… to paraphrase the late Lord Kitchener, calypsonian extraordinaire.
It's Carnival Friday here in Trinidad and Tobago, which means that after weeks of mounting anticipation (the Carnival season really gets started as soon as Christmastime festivities are over), the biggest event in the country's calendar is underway. This weekend will see the final rounds of the major Carnival competitions — Soca Monarch tonight, Panorama on Saturday, and Calypso Monarch and Carnival king and queen on Sunday (Dimanche Gras). Carnival proper begins in the wee hours of Monday morning with J'Ouvert (French patois for “day open”), an earthy, ritualistic celebration in which masqueraders cover themselves with mud and paint, wear tails and horns, and welcome the “Merry Monarch” by dancing through the streets under cover of darkness. Monday “mas” (short for “masquerade”) is relatively low-key, as the Carnival bands save their energy (and their elaborate full costumes) for Tuesday, when the spectacle reaches its height. At midnight, Carnival is over for another year; on Ash Wednesday many revellers go to church services to ritually atone for the “bacchanal” of the previous two days.
Trinidad Carnival shares historical roots with Carnivals in places like Venice, south Germany, Brazil, Haiti, and New Orleans, but has evolved here into a unique phenomenon, reflecting the influences of all the cultures that have contributed to Trinidad and Tobago's diverse society — Amerindian, African, European, Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern. And as the 2006 season has progressed, Trinidadian bloggers have been writing about their Carnival experiences from many points of view.
Early in the season, Francomenz wondered if today's “fete” culture isn't actually destroying the liberating spirit of Carnival as generations of Trinidadians understood it. Around the same time, Caribbean Free Radio also remarked that the Carnival spirit was yet to kick in.
Of course, for some people it never does kick in. There have always been as many people staying out of the “national festival” as joining in, for all sorts of reasons: too noisy, too crowded, too dirty, too libertine, too exhausting. Hassan Voyeau planned to stay home and relax “away from a computer and desk”. Taran Rampersad said he'd be “quietly reading somewhere”, having “enjoyed it in the past and … had enough”. And in a comment he left at Caribbean Free Radio, Jonathan Ali said “One of the reasons Carnival continues to hold less and less appeal for me is that the music gets worse and worse every year” (though at last report he'd decided to play J'Ouvert after all).
But for some Trini bloggers, the Carnival picture changed completely at the end of January, when, barely a month before the festival, the masman-artist Peter Minshall, considered a genius by many, announced that he'd be designing a band this year after all, called The Sacred Heart. It's hard to explain Minshall's significance to someone who's never experienced his “mas” first hand, but a handful of bloggers gave it a try, including yours truly, reporting on a talk Minshall gave at an exhibition of Carnival photos.
Carnival-related blogging heated up in early February. Caribbean Free Photo posted images from the Phase II Pan Groove panyard, and photographer Stefan Falke paid a visit to the Kilimanjaro moko jumbie (stilt-walker) school. Francomenz wrote about an exhibition of Carnival masks by veteran masman Wayne Berkeley, but also about noise pollution from Carnival parties, a huge frustration for people living near to popular fete venues. She finally caught the Carnival “vibe” at a performance of the 3Canal show. Attillah Springer had previously blogged about sitting in on one of the rehearsals; Caribbean Free Photo posted a full set of images of the opening night performance at Flickr; and I was struck by the Canals’ attempt to link the message of their protest songs to the tradition of Carnival “resistance”.
Like other high-emotion annual events, Carnival has a way of making you think hard about your life and its direction. Attillah Springer mused that this might be one of the last Carnivals she'd be able to throw herself into body and soul — “I can't be a free agent for the rest of my life” — and I found myself trying to explain how Carnival has helped me understand “freeness”.
By mid-February things were getting busy down at Peter Minshall's Callaloo Company mas camp — the place where the costumes get built. Caribbean Free Photo posted an excellent series of photos of the Callaloo production line, including images of The Sacred Heart's queen costume being assembled. Other bloggers had signed up as volunteers at Callaloo — myself included, and I reported on spending a Sunday afternoon cutting little metal rectangles for some of the Sacred Heart costumes.
Minshall's king, “Son of Saga Boy”, and queen, “Miss Universe”, made their public debut at the preliminary round of the Carnival king and queen competition, held at the traditional Savannah stage in Port of Spain. Caribbean Free Photo was on hand to capture images of the high-drama event, as was Stefan Falke; I was there also, taking in what I felt was a historic Carnival moment. Two nights later, “Son of Saga Boy” made his second public appearance, at soca superstar Machel Montano's Alternative Concept show; once again bloggers were on hand to describe the emotion and the blood, sweat, and tears behind it, and to capture some breathtaking images.
Meanwhile, Francomenz was describing a performance by calypso legend David Rudder; Stefan Falke was posting photos from the Children's Carnival parade, which Karen Walrond also wrote about at Blogging Baby; Small Island Girl was talking about what a good time she had at the Panorama competition semi-finals and explaining why she would be playing mas without her husband; and Jamaican blogger Yamfoot announced that she'd be in Trinidad for Carnival this year — but skipping J'Ouvert (Cayman-based Jamaican blogger Mad Bull was green with envy).
By the week before Carnival, the anticipation was intense, no one was getting enough sleep, and France-based Trini blogger Callaloo Soup was thinking back longingly to Carnival 1998. Hassan Voyeau transcribed some of the inane lyrics of the season's new soca songs. Bahamian CariBlog, in Trinidad for Carnival, had a good time at the PNM fete, and noted that many of the performers included political commentary in their song lyrics. Caribbean Free Radio posted a to-do list that began with “Fina good source of mud” (for J'Ouvert), and reported on the rained-out semi-final round of the Carnival king competition. I managed to do a quick “interview” with Kerwin Paul, Peter Minshall's king, and Attillah Springer posted a list of “Carnival survival necessities” for her “outer-national” readers.
But all this Carnival blogging is likely to grind to a halt over the big weekend — between Soca Monarch, Panorama, Dimanche Gras, the fetes, J'Ouvert, and Monday and Tuesday mas, which of the Carnival bloggers will have the time or the strength to sit down in front of a keyboard? Expect some slightly hungover reports come Ash Wednesday….
Note: Global Voices’ Caribbean region editor will be taking a break from February 27-March 5.