My Carnival Journey - A Roots Experience
by Charisse Jones
So Yu Going To... CARNIVAL Magazine
Growing up in California, my West Indian roots were often misunderstood. No matter how often I told friends that my mother was from Guyana, my father from Mississippi, they always insisted that both of my parents were from Jamaica. It seemed inconceivable to them that a Black American has married someone from another culture. And it was impossible for them to understand that black people with accents came from somewhere other than Africa or the Caribbean island that gave birth to Reggae.
Still, my childhood was wonderful, a melange of delta blues and calypso, pepper pot and collard greens. And there was always an intangible link to the other islands of the Caribbean. We had relatives in Barbados, vacationed in Montego Bay, and danced the high life to the Mighty Sparrow. Come Easter, when some people spoke of Fat Tuesday, in New Orleans, and a Brazilian bacchanal, I thought only of Carnival, in Trinidad.
I was a grown woman when I made the sojourn. It happened last February, at the behest of an editor who thought it would be interesting for me to travel to Trinidad with immigrants who were leaving New York in the dead of winter to go home and celebrate their most joyous of traditions. My ignorance was profound.
My mother and several Trinidadians tried their best to school me before I boarded the plane. In my mind, "mas" was a Catholic church service. I had never heard of winin', had no idea what a pan yard was, and had to be told a dozen times how to spell jour o'vert. I had visited Trinidad twice during my childhood, but they were short stays during whirlwind trips through the West Indies. This was going to be the first time I really tasted the Caribbean's southernmost island.
I traveled down with two fellows, and hooked up with a third. They, along with a Trinidadian woman who now lives in Brooklyn, were to be the subjects of my story. Most of my family had long ago left Guyana. The one time I visited, I was a young girl. So my trips to the West Indies were usually like those of other tourists. I would stay in hotels, venturing to town only from time to time. But it was a narrow, distant glimpse of a culture that was actually my own. This time would be different.
I spent my first few nights at a Holiday Inn, but I eventually went to stay with the people whom I spent my days. We slept late, ate curried crab and visited mas camps where we gazed at the costumes that would fill the streets on Dimanche Gras. In the evening, parties began under a pastel sky. We tired at dawn, then drove to Smoky and Bunty's to drink Caribs under a new day's sun. Hours later, the celebrating would start all over again, the darkness broken by the tin riffs that echoed from the pan yards. By week's end, I could almost hum "Lara" in my sleep.
It was a wonder to behold, an entire island caught up in the merriment and revelry that is Carnival. I had never seen a pan orchestra before. And I felt at home in a place where I saw the familiar. The chicken curry, and souse, the roti and bakes were the foods of my mother's kitchen. At last I was surrounded by people who knew and loved those food as I did.
I didn't plan to play mas. I figured I would just stand on the sidelines and watch. But my friends wouldn't let me. So on Jour O'vert morning, I rose while it was still dark, doused myself in baby oil so later the paint would wash off more easily, and joined the throngs. I could not imagine any place in the U.S. where people could gather in darkness, drink and dance to a pounding heat, and still, there would be no trouble.
A mother carried her baby in her arms, elderly people found spring in their step, and we all again and I was mesmerized by the rhythm of thousands of shuffling feet, sauntering through the streets of Port of Spain. The night we left Trinidad, there was fish soup and champagne. I knew I would miss the island. But I figured I would not long for the soca songs that now thumped in my head like a heartbeat. I had danced to them so many nights, jumped to their rhythm so many days, I thought I would never want to hear any of them again.
But when I returned to New York City, a friend put the songs of Carnival on a cassette, and I played the tape until it broke. I went to the store to buy David Rudder's CD, and I reveled in the music because it reminded me of Trinidad. I plan to go again this year, to partake in the revelry of Carnival and jump till dawn. I want to hold hands with my culture, to taste my mother's past and spend time with friends who have now become family. Recently, I played my Carnival tape for the first time in a long while. I wined around my living room and jumped up by my lonesome. When I went to bed, I hummed "Lara" in my sleep.
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Reprinted by CaribbeanChoice.com. Inc. with permission from So Yu Going To... CARNIVAL Magazine, published by Ah Wee Tours Limited. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without express permission from the publisher. Copyright © Ah Wee Tours Limited. All rights reserved.