Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago: Connecting the past and present through performance

An interview with Kamaya Francis, a member of the Idakeda theater troupe.

The Arts Interview

 

Kanbule Cover photo
The Pierrot (colourful stringed costume), Joe Talmana, the Chantwell (khaki costume), and community warriors ready themselves to face the British constabulary. Photo courtesy of Matthew Marek.

 

Editor's Note: This essay is part three in a three-part series on the history and celebration of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. Read part one here and part two here.

 

 

The spiritual roots of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago are often missed, misunderstood, ignored, or forgotten. The struggle to assert a sense of self and personhood is deeply rooted in the images and identifiers that form part of each iteration of the festival. For some, Carnival simply represents a couple of days of revelry, for others a few days holiday. But for a select community it is an opportunity to re-establish and reaffirm their connections to this earth, this space, and to become a visible entity.  

 

In further exploring continuity, we look at how, with the re-enactment of the 1881 Kambule Riots, this aspect of Carnival history and spiritual connectivity is preserved and passed down to the next generation. It is through the involvement of the youth in the festival that cultural continuity is achieved.

 

One such youth, Kamaya Francis, is a member of the Idakeda troupe, a team of rigorously trained actors. The troupe religiously performs a re-enactment of the Kambule Riots every Carnival in Port-of-Spain, from as early as 2:00AM. Kamaya took the time to graciously tell me of her experience and involvement with Idakeda and Kambule. 

 

*****

 

Shrinagar Francis: Kambule is a very performative experience. What, if any, is your theatre arts background?  

 

Kamaya Francis: From as early as three I’ve been involved in arts and culture. I come from an ethnically mixed background and I use the arts as a way of defining and expressing myself. I started in Indian and Latin dance. I also took dance for the Caribbean Examinations Council Exams (CXC). Being heavily involved in arts and culture, I wanted the opportunity to experience the African aspects of my heritage. So I was encouraged to join the Idakeda troupe, where I had my first experience with African dance, and acting. 

 

SF: Most young people in Trinidad and Tobago don’t know about Kambule. How did someone as young as you come to be involved in the performance?

 

Kamaya Francis_Kambule
Kamaya Francis. Photo courtesy of Matthew Marek.

KF: You’re right, and I was like that, I knew nothing about Kambule. But they (Idakeda) came to my school as a part of their social outreach and engagement, and during my performance in one of our school’s presentations, they saw me and said "We want you to be a part of our performance family." I started with them when I was twelve years old. I was shocked and a little confused when I first entered the space and stayed to myself. I was unsure because I didn’t know anything about this, but they didn’t allow me to stay in the corner and pulled me centre stage.

 

The first time I performed with and re-enacted the events of our history, I cried when I learned what my ancestors went through. I was so motivated after this, and I worked hard over the following three years so I’d be chosen for the adult troupe, but even though I improved and developed in terms of my skills and performance, I was still too young. Now that I’m seventeen going on eighteen years old, and involved, I don’t think I’m ever going to leave them. 

 

SF: What is it about the Kambule re-enactment that intrigues you?

 

KF: The way the play was written, by Aunty Eintou, is what moves you. You feel as if you’re there, in that moment in time. You feel a part of something real. The play brings to life a part of our history that has been erased and has made us feel like we don’t exist. It makes you real. It makes you feel a part of something real. There was a year I wasn’t able to perform and even then as a member of the audience I felt connected to the story. 

 

SF: Do you play anyone in particular in the Kambule production? 

 

KF: I play my great-great-great-great grandmother. So I’m not playing a fictional character, I’m playing someone who was actually there, someone who walked on this soil, who was a part of the riots and felt the things that I feel now performing this play every year. 

 

SF: What do you think is the relevance of what you’re doing, the Kambule re-enactment? 

 

KF: To teach the people the importance of what we have, the freedoms we enjoy, the importance of this festival, the connections it has to who we are, so that they would stop taking for granted our freedoms. Carnival is one of those freedoms for which our ancestors fought that so many overlook and take for granted; this right to express ourselves. Also, I think the play itself is important to the arts and to increasing social consciousness. Artistic representation is taken for granted by so many, and what we do is a way of taking something that is both culturally relevant and moving into a space and making it accessible. We stay true to the time of the original riots and this gives it a deeper meaning. I think what we re-enact is truly carnival. It’s the spirit of the carnival. We’re trying to make ourselves visible. 

 

SF: What is it you hope that the audience takes from the re-enactment? 

 

KF: There are a lot of lines that are very heavy. The play is spiritually heavy. But I always have this hope that  one of the lines recited by myself or any of the other actors resonates with them, and continues to affect their lives continuously and helps them though their everyday. They could forget my face and the part that I played, I just want them to hear my words, remember the words, because they are what are important. 

 

SF: How do you see yourself as responsible for sharing this kind of knowledge?  

 

KF: Everyone is responsible for sharing the information contained in this play. For me it’s this practice of my speaking about the struggles, about the fight that we went through to have what we have that motivates me. We all have a responsibility for educating each other. 

 

SF: What are the challenges facing the Kambule? 

 

KF: The disinterest by the youth who have not yet realised their connection to the story and so don’t see its relevance. Also, there is a lack of this kind of information being widely available.  One of the greatest strains we face is the limited awareness and knowledge of our existence the general public has, and the importance of what we do, what we are trying to do, which is to educate our people about our history and the relevance to one of the greatest shows (Carnival) ever produced. 

 

SF: What do you think can be done to address some of these issues? 

 

KF: I think we should consider taking Kambule beyond the seasonal rotation of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. But the financial resources necessary to pull of something like that is lacking. I also think there needs to be increased media courage that will allow persons who can’t physically be there to still have the option to seeing the Kambule re-enactment. 

 

SF: What do you want people to understand most about the relevance of Kambule?  

 

KF: That Carnival is who we are. It’s like water to fish, and we are the fish. I want them to see the play and realise the connections Kambule has to Carnival. And realise that to take it away is to take away so much of what and who we are, and what we’ve gone through. Kambule is how we build the social consciousness; it is how we stave off losing aspects of carnival that are critical to our survival as a people. 

 

SF: Do you think you’ll ever move on from performing in the Kambule? 

 

KF: I think once you’re in you’re in. There’s no getting out. So I don’t think I’m going to stop until my bones can’t take it anymore. And when I can’t do it anymore physically I’ll be in the audience cheering on the young ones who will take my place.  

 

*****

 

To the African descendants, Kambule had become theirs; the procession forced upon them by the oppressor, which they had reshaped in their own image and likeness and infused with their self, they would not allow this to be taken away. 

 

Kambule is but one of the multiple threads that make Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago that harken back to its West African roots. As is the case with most colonial phenomena, the oppressed came to ritualise this offensive undertaking and infused it with elements that were intrinsic to the cultural landscape from which they had been ripped, in this case the African drum, kalinda/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, evolving even further into another form: chutney-soca. The final in this series will explore this thread of change; soca-chutney or chutney-soca, coming face to face with the ways in which social interaction has re-shaped Carnival. 

 

 

Kamaya Francis

Kamaya Francis_Bio

Kamaya Francis is an eighteen year old with fifteen years’ experience on the stage, having begun this work from the tender age of three. She has graced the national performing arts stage multiple times both individually, and as part of a troupe. Notable among these is the annual national Best Village Competition, in addition to a number of plays written by Ms. Eintou Pearl Springer, which includes the Kambule Riots re-enactment. 

 

Kamaya is currently reading for a certificate in social sciences at the University of the West Indies, ROYTEC, and is set to graduate in November, 2020. 

 

 

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Trinidad and Tobago, Caribbean, History, Culture, Theater, Performance, Post-Colonialism