Happy Carnival 2013
It’s carnival time in many parts of the world but for me two of the best are in Salvador da Bahia and Trinidad – maybe because they are the ones I am familiar with and have been fortunate to enjoy on many occasions. Until instantaneous teleporting is a reality it is unfortunate to have to choose between the two. While the two carnivals have much in common they are also very different. Both are places historically marked by European colonization and African slavery, and hugely influence by Catholicism which observes the coming of the Lent – a 40 day period from Ash Wednesday until the eve of Easter of fasting; abstinence and penance. Such deprivations were made bearable by pre-Lenten festivities such as carnival - the word itself deriving from the latin ‘carne vale’ meaning farewell to flesh. Abstaining from eating meat and other foods; as well as having sex ... That’s not to say that Christians ‘invented’ carnival, because similar festivities or rituals dating back to pre-Christian times existed as part of a communities calendar of rituals and festivities. The point is in each historical epoch ‘Carnival’ was (is) a number of festivals rolled into one. Although some became obsolete and died out, newer celebrations were added providing new vigour and meaning for celebrants.
In Britain many of the festivities associated with Shrove Tuesday died out and Pancake Day may be all that is left to mark the last day for enjoyment and excesses before Lent kicks in. Countries that received greater cultural influences from Latin European cultures such as Brasil and Trinidad, and settled by French, Spanish and Portuguese people, developed rich and distinctive carnival traditions that go back to the 18 Century if not earlier. But that’s not all: these were also slave-owning societies. Mixed European and African cultures existed side by side eventually giving birth to carnival celebrations that added new characteristics. They were not direct copies of European or African cultural practices that could be traced back to a single source, but rather the product of many sources out of which something 'new' emerged and said something about the people, their histories and the places they occurred in.
Unlike carnival celebrations in England, carnival festivities in Brasil and Trinidad last for a whole season – starting soon after Christmas climaxing the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. During the season there are parties in Trinidad called fetes with live music as in Salvador da Bahia with the ensaios. Needless to say there is a lot going on and music is one of the key elements in the trinity of Mas, Pan and Calypso in Trinidad. Many of the carnival events constitute an important part of the social scene in the social calendar where the status conscious go to be seen although many people also go simply for a good time.
For me carnival is not 'carnival' without music which is why every year there’s a glut of new songs. In Trinidad these always provide a talking point between friends, neighbours, or strangers riding in a maxi-taxi. Over the years the soca beat has undoubted speeded up. Just compare the difference between Bunji Garlin’s 2013 Savage http://goo.gl/xtX5f and the original by Maestro in 1976 http://goo.gl/wTfzP
One hot topic that surfaced on twitter, youtube and facebook recently was whether Bunji was singing ‘cow’, ‘cloud’ or ‘crowd’. http://goo.gl/bi0XS Who cares? It’s a big tune and Trinis like nothing better than old talk.
The Soca Monarch 2013 finals that took place on Friday in Port of Spain marked a comeback by the godfather of soca Super Blue aka Austin Lyons who tied in first place with Machel Montano with Fantastic Friday http://goo.gl/f83Oc Super Blue was not only my favourite to win in the power category but also the people’s favourite – such was the love! I have to say I agree with the woman who shouted when the results were announced ‘That’s no tie, Super win! What they trying, that could never be a tie!’ . How true with Roy Cape All stars and 3Canal providing backing vocals. Besides hasn’t Machel won for the past three years? The Soca Monarch final was always one of my favourite not-to-be-missed events up until 2011 when poor management and production seem set on killing it off as well as the people attending it. Blaxx was my favourite for the Groovy category although I like Iwer’s Iwer's Bubble too...
Soca music is not my choice of music for relaxing to because it's far too noisy and ram ba tam. But when I hear Bunji’s Savage I can't help wanting to dance down the road. Isn't that the point of the music - to make you move - everyone moving as one collective body down the road... Maybe it’s because it is carnival time! Carnival is about taking over the streets and using it for purposes outside of its normal everyday uses – disrupting the norm. Based on some research I carried out some years ago people claimed to like dancing in the streets because it gave them a sense of ‘freedom’. In both Trinidad and Salvador da Bahia this freedom was about letting go: forgetting work; responsibilities; misery and dreariness. It is a celebration of excesses and a giving in to madness that you can't explain because it just takes you. It is not a solution for anything but a temporary escape and this is what gives carnival its subversive potential.
‘Freedom’ is inscribed in carnival festivities in Trinidad through the Canne brulee – initially a way of organizing bands of slaves and the work of cane-burning, or outing fires on plantations. The work was accompanied by drumming and watched over by overseers who cracked their whips to keep the pace. Its re-enactment complete with blowing horns, mimicry of the slave drivers with thrashing whips was how the slaves celebrated their freedom after 1838 partly as a remembrance of slavery but also a celebration of human triumph. To me Jour Ouvert is the most ritualistic part of Trinidad’s carnival pulling together what is distinctive about it. It is in emancipation the genesis of Trinidad’s tradition carnival characters –the Devil, Jab malassie, Dragon, imps, Dame Lorraines etc, and performance emerged. Although the Canne brulee is hardly mentioned any more many of its characteristics exist in Jour Ouvert which takes place in the dark in the early hours of Monday morning when thousands of devils, imps, bats and creatures covered in paint and mud appear on the streets, some in rags and others in drag moving to the sound of an iron rhythm section or pounding soca music. They claim the streets and by extension their 'freedom', and the only thing required of anyone is that they let go. I've heard that the British artist Chris Ofili does a pretty good bat impersonation. Imagine! It’s no coincidence that Super Blue’s song begins with the sound of a blowing horn summoning everyone to come and participate in the big party. All my friends will be preparing for Jour Ouvert. While I’m not there in body, I will be there in spirit flying over the top of Port of Spain. Congratulations to Phase II led by Len Boogsie Sharpe for winning Panorama 2013 and a Happy Carnival to all...
The illustration above is by Melton Prior and depicts Carnival in Port of Spain in 1888