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Plebian Carnival

By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 09, 2011

Oh what a difference an election victory makes. For time immemorial we were told by some that the steelband could never be considered as the national instrument—there was always the dholak—and that carnival was not really the national festival. They always sought to convince us that devali was comparable to carnival and emblematic of the national consciousness; hence the need to promote devali in the same way in which carnival is promoted. Somehow carnival was too black.

In fact, the prime minister brought down Jason Kaufman, a reporter from the United States, to the devali celebration to proclaim the joys of this national festival. Anand Ramlogan concluded: "People think of Trinidad as an African country. We want to rectify this mis-perception." Part of mission of the People's Partnership (PP) is to make the world know that Trinidad and Tobago is as Indian as it is African and there is no reason why anyone should give pride of place to carnival in the national and international consciousness.

To be fair, the PP did a lot to promote the carnival celebrations doling out millions of dollars in prizes to make it successful. To its everlasting glory, it would be recorded that it gave seven million dollars to the Steelband movement to complete their headquarters that had become a national eye sore along our highway. It is to PNM's shame that they had to let the PP do what it should have done in the first place.

Rebuilding the stage complete with the North Stand and the Grandstand on the savannah was a master coup in spite of some of the complaints about the stage. It turned out to be a small financial investment for large national psychological returns. Returning carnival back to the people in their own terrain and on their own terms had the value of consolidating the democracy and elevating the dignity of our people in a way that the PNM had forgotten to do.

The PP ought to be commended on these moves. In the process they demonstrated a healthy sense of plebian sensibility in a way that the PNM preferred to overlook. The PNM sought to impose a kind of elitist government in which NAPA signified a kind of elevated sensibility that suggested a separation from the desires of the ordinary brothers and sisters and the projection of an elitist/bourgeois culture that took the party away from its roots.

So that when the Prime Minister declares that the economy received an economic injection of over $1 billion dollars from carnival one hopes that such a return on investment reverses an anti-black prejudice that had always polluted the minds of so many who saw nothing good coming out of carnival other than vice, fornication and excess that led Sat to say: "While them [meaning African children] beating pan; we [meaning Indian children] beating books."

The success of carnival in March should not lead us to conclude that such a success can be replicated in October in Tobago. Carnival is not simply bacchanal as some of our commentators love to proclaim. The joy, the intensity and the infectiousness of carnival emanates from a people's way of life; the culmination of centuries of a particular sociological ordering.

In 1838 when slavery ended, 22,000 Africans were emancipated. They created a new element in our society. The Carnival celebration, previously of French-Creole origins, took on a new dimension as Africans began to make their presence felt in the public space. Even as the masked balls remained an important part of the French-Creole carnival, the use of masks (and maskings) on the part of the Africans who took over the festival signified a commitment to continue the traditions of his predecessors and the reputation of his lineage.

By the 1870s, carnival began to change its character. It was a time when the lively underworld of characters (the lower class if you may) emerged to transform the nature of the national fete. In that period we saw the emergence of the stickmen, singers, drummers, dancers, jamettes (or prostitutes), bad Johns, matadors, dunois (jamette rowdies), obeahmen (practitioners of magic), corner boys; midnight robbers and scores of other figures.

This underground eruption of the culture, represented a moment when the masses of African people asserted the integrity of their being. It was never simply jump-up and fete. For women particularly, it meant an expression of female independence that was threatened by the official society and their male companions.

Carnival represented a time when Africans reconnected with their old societies—remember the sensation that George Bailey's "Back to Africa" caused in 1957--and an opportunity to find their life rhythms in a new social environment. It would be simplistic to say that the character of carnival has not changed over the years as it is erroneous to think that one can simple replicate a carnival in Tobago because it provided such a big spark for our national economy.

It is true that Kamla had a ball for carnival. One can imagine how she was taken over by the people's fete. She didn't miss a thing. She stayed until the Soca Monarch competition ended at 5:15 am on Saturday morning, before proceeding to the fete, Girl Power, at Jenny's Car Park to present Machel Montato, the Soca Monarch, with his $2 million check.

Later that evening she and her friends attended Panorama finals from 6 p.m. to about 3 am where she presented that winner with another check of $2 millions;

On Sunday March 6th she was at the Dimanche Gras from start to finish presenting the King, Queen and Calypso Monarch with their first prizes.

On Monday she was on the road in the People's Partnership Band for most of the day. At all times, she was flanked by her Attorney General who seemed to waiting in the wings to deal with any legal emergency that may have arisen. Ah wonder if he ever enjoyed carnival so?

Kamla displayed her national credentials. Yet, one couldn't help but ask, "When Kamla was feting to kill; who was taking care of national business?"

Given such enthusiasm, one could see why Kamal would want another carnival in Tobago, in October which leads one to ask, "Isn't this taking a good thing too far?"

Isn't it better to leave well enough alone, forget Tobago, and plan for carnival 2012 and hope that the nation understands how fundamental carnival is to the national psyche.

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