Carnival, with its street parades, Jamming, and calypso and queen shows is by no means a recent phenomenon. Our carnival has been shaped by a number of influences: other carnivals especially Trinidad’s, our African ancestry, and changing trends in music. But one common element remains, It allows us as a people to express ourselves creatively and artistically to break free, and rid ourselves momentarily of the every-day frustrations and pressures.
A retrospective glance into our “Christmas Sports” reveals a rich, cultural heritage in relation to our folklore, and our music. The term “folklore” refers to a people, their traditions, beliefs and customs which are passed from one generation to another. Our Christmas Sports were played during the period from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day. It was a time when working class people took to the streets dancing, singing, playing music and performing short dramatic presentations.
Our folklore sports: Masquerade, Bull, Mummies, Niega Business, Actors and Sagwa to name a few, date back to slavery, and represent a synergism or “potpourri” of African, European, and Amerindian elements. Through these performances, the players were able to preserve some of their African customs through the use of the mask and the drum, mimic the language, dance and dress of the plantocracy, and create Indigenous acts.
Today, the Masquerade, Bull, Mocko Jumble. Mummies, Actors, and clowns are the primary sports played, with the masquerade and bull ranking highest in popularity. Other sports such as Niega Business, Sagwa, Soldiers, Cowboys and Indians
Selassie, and Japanese and Millionaires which were sections of the down troupe have died out. Unfortunately, emigration, the death of players, and a lack of any organised programme to maintain some of these cultural elements have caused the plethora of Christmas Sports to dwindle, and suffer the fate of all flesh.
Another main feature of carnival is the music. String band and big drum music usually accompanied the folk performances. The instruments which were played to create the lilting, rhythmic music were guitars, quartos, the fife, triangle, ‘baha’ which is a long piece of metal pipe that is blown, and the ‘shack-shack’, a tin can containing beads. In the case of big drum music, a huge drum along with a kettle drum beating out pulsating rhythms and a fife were played.
During the late I 940s, the iron band was introduced and was mainly made up of car rims and drums, creatively played to create music for street jamming. It was during this period as well that a number of community bands, consisting of trumpets, saxophones, drums, and double-bass guitars, thrived. Bands such as Esperanza, Music Makers, Rhythm Kings, Brown Queen and the Silver Rhythm Orchestra were some of the established ones which featured at dances and concerts.
Travel allowed for an exchange of cultural influences, and in the early 195Os steel band music was introduced into St Kitts. Mr. Lloyd Matheson C.B.E., then an Education Officer, traveled to Trinidad and brought back a pan which he introduce into the community. The Wilberforce Steel Ban from College Street was formed, and that was mainly due to the hard work of Roy Martin known as “Baby Rat”, who was the first to learn to play the pan here. Cecil “Moonlight” Roberts went to Antigua in 1952 to buy pans, and the steel band stimulated much interest. Steel bands sprouted in many villages: the Invaders from Newtown, the Boston Tigers from the Village, the Eagle Squadron from West Bourne Street and Boomerang and Casablanca from McKnight. They added a new musical dimension to St. Kitts and Nevis.
Through the energies of Mr. Basil Henderson a well-known community-spirited person, Carnival as we know it today was born in 1957. Before he started he first held a big meeting in Warner Park, to which he invited members of the public and private sectors, community groups and the church. Mr. Henderson informed the community of his plans for a carnival celebration. However, he received much resistance from the church, and from certain section of the community, but he was by no means daunted. Persons such as Mrs. Vissipal, Mrs. Warren, Mrs. Agnes Skerritt, and the late Mrs. Doris Wall were members of the first carnival committee. Cromwell Bowry, and Cyril Frederick also made a significant contribution to carnival during its early beginnings Major Leonard Alphonso, a Chief of Police from Trinidad became actively involved in the development of carnival in the early 1960s, and brought out an Indian troupe, creating another perspective.
The street parade with the glitter and tinsel, the queen show which was organized by the Jaycees, and the calypso show were some of the highlights. Infact, Mr. Winston Barker known as the “Mighty Kush” became the first calypso king. However, the local word for what later became known as “caiypsoes” which is in fact a Trinidadian word, was “quelbay’ or “country dance”. Calypsoes, often humourous dated back to slavery, and their content focussed on topical issues, and was a form of social commentary.
The I960s brought the brass bands with their amplification. They have grown in popularity, and now dominate street Jamming. In fact, they posed at one time a threat to the survival of string band and steel band music. However, attempts have been made to ensure that the survival of the pan, as it has become a part of the curriculum in some high schools. The I980s have brought another development: the electronic musical equipment. Electronics have many advantages especially when used properly, allowing for versatility and creativity. However, the feeling among many knowledgeable musicians and music lovers is that the development of the “Jam band” style music which characterises carnival nowadays, lacks creativity, musical arrangement and is monotonous to the ear. It can be frustrating when the electronic keyboard is left to play while the musicians relax. Many feel that there needs to be a greater appreciation of music, the noise level must be reduced, and that musicians need to listen and read more. With respect to the lyrics of the calypsoes, it is thought that they should be less vulgar and more witty. Another suggestion is that the carnival committee set and demand standards In relation to music.
In the mid-60s political rivalry between the Christmas Festivities Committee and the Soul Carnival Committee, two organisers of the annual festival, threatened the development of carnival, and for a few years, there was none. It was Paul Southwell who in 1971 pioneered legislation for Carnival to be nationalized. Mr. Eldred Jenkins was the first National Carnival Committee Chairman, and he along with many others organised the shows, which are familiar to many of us today. Some of the main features indude junior and adult calypso competitions, a talented teen contest, the national queen show, the ch1ldren’s Carnival which involves mainly the primary schools, and the adult street parade
As we celebrate National Carnival this is an excellent opportunity to review the development of carnival, and point, the way forward. Many persons feel strongly that the folk sports need to be made an integral part of carnival if they are to survive. Another point made is that we must not try to import wholesale the Trinidad-style carnival, but retain some indigenous aspects. Greater encouragement of creativity, talks in schools and via the media to show the value of carnival, and to change the spectator mentality of nationals were mentioned as some of the elements that need to be in place for us to move forward. The need for major improvements in the seating and restroom facilities at the main village, with the erection of a cover for the main stage was another concern mentioned. With respect to music, it was thought that the carnival committee should acquire basic high-quality instruments such as a keyboard guitars, and drums, and a good public address system for the smooth transition of band changes at the shows. Whatever the suggestions offered, it should be noted that although a lot has been achieved, there is still much scope for improvements.