Carnival today continues much as it has done for the last two hundred years of its evolution in Trinidad - a national exercise in joy and creativity, harmony and togetherness. Carnival is daring and inventive - long may it reign!
The 1890s Carnival went through one of its many phases in colonial Trinidad. Originating in both the traditions of Western Africa and the Latin countries of the Mediterranean, Carnival became a pre-Lenten festival: Saturnalia for the god Saturn, Bacchanalia for the wine-god Bacchus, was brought to Trinidad by the Spaniards in the mid-17th century and by the French in the 1780s.
Thr Africans in the 18th century, both enslaved and free, had memories of the tribal ballad songs, sung at market fairs and in the various courts of their kings. Those songs were in praise of their rulers, or sometimes to win the favour of some visiting potentate. In Africa, the people shouted:’Kaiso’, a word meaning ‘Well done’.
When on Emanciaption day in August 1834 the former slaves joined the free coloureds and free Africans in the French Mardi Gras, Carnival evolved from being a round of fetes and balls to a street festival with spectacular parades termed ‘canboulay’ (cane burnt). These bands were led by ‘batoniers’, fierce stick fighters with the drums of the calenda ringing in their ears, and the songs of the chantuelles evoking in their hearts the valour of their ancestors.
To the polite members of society, these were the savage and degrading aspects of Carnival, the occupation of the ‘diametre’ (jamette) or those beyond the diameter of society. It was largely because of these forms, now almost disappeared, that Carnival was almost brought to an end.
In those days the Carnival ran for three weeks and may be said to have begun with the end of the Christmas festivities on the feast of Epiphany. The Spanish Parangueros blended into the rest of society for a series of fetes, balls and street parades, all coming to an end with the beginning of Lent and the season of fasting and abstinence and, no doubt, many ‘mea culpas’.
A feature that distinguished the Carnival of the 19th century was the use of masks. The festival was then being referred to as a ‘masquerade’. The music was supplied by the African banjos and the local string bands, goat skin drums, conch shells and later bamboo cut to varying lengths (tambu bambu) and struck on the ground or beaten with sticks, thus providing the percussion. The steelband was not to appear on the scene until the early 1940s.
The Origin of Trinidad Carnival
Carnival in Trinidad is rooted in historical irony. Just at a time when the British conquered the island in 1797, and Sir Thomas Picton started to impose a very puritan and austere governance with iron military rule, the catholic festival gained impetus.
“The French were never in possession of the island by virtue of discovery or conquest,” writes Andrew Carr in ‘Book of Trinidad’. “But they migrated to the island in such numbers that they exercised a cultural dominance in the society.” In terms of Carnival, this cultural dominance fell on fertile ground: the French settlers’ neighbours were of Spanish descent and were quite familiar pre-lenten celebration. ‘Burrokeet’, a distinctly Spanish mas which came to Spain out of North Africa, depicts after the Roman wine-god Bacchus riding on his donkey to the ‘bacchanalia’!
In the 17th century, Carnival in Trinidad must have looked like that: five or six young men dressed up as burrokeet (these probably comprising the priest, two or three Farfan cousins and a Robles or Lopez), roaming the streets in San José de Oruna, visiting the fourteen or so thatched-roof houses where their friends lived, and dancing, eating and drinking on this warm Tuesday night, the great forest closing round, enjoying the merriment before the austerities of Ash Wednesday morning dawned.
This idyllic scene was definitely to change in 1783, when the French and Free Coloured settlers came to Spanish Trinidad under the Cedula of Population. The Spaniards at that time numbered 126 Europeans and 245 Free People of mixed European and African descent. When the British conquered Trinidad in 1797, a census numbered 2,151 people of European descent, 10,009 slaves of African descent, 4,467 free people of mixed descent and 1,082 Amerindians. Carnival in terms of private costume balls - the term ‘fete’ was coined then - was already popular among the white and coloured elite, as were dinners, balls, hunting parties and ‘fetes champetres’, outdoor picnics. Those festivities took place between Epiphany and Lent, coming to a culmination on ‘Mardi Gras’ (fat Tuesday).
“During this French period, in addition to the gay balls and parties, bands of individuals indulged in much frolic for some weeks before the Carnival Monday and Tuesday,” writes Carr. “Disguised and masked, and accompanied by musicians playing such instruments as the violin, guitar, cuatro, bandol, mandolin and chac-chac, they went on foot or in carriages to the homes of friends or on parade in the streets.”
The Amerindian people kept entirely aloof, Carr states further. African slaves were prohibited by law from taking part, except if an individual received special permission.
And what did the costumes in those pre-Emancipation days look like? People wore elegant disguises, like the French marquis, the English noblewoman and the Swiss damsel. Besides those, it was a time for the French planters to dress up like their servants: there were grooms and postillions, priests and friars. Some white women disguised themselves as the beautiful mulatresse their husbands so desired, while some of the slave masters dressed up like the garden labourers, the ‘neg jardin’.
When slavery was abolished in 1834, the aristocratic and exclusive character of Carnival disappeared, and it became a more popular affair. Black and coloured people started to participate in the canboulay parades. It must have come as a shock to the polite society, when the former slaves turned tables and dressed up in Carnival like Europeans, with white masks! The spirit of Carnival was thus completed; for two days each person could pretend to be the other, whose qualities they secretly or openly envied...
In the 1840s, Carnival bands started to form, mostly consisting of no more than a dozen people portraying characters. There were pirates and turks, wild Indians of South America (portrayed by Spanish peons from Venezuela), and even a personation of the Grim Reaper himself, with a skeleton painted on a tight-fitting black outfit. Some bands even did dramatic performances, with mock-beating and chain-pulling going on in the streets.
Yet, the years of the French cultural dominance had come to an end, and for the predominantly protestant British Victorian establishment Carnival was degenerate and undesirable. The authorities’ main goal of the coming decades became the maintaining of public order, almost a contradiction in terms to Carnival. Also, the population of Port-of-Spain grew dramatically in the decades after Emancipation. Between 1860 and 1880 it grew from 16,457 to 29,468 inhabitants. 40% of the latter number had been born outside of Trinidad and were not even aware of the catholic festival tradition.
In 1858, Governor Robert W. Keate prohibited the wearing of masks - something which to that day was an integral part of the ‘masquerade’. There was not a time, however, that Carnival aficionadoes didn’t find ways around any obstacle or prohibition: more and more masks were carried on sticks, a tradition which holds to this day, when no costume is complete without its ‘standard’.
Inspite of the attempts by the government to curb and suppress Carnival, the canboulay parades were increasingly taken over by people who came form the lower classes in east Port-of-Spain. The newspapers described this ‘Jamette Carnival’ as an “unremitting uproar, yealling, drumming and blowing of horns”. In 1881, Captain Arthur Baker on horseback lead a riot squad of the police charging into the masqueraders. It came to a massive riot, to this day remembered as the Canboulay Riots. The expert stickfighters, spurned on by the chantwells, proved to be quite a tough match for the policemen, who were themselves armed with batons! Many were injured on that fateful day.
By the 1890s, Carnival started to fade away from the wild days of the jamette society to the more competition-oriented middle-class festival it is today. Merchants began to realise that improvement of Carnival would eventually lead to economic benefits. At the turn of the century, the first competition for best-dressed band and individual was held on King Street (now Independence Square) by Town Councillor and merchant Ignacio Bodu. With prizes to be won, bands started to have more elaborate costumes, and all the better ones were lead by a King or Queen. The competition set the tone for the development of Carnival all through the 20th century.
Some traditional mas
The Neg Jardin
In the mid-19th century, this was already considered a ‘traditional’ mas. The disguise by the white planter as the field slave was later adopted by the batonnier or stickfighter. The outfit consisted in jackets, worn by the ‘zom camisol’ (jacket men), trousers turned inside-out, belts strung with ribbons and handkerchiefs. The headties were called ‘fula’, from the French ‘foulard’. On Tuesday, the Neg Jardin came out in ‘kandal’, knee-long pants made of satin or velvet, alpagats (rope sandals), a bright shirt and a heart-shaped panel losely pinned on his chest called ‘fol’. The goal of the stick-fighter was to rip off his opponent’s ‘fol’ and thus win the fight.
Dame Lorraine was played in the yards of the early mas camps, where the bands gathered at night before parading in the street. With huge padded breasts and buttocks, the Dame Lorraine ironically represents an elegant 18th century outfit of a French lady. Both men and women disguised as Dame Lorraine, engaging in mock plays and dances, and the haunting melody of the Dame still sends shivers down one’s spine:
Freely translated as the ‘stinker’, and you will soon see why! ‘Piss en lit’ is French for ‘wet the bed’, and in true J’ouvert tradition this mas was obscene and, well, smelly. During the jamette Carnival, this must have been the most objectionable character. Always played by a man, who dressed like a woman, wearing long, transparent nightgowns, the Pissenlit had with him menstruation cloths stained with red fluid. “They danced an early version of winin’, the rapid shifting of the pelvis.” writes Daniel Crowley in ‘Trinidad Carnival’. The Pissenlit also sang obscene songs and had a poui stick protruding between the legs, playing sexual horseplay. The mas did not survive in the 20th century.
The Moko Jumbie or stilt walker is known throughout the West Indies. Sometime he is called John Canoe, and he may appear not only in Carnival, but also during Christmas. Sometimes accompanied by a dwarf to accentuate his height, the Moko Jumbie would parade in the streets, collecting money and flirting with the Creole ladies who watched the spectacle from the safe height of their wrought-iron balconies on the first floor! A Moko Jumbie sometimes ran into danger, too. In his lofty heights, his head was easily caught in the overhead electrical wires! Also, when the ladies on the first floor had a jealous guard, two strong hands might have pushed the stiltwalker over! In fact, there is an incident of a Moko Jumbie at Green Corner, who leant against the first-floor window of a pub at the Plaza Hotel at the northeastern corner, and got into a quarrel with a sailor in the pub. The sailor gave the Moko Jumbie a good push, and the poor stiltwalker fell diagonally across the intersection, splitting his head in two on the wall of Globe cinema!
The Jab Molassi (Molasses Devil) is one of the many devil masks of Carnival. When Emancipation came around and the former slaves were able to participate in the revelry, they brought with them satirical depictions of plantation life, the only life in the realm of their experience. Falling into a pot of boiling molasses had been the ultimate dread on a plantation, and the Jab Molassi interprets that. He wears short pants or old, frilled trousers with the legs cut off. A wire tail with a brush at the end protrudes from his backside, chains, horns, lock and keys complete the costume. Most importantly, this ‘Diable’ is smeared with molasses, grease, or mud.
Lionel ‘Lanky’ Belasco - the Scott Joplin of Calypso
Amongst the truly great and almost forgotten figures of Trinidad music is Lionel Belasco. Born around 1881 to a musical family, his birthplace might have been Barbados, Venezuela or Trinidad. His mother was a piano teacher, his father, a Sephardic Jew, sang baritone, played organ and violin.
Although his parents tried their best to give little Lionel a classical musical training, the young man was more drawn towards roots music. He became a ‘gentleman stickfigher’, one of those ‘zom camisol’, middle-class men who wore jackets and accompanied the stickfighters.
At the turn of the 20th century, Port-of-Spain might well have been the most cosmopolitan place on earth, considering its small size. Syrians, Chinese, Portuguese, Indians, Europeans from various countries, Jews, Africans - everybody contributed, and ‘Lanky’ was exposed to the musical styles and festivals of the various ethnic groups, but most of all our own Creole culture.
The Belascos lived in Duke Street, not far from Laventille and Belmont, where African Orisha and Rada cults were still practiced. Fascinated with Afro-Caribbean and South American ritual music, Lionel began to compose at the age of twelve.
His preferred instrument was the piano, and like some of his middle-class contemporaries he “continued the bourgeois Creole tradition of modifying the sounds of outdoor Carnival for indoor performance”. By the early 1900s, Belasco’s band performed at get-togethers for the colonial elite, for example at Government House, and he taught piano to the Governor’s daughter.
Belasco always liked travelling. He got involved in the fledgling cinema business in Trinidad and in other places in the Caribbean and Guyana. In 1914, he made his first music recording in Trinidad for the American company Victor.
Shortly afterwards, there were rumours that Lionel’s lessons to the Governor’s daughter had gotten beyond the realm of piano playing. The girl was sent back to England, and Lionel went to New York. He was probably the first one who brought Trinidadian music to that city, recording frequently in his late teens and early twenties. He and Sam Manning became quite popular in New York City in the 1920s. Belasco accompanied vaudevillian Phil Madison in recordings, and recorded piano rolls for a company called QRS. Before the Great Depression, Lionel regularly returned to Trinidad to judge calypso competitions during Carnival. He picked up new songs, and went back to New York with his own interpretations to perform and record. He also recorded with Wilmoth Houdini, a chantwell from Trinidad whom he had admired greatly in his youth. Houdini became thus the first calypsonian since Julian Whiterose to be on record.
During those years, Belasco also ran a piano store in upper Manhattan. Aspiring musical stars from nearby Harlem, such as Fats Waller, used to drop by and practice on some of the instruments before going on a gig at night.
In 1933, Lionel decided to return to Trinidad. His arrangement with the Gokool brothers and lawyer Mikey Cipriani to establish a theatre in Port-of-Spain for him to manage went sour, and after losing a law suit against the Gokools, Lionel went back to the United States and continued his recording career there.
In the early 1940s, Lionel teamed with singer Massie Patterson. Together, they published a booklet of calypsoes called ‘L’Année Passée’. Belasco claimed he had published in it the 1900s. One of the songs, based on a Martiniquan folksong, which was copyrighted in his name, became later the most famous song of the World War II era: “Rum and Coca Cola”, sung by Lord Invader to a melody almost identical with Lionel Belasco’s tune from ‘L’Année Passée’. A famous lawsuit resulted from this, which Lionel won.
As he grew older, Belasco continued to tour and perform, but hardly recorded anymore. The greatest composer of West Indian music died in 1967 at the age of 85 in New York, leaving a legacy of some four hundred ballads, pasillos, waltzes, calypsoes and rumbas.
(Lionel Belasco’s recordings can be found on Rounder Records CD 1138, “Goodnight Ladies and Gents”)