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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… Read the rest of this entry

Our festivals, Part 2

Most local festivals have now reached critical mass as folk festivals and require sensitive interventions to survive. They are at crossroads for a variety of reasons. These include: the migration of the original source population from the original festival site. Sometimes this is rural-to-urban drift — as is the case with some Hosay and Ramleela communities. Many of the Golden Age genius artisans of mas moved from “ghettoes to suburbs” —leaving East Port of Spain and Belmont for Diego Martin and elsewhere. Many left the country and seeded the 300 Trini-styled carnivals worldwide. These migrations have jeopardised the festival in the original community…

In many national festivals the founding fathers and Golden Age generations who established the classical form of the festival have died — and a new generation is carrying it on with less ritual knowledge and artisan skill. This is the case with many festivals with ritual dances and drum-based music in both East Indian and African communities. Most of the master-drummers and dancers from both sets of traditions have died in the last decade and there are no clear heirs to the Masters’ thrones who have the full vocabulary of local drum and dance practices. Because of this a number of local traditions have disappeared.

In other cases the festival has expanded beyond its original folk footprint and now involves all kinds of outsiders, marketplace activity, and a larger audience…The festival simply has outgrown its scale… Like Paramin’s Parang festival…

In all of these situations we are now entrusted with the critical task of retooling and innovating our festivals sensitively — to either become larger ritual events that remain true to their original sacred purpose — or expanded economised events which embrace the possibilities of dynamic cottage economies as well as multi-million dollar tourist potentials. Even in this type of transformation it’s critical that the festival preserve its source components. If this isn’t done the festival will collapse — and its earning potential disappear.
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All the world’s a stage… How to reload a Golden Age

Part III

The battle between the forces of the elite Euro­pean-led Mardi Gras and the working class African-led Camboulay is not just a Carnival battle—it is a metaphor for the battle for the nation’s developmental direction and soul. Our crises of crime, institutional collapse, loss of identity and direction are because our leaders have consistently negated the authentic, the working-class, the indigenous, and the “roots”—choosing instead the foreign, plastic and elite. We’ve become a Mardi Gras people—fake, soul-less, status- and trinket-obsessed, surface and empty. We confront nothing and wait until the rot overwhelms. We’ve abandoned our own star. The Carnival, the culture and the country are all collapsing because of these choices…

From the 1930s, with the first experiments to create pan, to 1956, with the world’s first platinum album, Calypso, by Harry Belafonte, this country went through an extraordinary period of transformation. Our folk culture evolved into classical forms with genius levels of execution, eventually becoming global. During this Golden Age, hundreds of heroic nationals impacted every corner of the globe in sports, politics, the arts, liberation movements and science. Pan, mas and calypso emerged in their modern forms spawning 300 Trini-carnivals worldwide.

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How to reload a Golden Age

Part I

The critical question we must ask is this: how does Trinidad and Tobago continue the Gifts of our Golden Age long after the conditions on the ground that created the Golden Age no longer exist?

Revolutionary surgery is required. By now, it is clear to all but the blind that something is dangerously wrong with the Carnival—and that it resembles terminal decline. This is not habitual complaining, this is a diagnosis rooted in identifying traits in cultures and civilisations in decline. Why empires fall. T&T’s arts and culture—and Carnival in particular—exhibit many of these traits.

I trust that all those who thought Carnival was a secular festival and “just an event” that simply needs to be “planned better” so you could just change elements, now realise how wrong they are after the wreckage that was this year’s Dimanche Gras. This thinking has only led us to increasingly dizzying levels of disaster. Let’s get it clear: Carnival is not secular. It’s a constellation of sacred rituals that have lineage in several ethnic tribal memories. These rituals merged in a beautiful dance to make this thing we call Carnival. Together these rituals represent “we the people” attempting to make this country a home. Why else do more than 150,000 people of a population of 1.3 million suddenly change their behaviour and launch off annually in a series of ritual choreographies— most of which earn no financial profit—to manifest tens of thousands of works of art, most which will be discarded after one day of use? Read the rest of this entry

Love and Carnival

I once loved a girl, but it was impossible. It was just one of those things. It had happened at Carnival time so we circled one another from afar whilst I tried to distract myself with fete after fete and the whirl of beautiful multiple female limbs… It did not work. After each wining moment died I was left hollow — and still in love. Carnal appetite could not satisfy the spirit… the rituals and spirit of Carnival is like that love — without it the festival is empty, reduced to appetite… And the human being requires more.

There’s something missing now from Carnival. Under-35s who’ve never experienced it will not know its wonder. They cannot compute that level of electricity.

There were waves of anticipations shuddering through each week, tinglings accompanying each ritual opening — Pan-in-the-City, panyards and tents opening, Panorama prelims, semis, King and Queens prelims, Viey La Cou (traditional mas), each song released by a genius bard… “What Shadow, Rudder come with?”

That holy trinity of Pan, Mas, and Calypso with their multiple ritual genuflections all sent a magic into the air that was inexplicable. Read the rest of this entry