Carnival History Notebook


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1999 Magazine
Guyana United

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Lynn Granger, a New York based journalist from Trinidad and Tobago gives an historical perspective of the main components of Caribbean Carnival in Boston.

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 dancers.

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 celebration."

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 drums.

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 Port-of-Spain.

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 today.

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 humor.

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 musical notes."

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 Magazine.


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