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CARNIVAL HISTORY NOTEBOOK
Lynn Granger, a New York based journalist from Trinidad and Tobago gives
an historical perspective of the main components of Caribbean Carnival in
The freedom we enjoy on Carnival day here in Boston, and elsewhere, is taken
for granted and, perhaps, this is due to our lack of knowledge of the history
associated with the festival.
Carnival was introduced to Trinidad by the French plantocracy at the end of
the 18th century. They were on the run after the effects of the French
Revolution in 1789 and came from the French Caribbean islands of Haiti,
Guadeloupe and Martinique. Having been allowed easy access by the Spanish
authorities, more French planters came, bringing with them their African slaves.
The festival was celebrated by the white upper- and middle-class folks who
ridiculed the lower classes by portraying them in costume as uncivilized and
stupid. The celebrants would go door to door singing and dancing, and the
Africans, who were forbidden to participate in the festivities, were
nevertheless, expected to provide entertainment for the "uppity" musicians and
With the abolition of slavery in 1834, the celebrations were taken over by
the Africans who then imitated the lifestyle and dress of their former masters,
much to their [the masters] chagrin. The French Creoles and whites withdrew from
the festival with the expectation that it would soon lose its popularity, but
that was not to be. They referred to it as "Jamette" Carnival and said, "only
the lowest of the low would participate in such a low-class and degenerating
The Port of Spain Gazette in 1838 took the side of the French Creoles and
whites by writing: "The streets were filled with Africans letting out a wild
Guinea sound." The elites' disapproval of the festival led to the limiting of
Carnival to two days in 1834. Prior to that, the celebrations began in December
and ended on Ash Wednesday (February or March). The Canboulay (French cannes
brulees which means burning of the canes) was a celebration observed by the
Africans after emancipation, during which they would proceed through the streets
with lighted torches, singing calindas (the fore runner of calypso it is widely
believed). The main singers were called chantwells and musical accompaniment
came in the form of African skin drums, tamboo bamboo (bamboo drums), conch
shells and rattles.
Further strides were made to do away with Carnival, including the prohibition
of public masking, but since the celebration had evolved to embrace the African
dance, costumes, music and rituals, the black "underclass" (low-class mobs,
middle-class black nationalists) fought back. This led to hostile relations
between blacks and colored, creoles and immigrants, Roman Catholics and
Anglicans, and moreso between the black lower class and the white upper class.
The African drums had long since been feared by the colonial masters, who
knew only too well the power they had to communicate messages during uprisings
and insurrections, and when they tried to ban the use of drums, the Africans
again resisted. Afraid of the riots and violence that accompanied Carnival in
1874, the whites closed their shops and groceries and by 1880 the police (who
always regarded African activities as a nuisance, danger and threat to their and
security) intervened. The Africans were ordered by the police commissioner to
surrender their sticks, torches, rattles and drums. When an attempt was made by
the police to confiscate the possessions of the Africans the following year an
all-out war, the Canboulay Riots, resulted.
Stickmen went on a rampage in Port of Spain for two days, a rampage that
resulted in fatalities and massive destruction of property. The people's
Canboulay Festival was abolished in 1884 and replaced with a restricted festival
to being at dawn on the Monday preceding Ash Wednesday. J’Ouvert (breaking of
the day) became well established, with the tamboo bamboo replacing the African
Anti-heroes of western culture and civilization were now depicted by the
Africans. These included red and wild Indians, robbers and devils who recited
their intentions with much flourish.
By the 1930s and '40s well-known robbers like Charles Peace and "One Shot"
Burke were declaring in "high" language that they "could take the day and make
night ... bite off piece of the moon and make seasons ... walk where the sun
never shines and the grass never grows."
Dame Lorraine was another product of the lower classes. Dame Lorraine
characters wore fine clothes of the aristocrats, stuffed their bosoms and padded
their buttocks. providing much comic relief. The characters, given such names as
"Madam Proud," “Madam Big Tits,” “Madam Sorefoot,” and “M'sieu Gross Coco,”
imitated the permissiveness and gay abandon associated with Carnival. They were
also featured at Dimanche Gras (big Sunday -- a festival performed in tents at
the time). Today the event is held at the Queen's Park Savannah in
Sailor Bands were also a feature of Carnival, their antics depicted those of
the Americans who had arrived on the local scene. This type of band provided
safety to lawbreakers since they were able to pull their masks down to hide
their faces. During this period of Carnival's history the upper and middle
classes, unable to stop the Carnival, decided to take part in the celebrations
by assuming responsibility for its administration a trend that still continues
Calypsonians also came to the fore during Carnival with their "picong"
(ridiculing of the upper, middle or lower classes ... or anyone who "stepped out
of line." Calypsonians with such pseudonyms as "Atilla the Hun," "Beginner,"
"Lion," "Tiger," "Pretender," "Spoiler," "Invader," "Destroyer" and "Radio" came
on the scene in the 1930s and their musical creations were full of wit and
Lord Kitchener arrived on the scene just before World War II and in one of
his calypsoes, he issued a message to the government to "send a steelband to
fight against Hitler and the German 'war machine.'" Slinger Francisco, "The
Mighty Sparrow," arrived on the scene in 1956 with his classic song, "Jean and
Dinah," which celebrated the departure of American troops stationed in Trinidad
during WWII. The chorus went thus: "So when you bounce up Jean and Dinah/Rosita
and Clementina/Round the corner posing/Bet your life is something they
selling/And if your catch them broken/You can get it all for nothing/Don't make
no row/The Yankees gone/Sparrow take over now."
The steel pan (which replaced the tamboo bamboo in the 1940s), like Carnival
had very humble beginnings. Winston "Spree" Simon, one of the men credited as
being a pioneer of the steel pan, was born in the poor district of Rose Hill in
the East Dry River Section of Port of Spain, and lived in John John which Spree
described as a place where "the depressed, frustrated, underprivileged and poor
people sweat out their drab and dull existence." The area comprised a biscuit
factory and other small industries, and thus became a refuse for drums,
[biscuit] tins and other discarded objects. When groups of young men beat on the
tins, Spree was amazed by the sounds emanating from them, and his curiosity led
him down the road to experimentation. [Speaking] of his first pan, a simple
one-note kettledrum, Spree said, "While pounding on different points with
varying strengths, I was surprised and shocked. I was able to get varying sounds
or pitches ... I was fascinated ... I was able to get distinctly separate
Claims to the true father of the pan are still being debated but all can
agree that it was Winston Spree Simon who turned the population on to the steel
pan's "potential as a musical instrument." On Carnival Day in 1946, he played
Schubert's "Ave Maria" and "God Save the King" on his 14-note ping pong (name
given to a melody pan). Spree's work with the steel pan allowed the earlier work
of Neville Jules to be revealed, and he [Spree] passed the baton to Ellie
Mannette who in turn passed it on to Tony Williams, and from there to Rudolph
Charles, Bertie Marshall and Denzil "Dimes" Fernandez.
The steel pan has been called the "only musical instrument invented within
the last century. Like Carnival, it grew in prestige and popularity and became
the topic of many Calypsonians. Paul Keens Douglas, actor, wrote: "Once long
ago, and no so long ago/the story I telling is true/A man take a pan with a
hammer in he hand/to show he invented something new/with an ordinary drum in
which the oil used to come/it didn't make no particular sound...."
From its humble beginnings in the John John area of Port of Spain, full
steelband orchestras have evolved and its members perform in Europe, North and
South America and Africa. Captive audiences have also been found in New York,
London, Paris and Toronto. Steelband is one of the main features of Carnival
which is now celebrated in many of the islands of the West Indies and in cities
throughout North America and Europe.
Material for this article was sourced from the book by Dr.
R.I.R. Blake titled "The Trinidad and Tobago Steel Pan: History and Evolution."
This feature first appeared in the Boston Carnival 1999