THE MARDI GRAS, THE CANBOULAY, & THE PERSISTENCE OF AFRICA

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The thing is this: West to Central Africa- from Guinea to Nigeria, to Ghana, to Congo, to Sudan- is the seat of masquerade culture on planet Earth. It is where masquerade exists in an infinity of forms in terms of types of costume, headpieces, and dances- but moreover, it is where ‘the living principle of masquerade as a way of life’ is most powerful and continues to persist. It has persisted in West/Central African people and their descendants in the diaspora in a way that has died out in other peoples for hundreds of years. West/Central Africans remember the immortal connection with the cosmic- with Spirit, with Ancestors, with sun, earth, water, sea, wind, and sky. It is what has made African music traditions the verb that drives ALL popular music on the planet. It has made dancing to Black drum-music the principle form of social leisure on the planet, and has made the Trinidad Carnival one of the most popular festivals in the world…

In the Trinidad Carnival there are 2 distinct traditions. The Mardi Gras tradition (like that practiced by white New Orleans to this day) is derived from the French Grand Ball tradition which itself has roots in old European carnivals. The Mardi Gras is elite, exclusive, mostly indoors, based upon drunken revelry, with an emphasis on role reversals (gender, class, etc). It is mask as frivolity and debauchery. The other Trinidad Carnival tradition is the Canboulay which is African- but it has incorporated vital masquerade traditions of the East Indian and Amerindian. The Canboulay is inclusive, drum-music led, concerned with the vital African Oratory tradition, is about sacred masquerade, ancestral masquerade, satirical masquerade, and is revolutionary. It is connected to dozens of Secret Society masquerade forms which hid and mutated their forms into all the things we call ‘traditional mas’- the Pierrot Grenade, the Midnight Robber, the Indian Masks, the Sailor Masks, the Cow Bands, the Devil bands, etc. Nearly every single traditional mas has an African masking precedent. In form and function.

I remember in the 90s when I went to university and was gobbling down any information on traditional Africa that I could find. I stumbled upon some old anthropologist documentaries of traditional masquerades in Africa when all of sudden I heard “Bam-ba-dam-dam! Bam! Bam! Bam-ba-dam-dam! Bam! Bam!” The familiar sound of Trinidad Jab-Jab music. But instead out of the African bush came what the anthropologist said was the ancient Oro masquerade sect whose job it was to cleanse the community of evil after the harvest so that the new crop will be successful. Oro would emerge from the edges and circle the village taking all the ‘bad karma’ with them to bury outside the city. The dance was the exact same as our Blue Devil tradition. If you were to substitute ‘the village of Paramin Blue Devils’ with ‘the Oro Masquerade’ you would literally have the same masquerade. The Oro had survived hundreds of years of plantation brutality to still perform the ritual of cleansing. It had chosen the most agriculturally minded urban village to seat itself in. In this way dozens of West/Central African masquerades have survived the attempted mental genocide of the Middle Passage, the Plantation, post-slavery colonialization, and American cultural imperialism!

xo

African Masquerade has 4 important principles- drum music, possession, ritual costume, and ritual dance. Different drum patterns invoke different Spirits (Orisha) or ‘states of being’. The beats for Shango- god of lightning and life force is different from the beat for Oshun- goddess of the river and feminine wiles. Just as the beats for Funk, Reggae, Soca, and Samba invoke different states of being… Through then Drum and Rhythm Africans have kept connected with the phenomena of divine transformation through possession. This is why the Golden Ages of the African Diaspora in the last century were all cultural revolutions created by shifts in Rhythm in different outposts in the Daispora which transformed mostly young endangered marginalised and criminalised Black Boys from ages 12- 27 into geniuses of music, dance, and language. The Ages of Blues, Jazz, Pop, Rock, R&B, Funk, Disco, and Hip Hop; the Ages of Reggae and Dancehall; the Ages of Pan, Mas, and Calypso; the Ages of Samba and High-Life- all transformed boys doomed to be destroyed into Princes, Warriors, and Kings. Africans retain this understanding of Masquerade in their bodies and sub-conscious, so 500 years after slavery began Bob Marley would still dance Shango on the stage without even knowing it…

So no- Carnival was not invented by Europeans. The Trinidad Carnival has an African verb. But more than that is this. The reason why the T&T Carnival is the most contagious and prolific in the world is that all the most vital Festival Tribes of each race came here: the Amerindian Peoples from the Caribbean and the South American mainland would come here to consecrate their priests; we got the West and Central Africans- the festival/masquerade seat of Africa; we got the French during Louis XIV; we got the east Indians from Bengal and Bihar- the festival hub… All of these Festival and masquerade people came here and saw one another mirrored in each other. Their artisans and musicians mingled and began the creation of the thing we call Trinbagoinian culture. That is what makes our Mas so hypnotic. It is the meeting of these profound masquerade traditions in Carnival that has made it great- and it is the tensions between the European elite Mardi Gras and the African Canboulay that has given it dynamism. However if the Mardi Gras overwhelms the Canboulay as has been happening for the last 40 years then the Festival as we know it will die. As it has been…

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Posted on October 25, 2016, in President's Blog and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

    • Thanks agogo for reading and re-posting. What are your thought son the piece? Your bog is interesting and I’m also interested in your institution and what you’re doing in that side of the Atlantic. How are things?

      • agreed with you – without the tension between what we have always been and where we are now Carnival dies (also true of other forms of carnival).

        I thought yours a thought provoking and interesting piece that made me want to revisit traditions that have arisen in other p[arts of the African Diaspora.

        Here in England we can see a wonderful mixture of ancient traditions from yet various ethnic groups (European, African, Asian) of the last 500-1000 years and that of musicians listening to their counterparts from other parts of the world who translate little bits of the traditions they hear for a local context.

  1. I didn’t realize that Trinidad and Tobago had Mardis Gras, but I was familiar with Canboulay.

    • Yes digarcia, the European Trinidad carnival tradition in the 1800s looked almost exactly like the popular New Orleans version of the festival- with the decorated truck floats with elites on top waving down to masses, the grand costumed balls, etc- all from the French tradition… The original Pierrot etc from French/Venetian theatre and folk forms would have been seen in those events. The injection of the African element especially upon Emancipation when the Africans took to the streets en masse is what transformed the Trinidad Carnival. African percussive musical forms took over along with the warrior tradition of the Canboulay/Stick Fighting,. The satirical and syncretised sacred masquerades took to the streets. The inclusivity expanded so much so that within 30 years from Emancipation Amerinidains had bands, Chinese, Hindus had Ramleela Effigies and were doing elaborate Burrokeet coronation rituals in the carnival, Muslims had Hosay tadjahs in the festival!!! The African energy opened up the festival into a democratic anarchic riot. From the moment of the Canboulay’s appearance to its first pitched battles with the colonial forces- military and social- in the Canboulay Riots of the 1890s the battle between the Mardi Gras and Canboulay would be the central dance at the heart of the aesthetic soul of Trinidad and Tobago- determining things much further afield than just the kind of bands on the road. The very shape of the Soul of the country was being fashioned and re-fashioned according to these cut and thrusts… Its a fascinating study…

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