The word ‘carnival’ is derived from the Italian ‘carnevale’ which means literally ‘the removal of meat’. With roots going back to the pagan past, carnival, in much of Catholic Europe, became a time of festivity when the devout and not so devout Christians shed their inhibitions and indulged in a last orgy of feasting, dancing and other sensual activities before Ash Wednesday and the long period of fasting which followed. These activities were characterised by masked balls where those of the aristocratic and wealthy commercial classes could, for a time, play out their fantasies and indulge their yearnings for liberation from some of the strictures of everyday living.
This tradition of Pre-Lenten festivity took root In some of the colonies settled by French, Spanish and Portuguese peoples in the Americas. Here In the so-called “New World”, it was re-inforced and transformed as It came into contact with other traditions.
Today there are numerous annual festivals celebrated throughout the Caribbean and In North and South America which are not all derived, however, from Pie-Lenten festivities, but nonetheless share certain common features: notably street dancing and parades, strongly percussive and rhythmic music, and the wearing of masks and costumes. The motifs are derived from the cultures of five continents: Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas; but the driving’ force, the rhythm is predominantly African.
In the structured and oppressive regimes of plantation society of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the few occasions when African slaves were allowed a measure of freedom were opportunities for explosive outpourings of energy In dance, music, and general festivity. Remembered traditions and rituals were re-enacted or transformed by the realities of the times, and the traditions of the dominating European classes were imitated and parodied. In many cases, the Africans assimilated, If only partially, the customs of the Aboriginal people and incorporated these in their costumes and their dances.
From New Orleans in North America, through the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, the Lesser Antilles, to Trinidad and Tobago, and down to Brazil In South America, we celebrate with an exuberance of song, dance, music, and colour at various times of the year coinciding with festivals of Christmas, pre-Lent and other feast days of the Christian calendar.
In St. Kitts and Nevis, the traditional time of our celebration is at Christmas. However, over the past twenty-one years, the Trinidad-style pre-Lenten Carnival has come to Influence and even dominate our Christmas festivities.
Carnival celebrations In Trinidad originated among the largely French planter and commercial classes, who held masked balls and fetes among themselves during the period between Christmas and Ash-Wednesday. In 1783, the Spanish who were then in possession of the sparsely populated Island, allowed French planters and their slaves from other Caribbean Islands (threatened by British dominance and the turmoil of the French Revolution) to settle In Trinidad. Within a few years Britain captured Trinidad from Spain, and the influx of Immigrants continued: but now assorted English settlers and slaves from other English possessions including the former American colonies which had earlier won their Independence, and ‘coloured’ people from the Spanish Main.
Thus Trinidad was a largely Immigrant society of people from diverse backgrounds. After 1807 when the British abolished the slave trade, non- creolised Africans, captured from slave ships of other nations were added to the melting pot. To this melange was added the Asians of India and China, after Emancipation.
A mix such as this results in tensions and a certain dynamism not found In homogenous societies. The prohibitions of slavery and the great disparity of wealth and privilege between the few and the many which continued after Emancipation made such tensions volatile.
The beating of drums was prohibited, and so the Africans cut varying lengths of bamboo and beat them on the ground as they paraded at Chrlstmastime and In celebration of Emancipation every August, singing defiant Kalinda songs. Inevitably they invaded the pre-Lenten Mardi Gras festival, which led to the Infamous Cannes Brulees Riot of 1881 when the local militia tried to put a stop to this “desecrating (of) a Christian festival” once and for all.
The planters and merchants retreated to their drawing rooms as the African “under class” took to the streets expressing individually and in groups the rich multi-cultural folklore of Africa and the French and English Creole Caribbean. Bands of stick fighters were accompanied by choruses of singers each led by a “chantwell”. Others would take this tradition, develop it and engage each other in contest. Later, as orchestral instruments were introduced, the music would evolve into different forms, and the middle class became involved. Promoters set up calypsonians in tents and charged an admission fee.
Meanwhile, drumming among the Africans remained proscribed but the Indian Immigrants who were allowed religious freedom, paraded with their drums on their hips and slung over their shoulders during their festival of Hosay. Some Africans participated and applied the Idea to the dustpan covers and assorted tin cans used to augment their tamboo bamboo bands.
Today, calypso arid steelband are integral to carnival In Trinidad. The Jaycees had come along and introduced Queen shows as the Europeans returned to the street carnival and the Indians and others joined the bacchanal. Individuals of the commercial class contributed by creating bands which became larger and more spectacular.
Now almost every Island of the Caribbean has imported Trinidad Carnival, but at various times of the year. This festival has also taken over other regions of the world where Caribbean people have settled: Notting Hill (late August), Toronto (early August), New York (September), Miami (October). The model, evolved over time from a multiplicity of forces, in a particular social and cultural environment, has proven its success.
But must Carnival, a lá Trinidad, albeit with local permutations, be allowed to vanquish our own traditional forms as it is threatening to do? Can we continue this wonderful festival and yet retain and give sustenance to our bull, moko jumble, clown and masquerade which have evolved over centuries and reflect the peculiar genius of our society?
Even as we strive to promote our Carnival and as we celebrate our achievements, we must address~ these questions. The answers may lie, not so much in combining the two so that one overwhelms the other, but in separating them and giving each it’s due.