Go teach, sing calypso
February 21, 2020
A Rose grows in east Port of Spain
February 21, 2020

Story of a People

Presbyterian Minister Rev Clifford R L Rawlins gave a public lecture on ‘The Theology of Carnival’ at St Crispin’s Anglican Church, Woodbrook on January 30. The event was hosted by the Sehon Goodridge Theological Society. This is part two of three, of an edited version of the paper.

If the good people remain by themselves, then how is the Church supposed to be salt and light to the world, when the salt refuses to be mixed, or the light runs from the darkness?

The demon must be named in order for it to be exorcised, especially the demons of an oppressive system manifested in the Carnival portrayals, which demons deny a place in the oikoumene [habitable world] to other of God’s children.

Our people go off to Carnival camps because they are afraid of getting their holiness tarnished, or because they are afraid to see the struggles of an unredeemed humanity displayed in certain aspects of the mas’. There is a refusal to have any sort of engagement or encounter with the ‘undesirables’ out of a blinkered attempt to preserve one’s holiness.

Jesus’ ministry was one of engagement with the undesirables of society, the outcasts and the jamettised culture, with prostitutes, publicans, lepers and beggars.

But if the Church refuses to see then it lives in a false reality which segregates God’s people into those who are good to keep and those good only to throw away.

It is a false reality where sin and struggle with sinful institutions are non-existent. It is a deist approach that sees in God a means of merely transferring the burden of the world’s problems and thus humanly avoiding them.

Carnival involves another complex aspect of one’s sense of being; that of breaking established taboos, crossing lines of demarcation, venturing into the forbidden, deviating from the norm and, choosing to become, not just simply to be.


Deviation from social norms

In the pre-emancipation celebrations when it was wholly the provenance of the plantocracy, there was the custom of portraying the roles of the slaves and a general parody of African culture and society. With the advent of African participation, the tables were turned with the Blacks mimicking their White counterparts.

Maureen Warner-Lewis remarks that since the Dame Lorraine and Baby Doll characters were originally portrayed by men and as such considered anti-social shows an aspect of West-African secret society that allowed women to indulge periodically in sexual and verbal licence and for men to indulge in transvestite behaviour.

On many occasions the breaking of established norms and practices are facilitated by the wearing of masks which hid the true identity of the perpetrator and therefore punishment cannot be apportioned appropriately.

In any event, the general excuse is that it is Carnival and anything goes! Here masks take on a spiritual dimension that they had in primitive cultures, of warding off spirits who would otherwise be offended by such taboo breaking, especially where their provenance might be encroached upon and keeping identities unknown and the perpetrators safe.

Closely related to the notion of breaking taboos is the idea of deviations from the social norms. This, the Trinidad Carnival notes, is a major factor in the preponderance of women taking part in the festivities, as Carnival allows them an opportunity, under the mask, to deviate from the regularly expected duties of marriage and family life, of being the ones who go to church to pray for the men [who can’t be expected to go to church and still do what other menfolk expect of them].

The wearing of the mask allows for the expression of the hypocritical duality of human nature. This is true hypocrisy at its best, true acting. The hidden aspects of human nature that would not normally be allowed or shown in regular social intercourse are freely transgressed.

The true hypocrite is not the character portrayed or the act performed or experienced on Carnival day, but the person who re-enters regular society afterwards and shows disdain and contempt for what one has experienced under the mask, because by then, his/her identity would be revealed and there would be no covering to mask the shame.


Street theatre and oral traditions

Storytelling is as old as humanity itself, for before humans could learn to write, everything was passed down orally. Stories are thus the soul of a people, telling who they are and from whence they came and what they are like and how they think and act. They also entertain and, like music and art, give vent to all the passions and emotions of human existence.

No small wonder that Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is a potent forum for and conveyor of the stories of the peoples of this land; not only in the incarnation of their struggles and representation of the social reality, but also in terms of telling a tale, dreaming a fantasy or weaving a plot that fires the imagination, tickles the senses and invigorates the spirit.

Each old mas’ character of J’Ouvert morning tells a story either of political or social commentary, or of fancy, but filled with pun, parody, sarcasm and satire. So too do the bands of Carnival Tuesday with their ‘pretty mas’, each section adding a new dimension to the overall theme of the particular band and bringing to life a flight of fancy, thus enabling the masquerader to realise a desire of becoming.

This is unchoreographed street theatre at its best. There is no script, no form of artificiality, just the freedom of being and expressing.

And for all the Christian fundamentalist denunciations against the Harry Potter sagas as being replete with occult inferences and therefore having a bad influence on good Christian children, then maybe one would need to reassess all the familiar fairy tales of yore such as Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and others for having witches, brews and spells in them, and which are simply expressions of the realm of fantasy which frees the human mind to imagine and conceive and devise.

In Calypso also is this oral tradition taken to its peak. The calypsonian is first and foremost a storyteller who, using any theme or situation, can tell a tale of enormous proportions.

They are also the prophets of the society, the voice of the underclass, who in their social and political commentaries rage against the present injustices and inspire in the people a passion for a new humanity.

One wonders if today there is not too much concentration on vitriolic social and political commentary to the detriment of telling stories. Similarly too is the criticism against the preponderance of the overly sensual and the banal in what is classed as Soca music, which is not really what the originator, Ras Shorty I intended when he fused Soul music rhythms with Calypso in the early 1970s.

One also hears the criticisms levelled against too much beads, bikinis and feathers and no real costuming, masking or story behind modern band portrayals, only explicit sexuality.

And while Carnival does have roots in the ancient fertility cults of primitive civilisations, a people without stories are a people without a soul. What do you tell your children at night, if you do not have a story?