There is, however, an abiding belief that Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is the sole consequence of European cultural traditions, that it was only following their emancipation from enslavement that the county’s West African population became involved in the festivities. This view fails to acknowledge the culture and spirit of resistance, creation, and survival that shaped and continues to reshape Carnival. It also ignores the presence of pre-emancipation African forms in Carnival that reference cross-continental cultural continuity.

 

This seemingly innocuous yet violent theory suggests that the simpleminded and savage native had been influenced by the higher coloniser in all ways that are uniquely artistic and sublime, questioning the innate ability of the oppressed and post-colonised to create, relegating their work to the realm of mimicry and shadowing. This perspective neither takes into account how and why Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago has continued nor does it acknowledge the very visible revolutions it has undergone.

 

The observable characteristics of enslaved Africans’ involvement and subsequent transformation of the festival indicates a deeper, more spiritual connection, belying the unsophisticated notion that the freed African simply became involved post-emancipation.

 

It cannot be denied that the observance of Christian carnival traditions by early European colonisers did in fact bring such a named festival to the colonies. Additionally, it must be recognised that it did provide an opportunity — albeit a very hard-fought and idiosyncratic one — for the continuation of African festive traditions within that carnival. It cannot, however, be assumed that because of this the enslaved African who had been made invisible during colonialism would, post-emancipation, simply put on the masque of their oppressor and continue the masquerade.

 

During this time, the carnival of each group was unique, with the masquerade of the French elite being a ballroom affair sprinkled with liberal doses of pre-Lenten debauchery, stretching over the period of Christmas time to Ash Wednesday. The carnival of the enslaved body, being possessed of a different type of determination in its presentation of the carnivalesque, sought to portray symbols, identifiers, and energies that reeked of reminders of lives interrupted.

 

The masquerade of the enslaved Africans established their ingenuity and spirit. It brought together distinct paradigms and world views, giving birth to the Carnival that would be passed down to this generation. A generation that now hopes and works to impress upon this festival its own image and likeness, even as it holds fast to the threads of cultural continuity.

 

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In order to relocate the once-enslaved African in the formation of rituals and public performances that have come to be the modern-day Carnival of Trinidad and Tobago, it is critical to recognise its linkages with pre-emancipation practices. The first step is examining the phenomenon called cannes brulées.

 

Cannes brulées, or the burning of the canes, was an occasion where enslaved Africans were roused with horns and shells and driven with whips to the cane-fields to put out fires. Contemporarily known as Canboulay, it is the direct cultural and spiritual ancestor to today’s Carnival. As with most colonial phenomena, the oppressed came to ritualise this undertaking. They infused it with African elements such as drums, kalenda/calinda (traditional Guinea stick fighting), and calinda songs, which were tongue-in-cheek songs of resistance. These songs have since evolved several times over, transforming from calinda to kaiso to calypso, to the more contemporary soca, finally evolving even further into another form: chutney-soca.

 

It has often been said that Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago was a consequence of Africans’ mimicry of the French. On the contrary, it was many of the Africans’ practices during the cannes brulées that found their way into the French presentation of carnival. Reciprocal mimicry occurred and in many instances contributed to the addition of forms from one group’s carnival to that of the other.

 

In dispelling the notion of passive continuity and removing the mask of invisibility from the face of the enslaved African, revealing them as an active creator of the Carnival of Trinidad and Tobago, the iconographic representation of the “traditional character” is central. These characters include: the moko jumbee, a stilt walking cousin of the stilt dancers of West Africa who watched over the village and its inhabitants; the Pierrot Grenade, said to be a direct descendant of the Egungun; and the Jab Molassie, whose literal translation is molasses devil.

 

The Jab Molassie character is indicative of the ingenuity of the enslaved people and demonstrative of their re-imagining of the self in the new world. The Jab Molassie in Trinidad and Tobago Mas is depicted by a masquerader covered in molasses — the product of his blood, sweat, and tears. The so-covered reveller then puts on horns, and with his whip roams the streets during the J’ouvert celebrations striking fear into the hearts of onlookers. This and the above-mentioned characters are just a few of the traditional expressions of memories of a past home and a life interrupted, combined with the realities of the colonial present. It is from these traditional characters that modern Mas still spins its stories.

 

With just these two considerations it is possible to develop a picture of the enslaved African as an active participant in the evolution of Carnival pre and post-emancipation. Both the cannes brulées and the traditional characters provide a look into the continuity and change that has occurred across the landscape of the Carnival of Trinidad and Tobago.

 

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Carnival costumes, Port of Spain, circa 1950s. Wikimedia.
Carnival costumes, Port of Spain, circa 1950s. Wikimedia.

 

Exploring the history of the carnivalesque and the current state of the festival is significant because of the intrinsic need to see oneself in one’s history and thereby strengthen the belief in one’s right and responsibility to be a meaningful contributor in society.

 

The Carnival of Trinidad and Tobago has responded to, drawn from, and questioned this social phenomenon and its effect on the many identities that form the Trinbagonian. Thus, in exploring the aspects of Carnival that have endured and those that have been transformed, the ways in which today’s youth fit into, influence, and re-create the masquerade both in front of and behind the mask are realised.

 

This article is the first of a three part series that will engage in conversations with canboulay actors and chutney soca artists in the hope of demonstrating the spirit of resistance, rebellion, and renaissance that continues to endure in the presentation and performance of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago.

 

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Carnival, Trinidad and Tobago, Africa, Post-Colonialism, Art, Dance, Music, History