Bacchus ‘wines’ in the Isle of Calypso
Will Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and song, frown in disapproval at the behaviour of revelers in Trinidad at Carnival time? Or will he join them in drinking and merriment?
In Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival evokes images of colour, costumes, celebration, calypso, parade, pageantry, revelry, music, steel band, and perhaps different things to different people. One of our professors, now resident abroad, referred to it as ‘theatre of the street’ and so it is. For players and spectators alike there is the cathartic effect that Carnival brings about with its release of energy and pent-up emotions.
Carnival in Trinidad differs from those in other countries. Detractors refer to its bacchanalian character, and many complaints are made of its deterioration. Visitors, however, are amazed at the energy, the cohesiveness, the harmonious spirit manifesting itself in large bands of masqueraders dancing through the streets. The masqueraders jump and gyrate (wine it is called here) to calypso music specially composed for the season.
Our Trinidad-type of Carnival has been successfully exported abroad to London (Notting Hill), Toronto, New York (Brooklyn), Miami, and other metropolitan areas. Its development and growth have been engineered by those Trinidadians, who live abroad, but feel the need for an essentially Trinidadian festivity. They want to share with other Trinidadians, and the natives of their host country, the joy and fervour that this festival elicits.
Taking part in Carnival is called ‘playing mas’ (masque). The masque originated with the French in the eighteenth century. After their masqued balls, they would parade through the streets. The slaves in imitation of their Colonial masters, and to ridicule them, donned similar costumes and masks, and paraded through the streets.
These festivities usually coincided with the celebration of the burning of the sugar cane (cannes brulees). The Carnival evolved from these celebrations in a then mainly Roman Catholic country, to a two-day celebration – the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Some people take an adversarial stance. They call it a celebration of the flesh: carne, of course means flesh and vale means goodbye, therefore carnevale is goodbye to the flesh. Some church members see it as devil worship and there are many characters portraying the devil in our carnival. Nevertheless, there are many other beautiful characterizations that take one’s breath away.
Preparation for Carnival in our country is unbelievable. Some band leaders start planning for the following year’s Carnival immediately the present one has finished. Others start designing and carrying out their research on Boxing Day, i.e. the day after Christmas Day. Research for many costumes has to be done abroad depending on what is needed. Some types of materials have to be imported. But the ideas, the creativity, the craftsmanship, the energy, the excitement and the passion are all indigenous to our culture. People wonder why all this energy and fervour seem lacking in other areas of the work ethos.
For Trinidadians, the Carnival season does not begin on Carnival Monday or Tuesday, the official days. It begins sometime early in January with the opening of the calypso tents. These ‘tents’ are really buildings. In the old days the tents were makeshift structures, covered with coconut branches, put up for the purpose of singing calypsoes, and removed at the end of the season. These places were off limits for ‘decent’ people. Now all that has changed.
Each year new calypsoes are composed on various events and situations. Politicians experience the satirical lip-lash of the calypsonians. They are often their main butt, but other figures get their ‘picong’ as well. Local, regional and international events get high-lighted. Social commentary, humorous anecdotes, scandal, invectives, sexual innuendoes and images, to the delight of captive audiences, find their way into the calypsoes. More than anything, at the calypso competitions, also preceding Carnival, is the need for tunes with a catchy refrain, so the audiences can ‘free up’ their bodies and move to the rhythm.
About three weeks before the actual Carnival celebrations, the children have their own Carnival parades on weekends. These competitions are sponsored by the Red Cross and by local business corporations. The Kiddies’ Carnival and the Junior Carnival seem to have overtaken the adults in design and originality. This sentiment has been expressed by a large number of people. The complaint is the adults (mainly women) are more interested in showing off their bodies than wearing costumes designed for the portrayal of the character they are supposed to be depicting. This is not confined only to those whose aerobic workouts have given them bodies to be proud of, but also to those who would look better to be less naked.
There are different venues for judging these bands (children’s and adult’s). Money prizes and trophies are offered for the best small band (less than one thousand members), the best medium-sized (one to three thousand) and the best large band (three thousand and over). Prizes are also offered for the best King and Queen of the band in each category. As in everything, in our little island of 1.2 million, controversy abounds about every little thing. There are a few judging venues, but there is always some dispute about the main venue for judging these competitions – the Queen’s Park Savannah.
The Queen’s Park Savannah is a very large area of grassland, interspersed with large shady trees, a botanical garden and a racing paddock. It houses a Grand Stand from which spectators can view numerous activities, not least of which is the Dimanche Gras competition staged on Carnival Sunday night At this competition the Calypso Monarch is chosen after each contestant has rendered his items. The quality of singing and lyrics must be good enough for the contestants to reach this stage. Tunelessness and other defects are rewarded with toilet paper and plastic bottles thrown at the contestants on stage at the preliminaries. The King and Queen of the various bands come out on the grandest (in terms of length and width) of stages, erected for the purpose. They parade in front of judges and spectators to vie for the title of Best King and Best Queen of the bands.
The day before the Dimanche Gras competitions, i.e. the Saturday, the Savannah hosts the Panorama Championship, the grand finals of the Steelband Competition, sixteen bands competing. Droves of people, young and not so young, descend on this venue to support and cheer their favourite band. They make a picnic of it, as these competitions last for hours, well into the wee hours of the morning.
After the Dimanche Gras show at the Savannah, many persons in festive mood hang around the city awaiting the start of Jour Ouvert (J’Ouvert), meaning opening of the day. This is the grand start of Carnival proper. Jour Ouvert is a category of mas’ that has its own adherents. Some are satisfied only to be spectators, while others must play. No other type of mas’ interests them. The characters are meant to lampoon individuals in society or portray some aspect of someone they consider ridiculous. These characters, mainly individuals, carry a placard displaying in words what they are portraying. Puns abound and the Trinidadian dialect seems to lend itself refreshingly to this type of humour.
Caricature is an essential part of Jour Ouvert. The sight of a 300-pound male, wearing a diaper, a bonnet, sucking a comforter and '‘chipping'’ along to the music with a baby’s potty, always provokes laughter. Any faux-pas made by politicians during the year is highlighted and the derisive measures to humiliate always get the crowd's approval.
Steelband music, which originated in Trinidad in the late l930s, was, and to a certain extent is still, an essential component of Carnival. It made its first impact on the streets of Port of Spain at the end of World War 11 to celebrate the victory of the Allies over the Nazis. The suppression of this form of music, as with other indigenous activities, by the then Colonial powers gave rise to mixed feelings over its acceptance. Something as provocative and primal as the rhythms this music evoked awakened energies and responses as no other music was doing at that time.
Lovers of classical music referred to the steelband as primitive and prevented their offspring from associating with it in any way. Yet, hypocrisy manifested itself when, at fetes – Carnival or otherwise – it was the preferred form of music. It was the size of the steelbands themselves that prevented them from being more competitive. They took up too much room anywhere; its membership was always too large as they needed ‘extras’ to help push their ‘pans’ (oil-drums tuned to different pitches).
In the early days most steelbands were aligned with sailor bands, a prominent feature of the Carnival scene of the past. It used to be a pleasure to see sailor bands, as they are still called, representing some ship, e.g. SS Starlift. The members would be decked out in all the regalia for their particular ship, from the Admiral down through the hierarchy to the fire-stokers. These fire-stokers would be boys from about the age of six to twelve. Slim,
in their black vests and black cotton pants and black sneakers, their stoking iron in hand, they performed the most exquisite dances. Their footwork moved skilfully to the beat of the steelband music, while their body movements would simulate the unsteadiness of being on board a ship. It was fascinating to watch. The sailor dance became a regular feature of our cultural presentations, but unfortunately, no one seems able to do it anymore.
The rousing music of the steelband awakens the weariest of masqueraders to dance or to move. The percussion of the steeldrums arouses some primal energy and waist, hips, shoulders and feet are spurred into action. This is most noticeable after rest periods when band members stop for refreshment causing a short lull. At the start of the music after the break, there is a resurgence of life and rapturous faces. A corresponding roar of approval is heard from the masqueraders, as their bodies respond to the magic of the music. Some, hands waving in the air and jumping, others chipping along in time to the beat, while others just move their pelvic area back and forth.
Youngsters who were around for the emergence of the steelband felt a great thrill at this new sound. It was different from the tamboo-bamboo (two pieces of bamboo struck against each other) and the percussion of iron and spoon. It was in its early stages of development. No one knew then, except the tuners and the panmen, that the instruments (steel drums) were tuned by ‘firing’ them and pounding them in a certain way to educe different notes.
As children we listened to the ping-pong notes wafting their way down from the Laventille Hills in the still of the night towards central Port of Spain. We went to sleep hearing snatches of tunes being played on instruments we had not yet seen or known to be created. So when at the end of the Second World War, people came out to celebrate the victory of the allies in carnival style, Trinidadians were also celebrating a victory of sound, a new instrument they had given to the nation, later to the world.
The Colonial powers had stopped all mas’ playing in the streets during those war years and VE Day was celebrated with the calypso:
Five years an eight months
We eh play no mas’
So much has transpired since then. This calypso isle, this land that gave birth to the steel-band, this land with its fusion of races and art forms, has evolved a Carnival people. They are a people who can party at the slightest opportunity; a few drinks and the most primitive musical instruments could start a fete.
For many people in Trinidad, perhaps less so in Tobago, Carnival gives them a hedonistic purpose to live. Would Bacchus approve?