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Look, the ban coming

By Terry Joseph
January 30, 2004

On more than a few occasions during Carnival's 220-year history, the powers that be attempted to ban the festival altogether or, at least prohibit selected components; arguing each time that both its purpose and morals had gone irretrievably astray.

Recent indications are that the agenda of some among us is focused on chiselling away at elements of Carnival, in the hope of at least sanitising it and frankly, I wouldn't put it past them to include punitive measures against rebels.

You see, it remains a widely held view that the Carnival is degenerating into little more than "a virtual orgy, with some of the scenes parading in the streets really indecent, offensive and disgraceful to the community."

That quote did not come from contemporary fundamentalists, but the San Fernando Gazette of February 1850.

And the anti-Carnival lobby has always taken its crusade seriously. Police chief Lionel Fraser, who took office in 1875, was actually sacked two years later for allowing resurgence of the previously suppressed canboulay processions, the genesis of today's street Carnival.

He was replaced by the infamous Captain Arthur Baker who, in 1881, made a brutal military attempt to ban the festival; resulting in a riot that littered Port of Spain's main streets with dead and injured protesters.

Thanks to the intervention of governor, Sir Sanford Freeling, Carnival was allowed to continue, although the early 20th century elite avoided the street parade until the 1919 WWI victory celebration and even so, gravitating toward the inaugural Guardian-sponsored competition at the Queen's Park Savannah, leaving the Downtown version to riff-raff.

For Carnival 1935, section 78 (sub section 2) of the Summary Conviction Offences Ordinance was amended to include a ban on men dressing as women and vice versa. Two years later, Port of Spain Mayor Garnett Mc Carthy's committee recommended that calypsonians be "registered" and submit lyric sheets before being allowed to sing in the tents.

On September 3, 1939 England declared war on Germany but Carnival 1940 was allowed, although new regulations banning a number of traditional festival practices were implemented. From 1942 and for the remainder of WWII, Carnival was banned outright.

As if by way of compensation, there were two Carnivals in 1945 when WWII ended, the first on May 8 and 9 to mark victory in Europe and the second on August 15 and 16 when Japan capitulated. On Carnival Tuesday 1946, Winston "Spree" Simon of Johannesburg Fascinators steelband reportedly played the first tunes on a "ping pong" (later developed into the soprano pan) for the delight of Governor Sir Bede Clifford.

But pan would soon be deemed the enemy of the upper classes. The horrible steelband clash of 1950 enhanced arguments against pan and later, as a result of another bloody engagement, the second mini-Carnival that took place on each Discovery Day (now Emancipation Day) holiday was banned, never to surface again.

Pannists would later become bobolees, beaten by police at every opportunity, in the attempt to scare players away from the instrument. Woodbrook police seized instruments used in Christmas revelry by a Newtown group and by the time they were acquitted in court, had already turned the pans into plant pots for growing crotons outside the station.

Although calypsonians did not suffer similar servings of corporal punishment, psychologically they shared much the same fate. The popular China Clipper Restaurant at St Vincent Street and (now) Independence Square displayed the sign: "No Calypsonians and Dogs Allowed"; echoing popular public sentiment.

Things later came to a legal head when Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams attempted to have Lord Shorty jailed for singing a suggestive calypso at Dimanche Gras. Successive prime ministers have annually sent emissaries from their security details to order reduction of "noise" from calypso events staged Under the Trees at Carnival time by Hotel Normandie; which shares one of its fences with the official residence.

Under the Basdeo Panday administration, the Prime Minister himself decreed that the State would not release funds to any activity in which calypsonians sang songs that brought the country (read "ruling party") into public odium.

The Environmental Management Agency put paid to fete promoters who pumped up the volume and those who view pre-Carnival activity (including steelband practice) as "disturbing the peace" routinely file court injunctions, aimed at scuttling such events.

No one body has as yet summoned up the temerity to attempt a 21st century interference with Carnival, possibly because it has now evolved into one of this country's proudest exports, with more than 100 annual events worldwide (including the largest street festivals in Europe and North America) taking pattern from the Trini template.

Perhaps they just haven't figured out how to bring it all together, adding noise-pollution to morality concerns, lyrics to make a politician cringe, street-violence, molestation of women and other unsavoury aspects of the festival that, in the sum, might comprise a robust argument against Carnival.

But clearly, it is operating in more than a few minds that this unbridled jollification has little value and something should be done to at least curtail its boast of reckless abandon.

To borrow the euphonics of the hook line from Shurwayne Winchester's runaway road-march contender: "The ban coming! The ban coming!"

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