Foundations with us Carnival

Dara E Healy –

Culture Matters


“…culture is not a dead thing, and it does not always remain the same. It belongs to the living and is therefore still developing… What we need is confidence in ourselves, so that as Blacks and Africans we can be aware, united, independent and creative.

– Walter Rodney, Strandings with My Brothers

The artist’s WORK is most powerful when the viewer or listener can identify with the story being told, when they can identify their own pain, their own narrative.

I suspect that the desire for such meaning is at the heart of some of the disappointments with carnival in Tobago. Over the past few weeks, as I watched the various comments, I felt a tremendous sense of deja vu. We continue to wrestle with the question: what is the purpose of Carnival and how should it empower our nation?

In Trinidad, we learn many hard lessons for refusing to answer this question. There was a time when the Carnival responded to the needs of a developing country. Dealing with themes such as racial equality, the environment, or social progress, artists helped us express how we felt through mas, pan, and calypso.

Jeff Henry documents that “emancipation was the beginning of Africans participating in masking as free men and women”. However, as we know, slaves brought with them their centuries-old religious beliefs and practices, their traditions of movement, dance, costume and speech. During slavery, they found ways to manifest these cultural traditions, masking them as entertainment under the control of plantation masters. Thus, for slaves, carnival represented a reconquest of the self as “Africans found ways and means to tell their story through theatre, mime, dance, song and storytelling”.

Cultivation served a similar purpose in Tobago. As established by Rita Pemberton and other scholars, local practices “provided the means of a strong affirmation of identity for the oppressed African population of the island during and after emancipation”. Music, singing and dancing were mixed with work. For example, a Tobago work song in the African call-and-response style says: “Pull, pull, leh we go/Hold yuhself we going down/Pull, pull, leh we go/Hold yuhself, we going up”.

Yet the battle to preserve African traditions was constant. In 1798, the African drum was banned in Tobago. In 1884, drums were banned in Trinidad, with elite newspapers of the time describing African music as “barbaric sounds”.

Hollis Liverpool notes that in 1853 Joseph Allen of the Congo Society was charged with disorderly conduct in a dance. In reality, members of the society would hold a traditional African vigil, no doubt bongo-style, to honor those who had made the transition.

Congolese influence in Tobago was also strong. JD Elder wrote about the spiritual elders “Congo Keorke, Congo Leberoot and Congo Peter Jorge”, members of the Congolese community who had their own form of music, dance and language. These expressions affect the music, speech patterns and spiritual practices on the island today.

The cultural traditions of Africans were described in terms such as ‘savage’, ‘excessive’ and ‘loathsome’. African religions have been demonized in the eyes of Christian believers, adding another layer of mistrust towards African cultural forms.

Yet historical records reveal a level of hypocrisy in the reaction of slaveholders and the upper classes to the spiritual and cultural traditions of Africans. Africans were allowed to have their festivals, their work songs, even their stick fights, as long as these activities meant they worked harder.

We still don’t fully trust or understand Carnival. Our institutions have yet to formally teach the influence of Africa in costumes, masking traditions and festival rituals. Today, some of the commentary in the newspapers by supposedly decent members of society bears a disturbing similarity to commentary from the 1800s. Many authority figures still regard Carnival as an occasion on a calendar of events , rather than a cultural heritage with the potential to empower us beyond fixed dates. And, significantly, Carnival is still offensive to many religious sensibilities.

But if we’re unhappy with the aggressive sexuality on display during the festival, maybe it’s time to address our resistance to teaching healthy sexual attitudes and behaviors, our global top ten rankings for pornography online and the prevalence of child sexual abuse by adults.

So what is Carnival for? It is an essential aspect of what defines us as a whole.

Until we validate its cultural underpinnings, feelings of disappointment are inevitable.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist and founder of the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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