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Interview with a Carnivalist

A chat with Claudette Sinnette

Q: Can you give us a little about your background?

Initially, I started training as a pharmacy student and then I got married and had children quickly, so I left and stayed with them until they were strong enough and then went back to work. I worked as a medical technician.

And then I went university and moved over as a science teacher. I taught Biological Science and Mathematics for 20 years at St Martin’s Girls’ High School in Belmont. I retired from teaching, and I became a ‘carnivalist’.

From the schools, I branched off into the Carnival arena, and when I retired, I continued doing it and researching the Carnival.

I have a Master’s in Education and Leadership, and so I transferred to the Carnival Arts to enhance learning in schools in the last years I was there. After retirement, I went to the University of Trinidad and Tobago, and did a Master’s in Carnival Arts so I can understand better how this could work.

From that, the research opened up my brain to so many things that I did a PhD in Carnival Arts, concentrating on the aspect of the patois language because what I discovered was that the language of patois was rooted in the Carnival; Carnival began in patois and all of the Calypsoes were sung in patois.

Coming from a patois background, I began to research those Calypsoes, and discovered so much of our history, living live history in the Calypso there in the archives that we don’t know about.

You just need to access these Calypsoes and translate them, then you would see what these men were saying at the time. I realise how much of an impact the language was having, even for those of us who don’t speak it.

So, I went further into research on the influence of the language on the people of Trinidad and Tobago. I am a Carnivalist. That is my background.


Q: How did you become an RCIA teacher?

As a teenager, I remember one time in Second Form, one of my teachers said to us: ‘Listen, go to church and find yourself in something of which you can be a part of’.

I came from a large family, and taking time off to do things was very difficult. I had to find something my mother would allow. I joined the Legion of Mary. From there, I started teaching catechism to First Communion children. I was 14. In Form Five, I was teaching the Confirmation children for a number of years. Then I got married and had children and I was too busy. Then when I went back, Sr Esther Maraj (I think), she invited me to sit in on an RCIA programme, and then she asked me to take some of the discussions, and I did because at that time to teach was natural for me. And then, she just upped and left! And I ended up doing the RCIA. One of the other ladies, because we had a group, she died, so I remained doing the RCIA.


Q: What has been and is your involvement in Carnival?

I have been a Carnivalist for about 60 years. I fell in this by accident. I was introduced by John Cupid to a Carnival workshop, and I did a programme with Felix Edinborough. After that, Cupid invited me to do a workshop in Belmont Junior Secondary School.

With that experience, one time, we needed to get projectors so that we could do audio visual with the students, and the school couldn’t afford to pay for it. We were dealing with a lot of underprivileged children, but my attitude was that we had to write standard exams in Trinidad and these children had to write the same exams like Bishops, Holy Name and St Joseph’s Convents. They had facilities we didn’t have. We had parents who were (cash) strapped and fundraising was difficult for them.

I proposed, I can train these children to play minstrels and get NGC (National Gas Company) to fund the costumes to take them into competition, to win the money to buy the equipment.

I sold it (the idea) to the parents and we went out that year, and we got enough money to purchase a laptop and to get a projector. That burst into me: “Wait a minute, this could be done.” The next step, I approached the business people and said, “Listen, producing a band is really a small business, and I have to do a school-based assessment on business. What about if we ask them to produce a mini-band as a business model.”

When we approached the children, they were very timid. They didn’t see Carnival as being a part of school. Eventually, we convinced them to do it. We said produce the band and we the teachers would play it. One child took up the offer. This was in 2009. We did go, and minstrels were formed, and now I have a band.


Q: Why the Minstrel and Pierrot Grenade?

I like the atmosphere of the minstrel. I grew up with minstrels in my area. So although I hadn’t been playing, I was familiar with it with its format, with its dress etc. When Cupid asked me to do the workshop at the Belmont Secondary School, that further concreted the character.

It is a gentlemanly/ladylike character. It was easy for me to sell it to the children especially those who were sceptical. Although Carnival is so steeped in our culture, many of us see it contentiously. I approached it from a historical perspective because what I discovered is our traditional characters are our living history.

The minstrels came out of the Second World War with the coming of the Americans and the army base, and their attitudes…It is our Trini way to mock anything that hurts us. What poisons us, we make an antidote. When they got upset that the Americans were mocking them in black faces, they just responded in white faces.

The Pierrot Grenade is another story. I am, by nature, a storyteller. I could dramatise and do anything. I am good in that, and I am also a writer. So, when Felix introduced me to the Pierrot Grenade, and I began to perform the Pierrot Grenade, I found a niche. I would use the Pierrot Grenade to tell stories. I could use the Pierrot Grenade to teach grammar and story writing. I also use it to evangelise, because I can write stories because I work in church as well. I have fun with the Pierrot Grenade.


Q: What are your thoughts on those who see a conflict in being a practising Catholic and taking part in Carnival?

I am operating from the premise that Carnival is a Catholic thing, that Lent comes because there is Carnival, but I am also operating from the premise of an historian and how Carnival affects Trinidad in particular, and how much it is a liberating force for the people.

For those who have the contempt, I am well aware their contempt is valid because if you just look at the Carnival, you can see so much abusive and destructive forces. But if you step back and look at the Carnival and see design, the outlets for music, you see Carnival is not the problem. It is the people. Although Carnival is such an integral part of the culture, we do not address Carnival in schools, show the research and the origins, and what it did for the people.

When you see the fluff of the costumes now, they don’t understand that they are destroying the Carnival, the destruction of the catharsis of Carnival because they have taken it to the extreme.

I don’t get into arguments with people over what they perceive Carnival to be; I acknowledge what they see is really what they see, but if the photographers would stop snapping people’s bottoms, if the calypsonians would stop singing bottom in the road, this is where we take our Calypso and put it into action.

If you are in the production of Carnival, produce it pure, produce it clean from the point of view of an artistic expression, bringing a message. Every artist has a responsibility to say something to the people.


Q: Do you see any potential for evangelising in Carnival?

When people see Carnival in a derogatory way, instead of confronting it, and being a part of the Carnival, completely opposite to what they are seeing, but instead they withdraw.

The more you give up space, the more the bad and ugly would take up space. Now, the ugly has taken up so much space we find it distasteful, but it didn’t happen overnight. It happened in stages, and we have to take it back. We have to confront it, have discussions.

I would rephrase the question. The question that needs to be asked, is whether the traditional characters that come out of Carnival, can be used to evangelise. My answer to that is yes, yes, and yes because I have been using the characters to evangelise.

To go into the Carnival space to evangelise, you are going to be hitting a wall. You will get just what the Catholic Carnival band got when it started to come out. It wasn’t a bad idea. If you take the traditional characters, recognising they came out of the Carnival, the masquerade began with them, you take them one by one—all you may not be able to use—and use them to evangelise, you will have to stick at it, eventually, you would get into the consciousness of the people.

I use the Pierrot Grenade to evangelise. I wrote two pieces, the Eucharist, and Passionate Love which is the Way of the Cross and I journeyed with Jesus at each Station. We forget the culture of Carnival is us and we relate to it.