Coming out of the Covid-induced hiatus, our 2023 Carnival is touted as the “Mother of All Carnivals”. We promote our fetes as the best ever and discuss ways of monetising our 2023 Carnival’s impact.
We believe that we could export this wonder of the world. Amid this noise, a lawsuit is levelled against one of our calypsonians by a businessman. Sans humanité!
What is our Carnival? Nobody cares to ask this question since the fetes are filled, and there is money to be made.
Earl Lovelace (1998) warned us about “the horror of the vision of a Carnival torn from its political and social roots, gutted of its power and presented as a neutral aesthetic creation”. These words now appear prophetic.
Apart from the reenactment of the Canboulay Riots by the devoted Springer trio, do we connect our Carnival celebrations to the Emancipation story?
As Lovelace reminds us: “For years, hardly any among us realised that in celebrating Jouvay, we were commemorating the celebration of Emancipation.”
Lost in the Carnival Monday spree is the reality that the colonial powers sought to cage the rejoicing of the freed slaves. We appear ignorant of the role that the colonial police officer, Captain Arthur Baker, played in attempting to corral the Jouvay celebrations. We do not remember that the Riots were a form of rebellion against rules imposed on the music and the masquerade.
That earlier tension between our country’s elite and other citizens continues. Should we speak of the past steelband clashes and not the social catastrophes that haunted and still terrorise many? What about the unspeakable lack of essential public health facilities—that we still have outhouses in Port of Spain?
Is that okay? How do we determine which type of “violence” is acceptable?
Today we have sanitised the celebrations by moving the party to various venues away from the streets. The security rope separates the riff-raff from the ‘Important’ and ‘Very Important’ people, diminishing the joy experienced.
Priced out of the party and bullied by the police in their communities, why should the poor celebrate?
Who makes money from Carnival? This question from the 1960s remains. Then it was the Jaycees Carnival Queen, not the top calypsonian. Who is our Sparrow to point out the inherent injustices?
Yesterday’s steelband was a community affair, unlike the now once-for-the-year Panorama competition. The hordes of youths who pushed the pans around the streets have no place. Now the pan racks are ferried on trucks to and from The Savannah. Community support has withered away. What is the heart of today’s Carnival?
We rejoice at the victories of the prestige schools in the Schools Panorama. But for their players, is this just another line in their CVs? Or will we witness a rejuvenation of talent that can carry our pan to greater heights? Are their victories a reflection of the disparity in resources between the schools or a question of skill?
Our calypsonians have a long and distinguished heritage. They have long been expected to deliver incisive political and social commentary.
Dr Eric Williams faced criticism despite his attempts to co-opt the calypso fraternity. The calypsonians moved from open support to direct opposition over the years.
An early critic was Brother Valentino with his “Barking Dogs”, which confronted Sparrow’s “Get to Hell out of here!”. Valentino directly criticises Dr Williams in this calypso, in what the late Gordon Rohlehr describes as “a bitterly ironic metaphor of social process in the 1970s.”
It is ironic that we now glorify Black Stalin at the time of his death when he was also an early critic of Dr Williams. As a cynical observer of his times, he itemised the breakdown of various public utilities in “Break Down party”.
This 1980 calypso is still relevant. The wash of money—the first oil boom—did not fix our problems; neither did the succeeding windfalls correct them.
Stalin’s request in “Run something” was ignored.
“Mr Divider here is a warning/ Meh blood in this country/ Meh sweat in this country/ So when you sharing the oil bread/ Ah say remember me/ This eh no Black Power talk/ This eh no talk bout revolution/ Mr Divider listen to me/ This is man talking to man/ Once oil dollar making here/ Black Stalin want a share/ Piece of the action, ah want a piece of the action/ Ah say remember that I have family too/ That does want food and clothes just like you.”
Since we did not heed their messages, we got Cro Cro, Sugar Aloes and Watchman, who saw himself as “The Leader of the Opposition”.
Raw political commentary that often crossed the line became common as Basdeo Panday and ANR Robinson rose to power. But their ‘malice’ was muted by the alleged incursion of payola by particular promoters and radio stations.
This occurrence led to the rise of simplistic and clichéd soca songs. Today, we have so little commentary that what occurs can be interpreted as racist or too political.
We now prefer to ‘jump and wave’ albeit at separate venues. 19th Century Apartheid, anyone?
How will we make a nation? Is Carnival, in its present construct, still relevant to our national needs? Are we any closer to unity?