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Reigniting the soul of Carnival

Archbishop Charles Jason Gordon appeared in The Catholic News’ Altos, discussing Carnival and his latest book Rekindling Our Carnival Rhythms, Reigniting Our Soul.

His thesis is that “Carnival has been a mirror of the nation’s soul. When the nation is healthy, Carnival is healthy. When Carnival is unhealthy, it signals all is not well with the nation.”

He traced the history of Carnival to its origins as a “pre-Lenten fete” in Catholic tradition and argued that understanding Carnival requires a deep appreciation of Lent and its purpose in reflecting on the soul – both individual and collective. “If my thesis is right, the Carnival is a mirror of the soul of society. And what is Lent about? Reflecting on the soul. Not just the individual soul, but the collective soul. Because the collective soul does impact the individual.”

In tracing Carnival’s origins, Archbishop Gordon emphasised its grounding in Catholic and European tradition. He explained that “if you understand the history of Carnival, it’s a pre-Lenten fete. It starts in Europe as a pre-Lenten fete. ‘Carni vale’, get rid of the flesh. So, you go into the flesh to get rid of the flesh, preparing yourself for this Lenten period.” Carnival’s rhythms and excess arose as a counterpoint to the period of fasting and abstinence marked by Lent.

Archbishop Gordon noted in Trinidad and Tobago, “Carnival is the one place where race and class is mixed together, and when the Carnival done, the race and class is back on the street again.”

He noted that in the early 20th century, Calypsos referenced “the white people on the lorries” watching Carnival unfold from positions of exclusivity. By the 1930s and 1940s, they began participating directly in the festivities. Archbishop Gordon explained that “by the 50s, there was a rope, but the rope wasn’t to keep people out, it was to keep the band together, because it was 50, 60 people.” The rope simply denoted the boundaries of a band.

However, by the late 1950s and early 60s, even these ropes disappeared as Carnival became defined by integration across racial and class differences, with mass participation replacing spectatorship. As the Archbishop explained, “Then by the late 50s, there was no rope, and there was total integration.”

In stark contrast, Archbishop Gordon highlighted that in contemporary Carnival, “the rope isn’t to keep the band together, the rope is to keep everybody else out.” The ropes have become barriers protecting exclusivity and privilege rather than instruments connecting a collective.

For the Archbishop this shift parallels mounting inequality, divisiveness, and segmentation across Trinidadian society. The inclusive soul of Carnival and the nation itself remains blocked off by newly erected social barriers: “Once you have the all-inclusive, the little people who normally would make something out of Carnival that tides them over for the year, those little people are now left out.”

Archbishop Gordon holds up the panyards as a critical counterpoint to the exclusive and elite-driven elements overtaking Carnival. He describes the pan space as “a sacred space. One which transcends race, class, and gender.”

Within the intensity of music-making found in places like the Renegades panyard, people unite through the interdependent work of creating beauty through rhythm. Status and divisions fade into the background as members gain purpose and identity through communal artistic expression.

Moreover, Archbishop Gordon pointed to the profound lessons that the discipline and pedagogy centred around pan offers to a society struggling with violence and educational challenges.

He said, “The same little fella that school can’t teach comes into a panyard. That same little fella learns how to produce music without yet knowing music. That same little fella drills and is willing to be disciplined in the panyard and understands that you have to be disciplined and lives with it.”

The Archbishop called for applying the cooperative, nurturing approach exemplified in panyards more broadly, stating “If we taught them how we taught them in the panyard, they would learn differently.” The shared endeavour characteristic of panyards provides an alternative model of human development centred on interrelation and the public good.

Archbishop Gordon called for using the upcoming Lenten period for deeper reflection on both the goodness and brokenness witnessed through Carnival. This requires viewing Carnival’s multiplicity clearly, neither condemning it wholesale nor embracing it uncritically.

He stated: “Here’s the good, here’s the bad, and here’s the real ugly. But yes, we should be reflecting because if my thesis is right, the Carnival is a mirror of the soul of society.”