Summer is upon us once again, and one of the many activities Caribbean people anticipate during this time is carnival. Many of us will be vacationing to our respective home countries to participate in the many carnival celebrations that will engulf each nation. The Caribbean carnival experience, of course, has also been transplanted within the Caribbean diaspora. In New York City, for example, we are also eagerly anticipating the Labour Day celebration on Eastern Parkway, where every (or almost all) Caribbean country will have the opportunity to showcase their colors (flags), their music, their food, and their hospitality in spectacular fashion. It is indeed a time of beauty; a time to have fun, and an opportunity to display one’s patriotism to his or her country.
As I, however, anticipate the coming amusement of this carnival season, I am moved to think about carnival from a different perspective. Is the amusement that carnival brings, all there is to the celebration? Is it simply a time to have fun? Should it be seen as a time to become oblivious to the many social, cultural and political problems we are facing? Is it a time for us to put aside the fight to create a better world and have fun? To these questions, I will certainly answer no. However, in my day as a carnival reveler (well somewhat), and as does many today appears to think, I thought that carnival was simply a time to indulge and have fun.
Please don’t get me wrong, carnival is undeniably a time to celebrate and have fun. After all, it is the summer. However, fun notwithstanding, the Caribbean carnival experience embodies much more. These celebrations of people, art, colors and hospitality are not just a time to have fun, but are also the display and celebrations of the human spirit to fight against oppression.
Tradition of Old
Despite what we were taught, carnival did not originate from the Christian Lent tradition. Carnival is rooted in per-Lenten pagan traditions. The Christian celebration of Lent became associated with carnival, as Christians co-opted and masked their rituals within paganistic traditions as a means to convey meaning to Christian traditions. Thus, Lent, the new springtime celebration, became known by the Roman expression of carnival, meaning “farewell to the flesh.” This time is described as a time for preparation; a time where Christians’ believers engaged in solemn prayer, atonement, self-denial and repentance for sin.
Nevertheless, despite the Christian understanding of carnival as a time to say “farewell to the flesh,” or, as a form of asceticism, from a Caribbean perspective, carnival masqueraders have always operate from a naturalistic point of view. In other words, carnival masqueraders have always been engaging and reacting with the world and not regressing from it. Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean have always been used as a vehicle via which injustices have always been challenged. It has been a conduit for resistance against slavery, colonialism and corrupt politicians.
Prior to emancipation, despite not given the opportunity to engage in carnival celebration [as celebrated by the Europeans], the enslaved Africans would have their own private sacred celebrations in which they would mock and lampoon the slave masters in songs. In the book Kaiso!, Keith Q. Warner writes that in 1868 Trinidad, legislation was passed prohibiting the singing of songs because the plantations owners realized that the singing was an act of social protest, via which the slaves were ridiculing plantations owners.
Restrictions were again placed on singing in the 1930s, where Calypsonians had to submit their calypso song to the police for scrutiny before they could be performed in public. In 1957, Colonial administrators in Grenada put out public notices warning Calypsonians to abstain from singing songs that were indecent, immoral and laborious. This act was indeed a clear attempt, not simply to curb “indecency” but to muzzle the singers from critiquing the administrators themselves.
Another social protest aspect of the Caribbean carnival celebration goes back to the emancipation, when the formally enslaved Africans began using “Cannes Brulees” or “burnt cane” to paint their bodies black and greasy and dance down the streets to the music of drums, commemorating their freedom. During this dance these masquerades would dramatize the in humane actions of the slave masters. These masquerades are known as Jab Jab in Grenada, from the French word diable, meaning “devil.” On the island of Haiti they are known as Lanse Kod, and the Jab Molassie in the island of Trinidad.
The idea of the Jab Jab, however, is much older than the display of painted bodies gyrating through the streets. Jab Jab is connected to the ancient African character djab, described as a personal spirit in the Vodun religious tradition. Djab is described as being a malicious spirit, sent to bring deprivation upon the enemies of those it protects. This malicious characteristic of djab is intrinsic to the Jab Jab carnival character itself. This is manifested in the aggressive movement of the Jab Jab, as he or she dances along the parade route holding her spear and/or snakes. Indeed, though mockingly, Jab Jab seeks to invoke fear into the hearts of the audience, not unlike djab. Thus, the goal of Jab Jab [like that of djab] is to protect and fight for those least able to fight him or her selves. This, I believe, is the true spirit of the Jab Jab: The invoking of the humanity in our hearts, in services to others.
Also having a significant social and political justice role during carnival is the character Grenadians knows as the Shortknee [a name coined in the 1920s]. This carnival character, originally known as Grenade Pierrot, meaning, “a clown,” has its origins in the Grenadian French experience. From its French roots, the Pierrot was connected to the peasant population. He or she is described as being a magnificently dressed character who proudly parades him or herself as a scholar, yet displays a sad but playful facial expression that ranges from sensitivity, melancholy and solitary. This is the embodiment of the Grenada Shortknee. Dressed in his or her colorful clothing, wearing a mask that presents a sad melancholic expression [these Shortknee masks have longed been outlawed during carnival], the Shortknee presents himself as a comedic, yet knowledgeably character. Armed with bells around his or her ankle to alert the villagers of his presence, the Shortknee will parade the streets of the villages during the Carnival celebration informing the poor villagers of the political and social problems plaguing their communities and country through well-crafted double entendre songs.
This takes us to yet another fun aspect of the carnival celebration that embodies the act of social and political activism. That is the music itself. As presented above, authorities in many Caribbean countries have tried, which continues to this day, to curb Calypsonians’ use of the Calypso as a tool to protest and critique power. Calypso music has always been used as the voice of the oppressed people. Keith Q. Warner writes that “the Calypsonian constantly monitors what is happening around him (or her) and uses the platform of the Calypso to expose to his listeners a point of view that is not only his personal one, but more often than not is indicative of what the person in the street is thinking about a particular situation.” The Grenadian Calypsonian Winston Glasgow, known as the African Teller, in his 1991 song ‘Political Monkeys,’ informed the Grenadian public that he “take[s] a stand many years ago” to sing for the poor man.
Calypso has always been the voice through which Caribbean life has been narrated, and in an effort to protect him or herself from retaliation, the Calypsonians often times use satire and double entendre to disguise their messages and attacks on those in power. The Calypso artform has been used to critique slavery, colonialism and today’s politics and political leaders. The Grenadian born Calypsonian Slinger Francisco, known as the Mighty Sparrow, for example, questioned and critiqued colonialism in many of his songs. Sparrow, for example, criticized the colonial style education of the Caribbean in the song, “Dan is the Man in the Van.” He said that “they teach me like a fool. They teach me I should be a blockheaded mule.”
Calypso has been used as a vehicle to promote and call for Caribbean unity. In his 1979 song ‘Caribbean Unity,’ Leroy Calliste, known as Black Stalin made this call while criticizing the Caribbean politicians for their failure to achieve what he sees as a simple task: Caribbean unity. “You try with a Federation – the whole thing end in confusion. Caricom and then Carifta – but somehow ah smell disaster,” he sang.
The promotion of Human Rights has always been a theme running through most Calypsos. The Trinidadian Calypsonian Brother Mudada in his 1979 song ‘Human Rights,’ sang that “Human Rights is basic,” and then asked that “You mister law maker – Take this song to [b]e a reminder.” Also, the Grenadian Calypsonian Findlay Jeffry, known as the Scholar, addressed social concerns plugging Grenada and the world in his 1993 song ‘Voices.’ The Trinidadian Calypsonian Linda Sandy-Lewis, known as Calypso Rose, addressed the reality of terrorism in her song ‘Terrorism Gone Wild,’ singing that “From Europe to America terrorists take over. The nation is not safe no more – to much bullets at your door.”
The catalog of Calypso music addressing societal ills in the Caribbean and the world are endless. It is one of the many mediums via which truth to power is spoken, and this aspect of Carnival should not be allowed to fall asleep.
The essence of Carnival and the masqueraders are a display of the essence of humanity. In the case of the Jab Jab (djab), for instance, the essence is not about its mystical connections and other-worldliness, but its metaphoric act to protect those who lack the power to do so for themselves. From the masqueraders who dance and gyrate along the streets, dressed in beautiful color clothing, to the Calypsonians, carnival celebration is a celebration of the human spirit. It is a celebration of the humanity we all share. It is a representation of our solidarity for and to each other. So, as we celebrate the many Caribbean carnivals; as we celebrate from Grenada to Labour Day in Brooklyn, let us dance in defense of those affected by racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and all forms of discrimination. Let us dance in defense of the black and brown bodies that have been and continues to be violated. Let us dance against the killing of those who put their lives on the line to protect us. Let’s not lose, I ask, these significant aspects of carnival.