History of Carnival
The creative art form, aesthetic and dramatic spectacle and entertainment presentation on a mass level that Carnival is, has been the object of periodical denigration by philistines of all stripes and hues. For when carnival is not being put down by supercilious critics influenced by the fixed categories of European classification models that lead them, for example, to deny carnival being complimentary to ballet, opera, dance and the theatre, it and its purveyors on the other hand are obscenely and chauvinistically put down as being "Trinidad-Style" carnival with no restrictions, "initiated by individual band leaders whose concept of ...carnival is ... simply limited to...bending wire and applying abstract color patterns... "now, the latter was not only vulgar, envious and slanderous attack on carnival and its creators motivated by crass ulterior motives in the provincial setting in which it was made, but it further betrayed that alarming and sterile incomprehension of the essence and notion of carnival.
But what is Carnival?
One Felix Rampersad writing in the fifth edition, 1972, of Carnival, Calypso, Spectacular noted that carnival "...originated from a pagan custom during the pre-christian period of Saturnalia, a custom which was modified by the church to become a two day festival before Ash Wednesday when converts were permitted to pay "farewell" to the devil, pump, vanity and lust of the flesh, before entering upon the period of fasting and repentance during the forty days of lent."
Hence when Western European commercial capitalism intruded into the Caribbean and Latin America, and was in the process of displacing the area's indigenous people from their agricultural pursuits, games, and institutions which nourished and replenished the spiritual nucleus of their religion, consciousness of time...cosmic solidarity, and-human brotherhood.., the sole of their fatherland.., its captains and agents were introducing, practicing and celebrating this pagan custom of "Carn vale" - Carnival - within their "...big plantation houses with their series of polite and socially exclusive balls and masquerades..," thereby also, showing off their social status by the originality of their mashed balls-practical jokes and the value of their ill-gotten wealth by the ostentation of their dinner parties.
Having reduced to nothingness and in many cases eliminated outright the indigenous people, their economy and culture, the West European ruling class now introduced Continental Africans to perform forced labor on sugar plantations and in silver and copper mines. These Africans in turn brought with them their cultural customs, usages and artistic expression which were severely restricted to Sundays and Christmas holidays, by law that before and after slavery in many islands prohibited freedom of movement of the Black slave population, the holding of meeting, revels and use of any "..drums, gumbays or other noisy instrument on any plantation or estate." However, two activities of the slave population soon came to be integrated with that of Carnival, the slaves in the words of Rampersad to engage in: stick games, songs and dances, bongos, and calindas...which were now acted out in the streets at Carnival and the other, the Canboulav - the patois corruption of the Parisian "cannes brulees- which, arising out of the fire righting activities of the slaves who, to the accompaniment of the singing of work songs, "..blowing of conch-shells and crackling of the oversees" whip..", utilized burning canes or flam beans to cut wide swaths ahead of advancing tires in order to divert and arrest them from spreading to adjacent cane fields, came to be transformed into symbolic torchlight of freedom processions of jubilation that were uninhibitedly expressed every August first following emancipation and the subsequently on "... the first night of Carnival was therefore taken out of the main feature."
Carnival was therefore taken out of the confines of the old slave’s masters' Big Estate Houses and brought out with the public arena of the streets wherein the freed Blackman gave full vent to their natural artistic, cultural, and theatrical creativity at a popular mass level. Carnival was in the process of being democratized and institutionalized as a major contribution to the history, art and culture both in and outside the Caribbean and Latin America. Fernando Ortiz, the late great Caribbean and Latin American Cuban authority on African culture, customs and folklore gives us a glimpse of this emerging cultural democratization through the Cuban Africans' celebration of Magi's Day, their special festivity on the sixty of January each year until the year 1880 in which slavery was abolished in Cuba, and which traditional festivity was subsequently maintained in Cuba's Carnival.
Ortiz records that the Cuban Africans with their "...costumes, music, idioms, songs, dances, and ceremonies...”moved to the Cuban capital, Havana, and "...gathered in the streets with their friends, relatives, members of their own tribes, proudly clothed with the ceremonial dresses of their country spreading all around their... exciting African singing, perturbing with the noise of their bells, drums, and other instruments ...in an orgy os sites, dances, music, song and drinks." And presaging the steel band and calypso sounds that vent the air of Trinidad and Tobago in particular, weeks before and up to Carnival, Ortiz’s research recounted that "since dawn" on Magi's Day, "We could hear from everywhere the rhythm of those big drums.." intoning the servants to leave"...the houses very early in the morning.." while "..from the neighboring farms all the workers of the plantations rushed to the towns and villages..." where in "...every square there were gathered circles of spectators..."
Ortiz continues to recount that "...the big drums were placed on one side like percussion instruments which... were beaten without stop by... drummers seated astride them..., "while"...couples danced making the most extravagant contortions: jumping, turning and walking in right musical time with agitated frenzy.." while a cacophony of bells "...small bells, drum horns, triangles and enormous marugas accompanied that deafening clamor. Continuing to recall a sight that anyone who has witnessed a Carnival in the Caribbean would easily recognize, Ortiz also makes the mass of people who participated and looked on at the celebration of Magi's Day, integral to this popular cultural extravaganza, when he recounts that at two in the afternoon the mass display would reach its peak as "Everybody proceeded towards Plaza de Armas. In a short time, the crowd filled the square and one could hardly pass near the Governors Palace. The crowd offered a picturesque spectacle. Each Cabildo (a group of black belonging to the same African nation) entered by turns the courtyard of the Palace, in the vaults of which re-echoed for many hours the thundering roll of drums, songs and the enthusiasm in the cries of exclamation of the Africans ...And while everybody was exerting to the utmost his shill as a dancer, the captain of each cabildo, the standard bearer and purser with his tin plate money box went up the stairs of the palace in an orderly manner and, making the most sinely demonstrations of adhesion would receive at least half an ounce of gold..." while through "... the windows facing the central courtyard rained down tobacco, coins, and even silver and gold coins...which hundreds of hands rushed to dispute..." Then these cabildo bands would leave the square and near the Governor's Palace and give way to others: "...popular dancers, congos, lucumies arearas and Manocingos... “Who paraded in perfect order.
Sharp-sighted researcher that he was, Ortiz also catches the class distinctions of the society manifested in the celebrations when he writes that "...not all the blacks went-dancing with the cabildos or other various groups.. " for many "...creoles and some blacks didn't give too much importance to those dances for instead of "...earring those typical costumes of their compatriots, they dressed as Parisian dandies.." The women, Ortiz says, in wanting to affect an elegance that "...then c o n s i s t e d i n exaggerating ... fashion ... preferred belts, chignons, fringes, long earrings, showy shawls, a lot of rings, bracelets and right colors..," while the men "...by wearing big neckties and choosing that kind of trousers and vests that could attract attention with their flashing colors.” "Others" he said, simply "... dressed as sailors, having on their shoulders a small boat in continuous swing on a small piece of crumpled green and white canvas, representing the foaming waves of the sea..."while many more "...dressed as clowns and got their tips by dint of jokes.."
This description of Cuba's Magi's Day Carnival is as relevant, adequate and close a description of the infections community form, content, and moving spirit that was and is inherent to Carnival of yesteryear and today in the rest of those islands of the Caribbean where it was acted out up to that stage where the gradual economic evolution of their societies began to provide new material and scope for reproduction on an ever-growing and elaborate scale. The new was emerging from the womb of the old giving further evidence of the aesthetic and creative ability of the Caribbean people, an ability that has so far not been generalized and put to the most optimum use in liberating the area from the u,-economic tetters that still cabin crib and confine our people.
Nowhere has the materialist postulation of social existence determined the existence of men more evident and vindicate them in the exposition of Carnival whose form and content reflect the past, living and actual developments of society both national and international.., Nowhere has again the matrial imperative of society been so strongly reflected as in Carnival through its musical instrumental complements which were and expression of the prevailing level of the islands' productive forces in that their instruments were originally that of the drum, bottles, jugs, saws, combs and silver paper, bamboo, lengths pipe, bits of steel, washboards, pans and pan covers, then banjos, ukuleles, quatros, guitars and violins to mouth organs, wind and brass instruments, and now the steelband. With the latter being the product of the slightly higher elevation of the productive forces due to the development of the oil industry which provided the material of the oil drum that had the dimension to facilitate experimentation in the search for sounds on its flat surface, and in time to accommodate the relevant musical scales, large scale orchestration and renditions of whole tunes and this invention of the steelband astonished many people, just as Richard Lignoin the old white colonial settler of Barbados, in the seventeenth century was astonished when one day he stumbled on his Black Slave Macow making a xylophone out of "...a piece of large timber upon which he had laid crosses, six billets..." with me in a wonder, how he of himself, should without teaching do so much...I say this much to let you see so much for those who see man as object, and not as subject, Man.
Carnival is not therefore just one big fete as many decisively designated it to be. No. It is a productive and cultural industry that speaks volumes, and is pregnant with meaning, for the labor, both mental and physical that goes into its creation, "... stumps it as exclusively human. What can better express this that the thinking, researching, organizing, planning and physical activity that goes into the presentation of inter alia history ancient, and modern and all the other ingenious presentations, thus helping to make clear the "what distinguishes the worst architect raises his structure in his imagination before he erects it in reality..." and at the end of the mental and manual labor activity: we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the laborer at its commencement..." In this case, the result is Carnival. Carnival, moreover elicits the universality of our people and in its telescopic communal presentation of the near totality of life, past and present defies that categorization, specialization and division of the personality that assails modern day society when it brings together in one mass package the song, dance, drama and theatre for all to see, admire, judge and be also participant.
The positive of Carnival must always be accentuated over its negative, for in its very production lies the answer to questions like: what can be done in the Caribbean in particular? What do men live by? and what do they want? With these two last questions more than ever relevant in these industrial settings in which Carnival is now being transplanted.