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Carnival – ‘morality’ and mirror

Q :Archbishop J, does Carnival have a morality of its own?

Carnival is not one event or one type of event, it is a multi-layered tapestry of many different types of events. Calypso, blue devil mas, Canboulay (a re-enactment of the 1881 riots), Soca Monarch, Kings and Queens, Dimanche Gras, Junior Calypso, Calypso tents, Panorama with the top steel bands, the pan yards, the fetes and, of course, J’Ouvert and Carnival Monday and Tuesday.

Although many lament the morality of Carnival, we must remember many aspects of the festival are inspiring and worthy of attention and celebration. The music of the Carnival season and musical shows are uplifting for the most part. They demonstrate the continued infusion of hybridity in our culture. A few songs will always catch the pulse of the nation and challenge us to reflect on ourselves and invite us to grow up a bit.

Steel Pan

Steel pan is another major cultural and artistic force. The pan as the only new musical instrument in the 20th century is itself a marvel. To see what panmen do with the instrument is another thing.

The intricate movements within musical arrangements, the energy, quality of the sound, and that these musicians do not play from a musical score simply blows my mind.

Go into any panyard and hear the musicians drilling down line by line, note by note and you witness discipline, dedication, and mastery of an artform. All this done for no money. The motivation is the love of music and the loyalty to the band and other players.

We often speak of our people as undisciplined, lazy, and irresponsible. Visit a panyard during Carnival and see Trinidad at its best. Young and old, black and white, locals and foreigners, all together with one goal—perfecting the music and their skill, individually and collectively.

All over the country there is this energy, this vibe, that drives people late into the night, making music.

From this perspective, it could be argued here that Carnival has a morality of its own! If we see the etymology of morality as coming from the Middle French moralité, or from the Latin mōrālitās meaning “manner, characteristic, character”, one could argue that the character that emerges over the months of practice in the panyard is not often translated into the other spaces of life in our nation.

The great challenge is to take these characteristics—attention to detail, solidarity, reliance on one another for results, individual skill, and collective rhythm, following orders, keeping a tight balance between the star players and the whole band—into the rest of the nation.

Imagine if the nation ran like a giant panyard; if we all worked for the common good; if we all perfected our individual skills and used them for the common objective of building our nation.

What if three knocks on a piece of steel could stop us in our tracks and get us to start over, putting all emotions aside, and start from the top again? That, my dear friends, is a morality (read character) that I do not easily see in other spheres of our beautiful Trinidad and Tobago.

In his song, Dus’ in Dey Face, David Rudder epitomises the commitment and sacrifice. He says:

In this pannist carnival

Now it come to this

after two months of labour

living on nuts and corn from dusk ‘til dawn,

we must refuse, to think ‘bout lose.

When you consider the extreme sacrifice of the panman, I hope you agree with me that in this country, the Carnival has a morality of its own. It builds character, not seen or displayed in other spheres of the society.

Lest you miss my point, this is a higher moral standard that we must see in the rest of society. Or as David Rudder says: “between the wrist and the rubber there is a new truth to discover”.

The fetes

Well, this is where a lot of the moral anxiety resides. The fetes have become an occasion for moral laxity—that might be an understatement. Music, dance, energy, forgetting about everything for a while, grooving to the beat, enjoying the moment can be cathartic—allowing for a release of bound up energy and providing psychological respite.

When fetes are named: ‘Jam Naked’, ‘Wear What You Dare’, ‘Stink + Dutty’, there is little left to the imagination. After a ‘Jam Naked’ fete on Corpus Christi morning, some young women headed down Frederick Street to be confronted with the Blessed Sacrament in procession. They made the sign of the cross and, being appropriately dressed for the party, they tried to hide their disgrace with whatever they could.

How do parents allow their children to leave home in these … The same concern can be expressed about the week when many young people choose to go to Tobago after writing CXC.

We ought, too, to be concerned about costumes made in China, and the loss of the tradition of creating costumes within our communities, using skills that have been handed down. Now it is about the money. It is playing to the Lowest Common Multiple—LCM. Once you excite the base desires it is difficult to put the genie back into the bottle.


Carnival has always been about turning the world upside down. The king becomes the pauper, the pauper the king; the saint becomes the sinner and the sinner, the saint.

From this inverted perspective, we were allowed to see the world from a different perspective and to appreciate the delicate balance required to keep the world in equilibrium. The Carnival was never about a collapse of values, but an inversion of values. It upheld the value system.

When Carnival operated as societal catharsis, it was a ritual. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. Midnight Tuesday, it all ended. Because the ritual was contained, it acted in cathartic way.

Peter Minshall laments the end of “playing the mas”—the days when you stepped into a character and played it for two days. After that you had a different view of the world.

In the absence of playing the mas, people play themselves, with their base desires blurring the boundaries of decency in society. If we see the Carnival as the unconscious of society, like a dream is to a person, then we must ask a more fundamental question: What is happening in society?

Could it be that the mas, rather than inverting the moral order, is simply holding up a mirror to the society? If this is true, it points to the moral collapse that has already taken place in our society—corruption, injustice, the culture of bribing, political favouritism, etc.—that has seeped into the very fabric of our everyday life.

In this sense, Carnival does not have a morality of its own, it is displaying the lack of morality that exists the rest of the year.


Key Message:

Carnival is a rich tapestry of events, each one contributing to the cultural landscape of T&T. Morally, some build; some reflect the broken societal moral code.

Action Step:

The Lord’s prayer says, “… lead us not into temptation.” If you are immersing yourself in Carnival, reflect on what you wear, how you carry yourself, your sobriety, the morality of your actions.

Scripture Reading:

Romans 12:1–2