Wednesday, February 01, 2006

On Carnival & Learning to Be Free

My earliest Carnival memory is actually an Ash Wednesday memory: it's of walking with my parents round the Savannah and seeing dozens of discarded wings from Peter Minshall's band Papillon scattered across the grass & along the road. An armada of giant butterflies had passed through the Savannah the day before, and not all of them had survived. It was 1982; I was not yet seven. Chances are I'd actually seen the band on the road the day before, but what caught in my brain was the sight of its aftermath.

In many ways, I've come to Carnival too late.

My great-aunts on my father's mother's side lived in Woodbrook, on Cornelio Street, half a block down from the main parade route along Ariapita Avenue. For years my idea of Carnival was spending the day at that house, keeping watch from the front gallery, listening for the music trucks, running up to the corner when a band was passing and looking on enthralled, then retreating till the next band came by. The TV would be on in the drawing-room, so we could also watch the bands in the Savannah, and an assortment of aunts and uncles and cousins would arrive and disappear and arrive again. I'd always keep an eye out for pieces of costumes dropped in the streets, and bring them home like trophies. The only one I've kept to this day is the head of a Minshall jumbie, picked up on Ariapita Avenue in 1988 and now propped up beside the bookcase, staring at me as I type.

When I was a child my mother played with Edmond Hart a few times; one year, I remember, her costume involved frills of flowers made from red and pink cloth, and gold leather boots. But it never occurred to me that one day I might play mas; I always thought of myself as a spectator, one of the people lining the pavement.

Around the mid-90s--my early 20s--I stopped going into Woodbrook on Carnival Tuesday. Maybe I was responding half-consciously to the great shift, clear in hindsight, that was happening just then, as the "golden age" that started after the Second World War--the age of Saldenah, Bailey, Edmond and Lil Hart, Aming, Lee Heung, Chang, Berkeley, and Minshall, the great designers and bandleaders whose extravaganzas gave birth to the idea of Carnival as a national festival that brought classes, races, and creeds together in celebration of life--as that wonderful age sputtered to a close, and gave way to the current age of the Carnival of investors and entrepreneurs and marketing strategies. Or maybe my youthful enthusiasm for the spectacle was simply overwhelmed by my natural distaste for crowds and heat and dust and noise. For a decade or so, I sat Carnival out--went to the beach, hid at home reading, tried to ignore the whole thing until we were safely into Lent. But always, always, I made sure that on Carnival Tuesday evening--Minshall's traditional hour--I was near a TV so I could watch his band cross the Savannah stage. I never missed it. Since Papillon, I've seen every Minshall band, in the flesh or via the cathode-ray tube.

In 2004, Minshall didn't bring out a band--he'd given up, people said--and it was the first year I left Trinidad for Carnival. I went to St. Lucia to visit some friends, had a wonderful time, and on Carnival Tuesday evening I was sitting on the beach at Reduit sipping a Piton, watching the sun set behind Pigeon Island, and thinking, I'm not missing a thing.

Last year I played J'Ouvert.

That's an abrupt transition, but I don't know how to make the segue. I didn't really plan to, didn't change my mind about anything; it was an odd time, barriers and bonds were dissolving in my life and in my mind, a couple of friends decided at the last minute to play, and I just went along. It was probably the only way it could have happened. I'd never done it before, never wanted to before, but it was brilliant, and nearly twelve months later I can see it was a real and important bend in the road. I left the house at one in the morning, drove into Woodbrook, put on a wire devil's tail, covered myself first in cocoa then in mud, and ran out into the streets, and in more ways than one I never looked back. Dawn found me on Park Street; we drove down to Macqueripe and washed our mud away, and I came home and slept and woke up and knew that something was not the same.

Last year was full of changes and decisions; and I turned thirty, and discovered I finally felt my age. Last year was a rough year for all kinds of reasons that even my closest friends don't know, but on 31 December I looked back and thought, I've had a real year's worth of it, and a good one. And I won't, of course, say this all started on J'Ouvert morning--life isn't so neat. I will say that going out and playing J'Ouvert and giving in to the weirdness and loveliness of the whole thing, and deciding my worries and misgivings weren't important enough to stop me, that was symbolic of a great change in my life and the way I face up to the world.

Last J'Ouvert I felt something I hadn't realised till then I'd never really felt before: freeness, that quintessential Trinidadian quality. And (I think) I finally understood what it means.

This year (I think!) I'm joining The Sacred Heart--I'm finally going to play mas. It's a strange time to be making my Carnival debut. Minshall's return feels like the end of something, the last gasp of an age that can't be revived (but this is Minshall--what a gasp it will be). I don't like the beast that Carnival's becoming, a creature of profit margins and costumes pre-assembled in Asia and all-"inclusive" bands that are instruments of class warfare. Friends who've been playing mas for years say the Carnival they love is gone; so many people say they just don't feel it anymore. Maybe I've come to Carnival too late.

But the mere fact of Minshall's return this year seems to have energised and awoken dozens--hundreds?--of people. And I have to believe that Carnival's subversive, revolutionary element--the Canboulay lineage, not the Mardi Gras--can't be so easily killed, not by greed, not by fear, not by selfishness or forgetfulness. Maybe that spirit is simply biding its time, waiting until enough of us see that without it we just can't be who we are.

We: what a terrifying pronoun.

Maybe I'm just in time.


oso said...

You have a way of making me nostalgic for an island I've never been to.

Dylan said...

the question im always confronted with is the difference between J'Ouvert and Carnival Monday and Tuesday. I have always found the Canboulay spirit u describe under the cover of darkness. Yet in my 7 carnivals i have yet to taste it in the day. This is not to say there is no freedom on the road come monday and tuesday, because there always is, but maybe there is something about the darkness that can never be created in the day. Anonymity is always easier in one than the other. But as you say perhaps Minshall has the magic formula. Let us know. Happy chippin!

Jade said...

I love reading things that voice so much of my own little mental tumult. We can't give up on it, because it won't ever completely give up on us. Not once we've been infused with the slightest bit of it. It's a difficult thing to shake from your veins. There is something to be done. You'll see.