Carnival’s History Wilfully Ignored


by Caribupdate Weekly

Every year, as carnival rolls around in the Caribbean, and even in Metropolitan cities like Toronto and New York where West Indian-styled masquerading has been transplanted, we are bombarded with endless cycles of commentaries on the ills of carnival. Carnival becomes the helpless, hapless victim of many who either do not know the history of carnival or willfully choose to ignore that history; and carnival, as well, is caught in a vice of old laws that govern it and being measured by hypocritical standards of decency.

We read this notice, for example, warning the public against the “singing of indecent, immoral or libelous songs”. That warning was issued by the colonial administrator of Grenada in 1957. And while issuing this warning to our indigenous singers, our colonial rulers had no qualms in allowing literature in our schools that contained sexual overtones, such as John Donne’s poem, “The Flea”. Nearly 60 later, in independent Grenada, we still hear legislators in parliament angrily complaining about calypso and soca lyrics; some suggesting that public funding should be withheld from artistes who do not produce lyrically acceptable calypso and soca.

It begs the question, though, whether members of the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament will soon be debating the establishment of a morality group to monitor calypso and soca, and on setting criteria that will determine which songs are acceptable. Even more interesting is who will comprise the morality group. Will it be MPs and Senators? Journalists and broadcasters? Priests, nuns and teachers?

We suggest that if our politicians do indeed value carnival, think it’s important, and want to improve the product, then more emphasis should be put on how to adequately finance the festival. As it is right now, according to chief carnival organizer Kirk Seetahal, it costs $3 million to finance Spicemas. And a festival that’s always catching hell to finance its operations faced an additional difficulty this year. Some private sector donors couldn’t be as generous as they would have liked to be with the Spicemas Corporation because they invested earlier this year in the inaugural Pure Grenada Music Festival. This is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly in our overall national festival planning.

We have had the Pure Grenada Music Festival and the Carriacou Maroon and String Band Festival; and now, almost simultaneously, we have Spicemas, Carriacou Regatta and Rainbow Festival and Emancipation Celebrations. A question one needs to ask is whether we can sustain these and other festivals. With a small corporate sector and a limited local sponsorship pool, there’s bound to be cannibalism, with some festivals chewing up most or all funding from others.

Constant in the complaint about carnival — here and elsewhere — is about the behaviour of revelers.

For instance, the former chairman of the Carnival Committee in Antigua, Donald Charles, is reported as saying, “it’s like carnival now is an expression for people to just behave any which way”; and he predicts that “soon enough, the way we’re expressing ourselves now, the next thing is you will see people on the streets having sex, because they’re simulating it. They have such skimpy costumes and clothes on, it’s almost that’s where it’s going. The music and what it’s saying is actually driving people towards that”.

Our well-respect playwright and award-winning author, Richardo Keens–Douglas, has similarly moaned the disappearing of the huge, epic mas’ portrayals, which he described as, “theatre on the streets”.

Mas’ today, Keens-Douglas says, is literally “nudeness on the street”; it’s “putting on a costume, getting on the street, drinking and partying. So, it’s a party on the street in a costume”.

As strange as it may sound, what Keens–Douglas is pointing to is at the core of carnival, ever since our enslaved ancestors were allowed that one time of the year to do things that they were forbidden from doing, on the pain of death, for the remainder of the year. So, central to carnival always has been the extremes, the rebellious, the obscene — whether in song, dress or dance. Carnival was never intended to be a Sunday afternoon garden party or an amusement park with ferris wheel and horseback riding.

We agree with our columnist Arley Salimbi Gill who wrote last week that a simple solution, instead of complaining and trying to make carnival into something it was never meant to be, may be to avoid those aspects of carnival that offend one’s sensibilities.

As Gill puts it: “Carnival’s origin was about protest against the establishment; it was the Black man’s opportunity to poke fun at the ruling class and to “rebel” without being punished; it was about bacchanal, which includes wining and dining as much as you can.”

In this context, we want to suggest that the place to start in fixing, in enhancing carnival, is not with more banning and prohibition and threatening more legislation — akin to the days of colonial rule; but it’s to study the history, the origin and the seminal meaning of carnival and its significance in the lives of our African ancestors.

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