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Carnival and Culture

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 22, 2012

I was stuck by Michael Narine's post, "Culture is a ploy for more state money" and Newsday's headline "Calypso gets $1M." With that came a justification from Dr. Hollis "Chalkdust" Liverpool: "This is good for calypso. Calypso is the father of all different genres of music, so they must ensure that calypso gets a good prize. All these other genres of music: chutney, soca, they came out of calypso, so it's only fair that calypsonians get a good prize." I will not argue with the doctor's thesis except to say that at the beginning of the 21st century we may have to revise our accepted concepts of the genre, its influences and the musical forms it has spewed.

Narine says: "More and more I am seeing the word 'culture' to mean the arts, entertainment, and national days of celebration. In fact, the term is used as a strategy by entertainers and promoters to demand more money from the state." While I agree with his observation I am not inclined to see calypsonians as mere entertainers. At their best, they can be seen as educators and reflectors of the social and political scene.

Narine argues further that "we are losing sight of the fact that culture also refers to attitude, behavior, beliefs, values, expectations, and practices of the society. To transform the country, we have to effect cultural change."

Again Narine may be correct but to speak about the influence of culture in the 21st century we have to talk about the commoditization of almost everything (including culture) and the impact it has had on distorting (or certainly changing) "values" which inform our responses to our society.

About a month ago I read an illuminating book, The Spirit of the Game by Mihir Bose, an Indian writer who examined the evolution of sports from a game that was played for recreation in the nineteenth century with the aim of shaping society for the greater good to a money-making machine in the 21st century, typified by FIFA and which explains Jack Warner. The commoditization of sports has not confined itself to FIFA and soccer but has also wrapped its arms around cricket, car racing and every other sport.

Carnival and calypso began just as cricket, soccer and other sports began: people doing it just for the fun of it. Here's a report of carnival (and I presume calypso) in the 1820s in Carlton Ottley in Slavery Days in Trinidad: "In the gay 1820s everybody, young and old, black and white, royalist and republicans, danced...While the French and Spanish upper and middle classes cut capers at Mrs. Bruce's, the rest of the population to whom dancing and singing were the acme of their social life, spent their evening whether in the country or the town around the flambeau in the clearing between their houses, recreating for themselves the songs and dances of their ancestors."

Ottley then quotes from a visitor to the island. "One night, hearing a horrible drumming on the tum-tums, I followed the sounds, and in the suburbs of the town came to a very characteristic scene-a Negro ladies' ball. A narrow entry led to a spacious shed, rudely thatched with palm branches; from the joists of which hung a clumsy wooden chandelier, and at intervals, stuck upon high poles, serving as candelabras, were large tallow candles, casting a fitful glare over the place.

"At the head of this dingy salon de danse were five huge Negroes, thumbing might and main on casks, the tops of which were covered with parchment. Ranged on one side were twenty Negresses roaring a chorus, each being in motion, turning half around alternatively without moving from the spot. These dingy damsels, of whose features nothing but their rolling eye-balls and brilliant teeth were visible, raised their voices to a pitch that would have satisfied the King of Ashantee" (my italics).

We are also aware that the earliest calypsoes, rendered in an African language, were sung at religious ceremonies, harvest festivals, and displays of martial arts. One of the earliest calypsoes, "Ja Ja Romey Eh/Ja Ja Romey Shango," was sung at the calinda or stickfights, an African martial art form that was associated with Shango. According to Atilla, this song was handed down and interpreted "wherever the ritualistic ceremonies of the Shango cult are practices [as] 'I am coming to the dance of the Gods.'" Atilla tells us that one of the earliest calypsoes described the massacre of hundreds of Africans in Marabella in 1838.

This was the 1820s, the 1830s and the visitor's description I believe was made in the 1850s. It doesn't take much imagination to understand that we have moved a long way from such a time and setting to the modernity of the present. Needless to say, within the setting of a salon de danse where the patrons saw the artist working up close he or she also participated in the making of the meaning of such artistic productions. Patron and artist were one.

Today, things are different. The inspiration is different; the motives are different; the devotion is different and everything seems to be a big hustle. As a result, I don't know if a first prize of two million dollars would do much to transform the calypsonian's performance or his commitment to his art. With carnival bands such as Tribe (approximately 6,000 patrons), Island People (about 4,000); Fantasy island (about 3,000) etc. with each masquerader paying an average of $5,000 to play dey mas then, like soccer, cricket and car-racing we realize how money has invaded the realm, how little room there must be for cultural creativity and innovation.

There is no way we can go back to the old days which leads us to ask Mr. Narine how can we "stay focus[ed] on the true meaning of culture" when so much around us has become the victim of how much rather than how good?

Perhaps we need a new model and certainly a different way of talking about culture and carnival in the 21st century.

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