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On the beauty of Carnival

Story and photos by Matthew Woolford

I was born on February 17, 1986, and according to the Trinidad and Tobago National Library and Information System Authority (NALIS), Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago was held on February 10 and 11 of that year. As such, I consider it fair to say that ‘Carnival’ is ‘in my DNA.’

As a student and alumnus of Sharon’s Nursery School in Woodbrook, I played Sailor Mas twice in Junior Carnival. This could be confirmed by my father, Michael, who used to take me and my brothers to ‘jump up’ on the Saturdays leading up to Carnival. He was also the first person to take me to a Calypso concert in the Queen’s Park Savannah, where I saw the legendary Mighty Sparrow perform live.

For facilitating these experiences and the many conversations shared on the Carnival experience over the years, I am eternally grateful to him.

As a student at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, I played ‘Campus Carnival’ three times, one for each year of my undergraduate degree. As an adult, I have also played mas three times in Port of Spain, and God willing, I shall play again soon.

Last year, I added a new ritual to my Carnival routine: Carnival research.

This all started when I came down with the ‘virus that resembled Covid-19’, the week before Carnival 2023, and was instructed to quarantine. Having time on my hands and nowhere to go, I did what most would in this era of modern technology: I turned to YouTube. There I found, archived, dozens of episodes of ‘Calypso Showcase’, presented by Alvin Daniell, telling the story and history of our Carnival, straight from the horses’ mouth.

It was there that I learnt that the original steelpan had a convex dome that later evolved into the concaved design of today. It was there that I learnt of the heartbreak and perseverance the Mighty Shadow had to endure throughout his Calypso competition career before eventually being crowned Calypso Monarch. And it was there that I learnt of the artistic versatility of the now deceased Wayne Rodriguez, who honed his talents within the band Xtatik, and had the Soca-world dancing to ‘Footsteps’ in 1998.

Having learnt my lesson, I was more proactive in 2024. I started my research earlier and was able to cover most of the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival Road March Winners from Roaring Lion’s ‘Netty Netty’ (1937) to Bunji Garlin’s ‘Hard Fete’ (2023).

What I found to be most amazing from this listening experience, in my observation at least, was that although each Calypso varied in topic and tempo, and each calypsonian had his or her own signature style and swagger, the heartbeat of each rendition seemed to have a common vein of inspiration.

This may be what Machel Montano was attempting to convey in his Calypso Monarch 2024 winning composition, ‘(Soca is the) Soul of Calypso.’

I was given a visual of this ‘oneness of spirit’ when I came across the YouTube posting of Lord Blakie’s ‘Steel Band Clash’, which won the Road March in 1954.

In this video, Lord Blakie was introduced by the iconic, Dennis Hall, better known as ‘Sprangalang’, with back-up vocals provided by, among others, Calypso Monarch winners Winston ‘Gypsy’ Peters and ‘King’ David Rudder.

In an apparent non-sequitur, I experienced a bitter-sweet moment a few months ago when I visited the Sainsbury African Galleries at the British Museum, Great Russell Square, London. There on display were a male and female ‘Moko Jumbie.’

According to the British Museum, “The two Moko Jumbie figures in this collection were commissioned by the British Museum from the British-Trinidadian artist Zak Ové in May 2015 and acquired in July 2015.”

They also commented, “Masquerade is both an art of performance and transformation in Africa. Often, masquerades maintain and express the secret knowledge of local communities.”

I sometimes wonder, if a stranger were to land in Trinidad and Tobago, how would he or she know that this is the ‘Home of Steelband, Calypso and Carnival, as we know it?’ A larger question, I am now beginning to ask myself, is if we fully understand ourselves as nation and our potential as a people?

I empathise with those who advocate for pan in every school, church, and community. I also believe that symposiums teaching the art of rhetoric through Calypso should be introduced nationwide if this does not already exist.

And finally, I believe that it is high time that we build a museum for ‘our Carnival’ where pioneers from the past and present could be given an eternal voice in nation-building and human development efforts.

Carnival, in my opinion, brings out the very best in us, and we are all responsible for sharing its beauty and helping it to move forward.