Kambule: on morning ground | Snapshot

Early each Carnival Friday morning, before dawn breaks, crowds assemble at Piccadilly Greens in east Port of Spain for a re-enactment of a key event in the history of Trinidad — and of Carnival itself. Attillah Springer gives an intimate account of Kambule, when the spirits of the ancestors are invoked in a ritual of memory, story, song, and resistance

  • Kambule performers re-enact the beginning of the 1881 Canboulay Riots. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • Tamboo bamboo musicians provide the soundtrack for the performance. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • Preparing to face Captain Baker and his officers, the jammettes and their allies arm themselves with bois, the tradition weapon of stickfighters. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • Actors portraying colonial police march onto the Kambule stage. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • The version of Kambule staged since 2004 is written by playwright, poet, and activist Eintou Springer, who also participates in the performance. Photo by Maria Nunes

Carnival Friday morning, moments before Kambule starts, I am looking for a dog. It is not an active search, rather a hope in the back of my mind that a dog will turn up again, like one has been turning up the past few years.

Sometimes I’m busy running back and forth between the tents that form the makeshift backstage area, stopping maybe to talk to a photographer, a member of the public, a friend who has come there straight from whatever fete they have been wining at since early Thursday night. Sometimes I am up in the stands talking with the sound engineer, warning them to get the music cues right.

And then I see it. The dog is always unbothered by the crowds, running about, sniffing the drums, the flambeaux set in the corners. The dog runs up and down Piccadilly, the staging area for the play Kambule that my family company Idakeda has been staging every Carnival Friday for more than a decade.

You could say that Trinidad has lots of stray dogs, and it’s simply a coincidence that this dog has sauntered this way.

I prefer to believe that the dog, being one of the symbols of the Orisa Ogun — the hunter, father of metal and the steel pan, remover of obstacles — is an unscripted part of the ritual re-enactment of the 1881 Canboulay Riots. It fits a narrative we are trying to reconstruct: that this community at the foot of Laventille, once known as Yoruba Village, is the spiritual source of another version of Carnival. Not the one we know to be valuable and marketable and moneymaking, not the one that is shininess and feathers, package-deal mas and rope security, that is all-inclusive and weewee trucks and the fodder for slick American reality TV.

Instead, this Behind the Bridge Carnival sees Trinidad as a place of magical coincidences, a nonlinear understanding of time, unintended rituals, jumbies that are both moko and micro, the ability to move between sacred and scandalous with ease.

The journey to Carnival Friday morning is long and sweaty and challenging. It starts sometimes on a Saturday in January in the Hall of St George’s, where my mother Eintou once rehearsed plays with her theatre mentor Slade Hopkinson. It starts with women turning up from some far place with a ten-year-old child, asking please if the child can be part of the play. The child is always beautiful, always black enough to be teased at school. The child does not know the date of Emancipation. When you see that child dance kalinda on Carnival Friday morning, you will see no trace of the shyness and the self-doubt that once made his or her shoulders droop.

There are always more women than men. The women are strong in ways they do not know, and at least one or two have lived the life of or know one of these jammette women they play — formidable women from beyond the diamètre, the East Dry River that historically divides Port of Spain geographically and socially — terrified of being vulnerable, searching for acceptance and visibility.

The rehearsals start with history lessons. The rehearsals are never just about lines and blocking.

One of the lessons is about why we continue to fight with the National Carnival Commission on the spelling of Kambule.

Yes, we know the idea that Canboulay is a French Creole version of cannes brulées — the burning of the canes. But we also know that the scholarship of historian Maureen Warner-Lewis cites kambule as a Kikongo word meaning “procession.” We reflect on the conflation of the two terms: the idea of the burned cane as a symbol of plantation life and death, and the idea of the early morning procession that became J’Ouvert, in which the ex-enslaved would recount the horrors of that time, while protesting against current injustices. And still in the midst of all that shrieking pain and profanity, they would find time for ritual.

There is always the moment when the cast knows this is not just a play. It is usually when the drums are fast and loud. When the chantwell is singing a stickfight lavway that segues into a chant for the Orishas. In that moment, the power will take hold of someone and ride them to tears, and when they come back to themselves, not remembering the way they danced, it is time to remind the cast again that this is really a ritual for the Carnival to not get totally lost to the shininess.

The Babalawo, the Yoruba priest, says this is ancestral work: you are talking about them, re-living their lives, they will come to remind you that they are real.

Carnival Friday morning comes faster than we expect. We arrive around 2 am to find that the stands are already full of bleary-eyed audience members, the ones who are operating solely on bad-mind, their faces crumpled by a few weeks’ worth of long nights in panyards and mas camps and kaiso tents. They guard their seats in the bleachers jealously — the space can hold no more than three thousand people. It is full long before we begin.

Things get lost and found again on Carnival Friday morning: a cast member, a conch shell, a piece of costume.

The air is cool and still, and I imagine that the late, great John Cupid, who first had the idea to do a Canboulay Riots re-enactment, is watching us from up in a tree, like the boy whose eyewitness account of the fight on a morning cool like this in February 1881 was documented by J.D. Elder.

The people Behind the Bridge are gracious, accommodating, gentle with us in these darkest hours before dawn. The drummers and the drinkers and the mas players and the pan men are there at the snackette, drinking rum and sweet coffee, recalling their glory days. 

If you come to Kambule on Carnival Friday morning, know that you are part of a community ritual that makes way for the Carnival to happen. If you are there in the audience, sing the songs with us, lend your voice so that it will echo in those old wooden houses long after we have all left this plane.

And if you see the dog, let it pass: it is part of the magic of the morning. 

One morning in 1881

The infamous confrontation between the jammettes of Port of Spain and the Police Constabulary that we remember as the Canboulay Riots was a watershed moment in the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival.

It was a few years in the making. After full Emancipation was declared in Trinidad in 1838, a three-day Canboulay celebration around 1 August became an annual feature. By the 1850s, the late-night into early-morning procession became fixed to the Christian pre-Lenten Carnival, as this was the only time of the year it was legal to wear masks in the streets.

Commentators of the time railed against the displays that took place early on Carnival Monday morning, describing them using such grade-A
Victorian insults as “barbarous din,” “unbridled licentiousness,” and “obscene and disgusting buffoonery.”

Captain Arthur Baker was appointed Inspector Commandant for the British colonial government in Trinidad in 1877, and quickly made it is his mission to eradicate Canboulay and stickfighters from Carnival. In 1880, Baker made the first strike against the jammette bands, taking them by surprise and arresting several stickfighters. In the face of this humiliation, the stickfighters began to plot their revenge. The lead strategist is remembered as a stickfighter by the name of Joe Talmana. Although there were deliberate attempts to stamp out the jammette revelry, documents claim that the riot that broke out on the morning of Monday 28 February, 1881, was actually the result of a drunken bet that Captain Baker made late on Sunday night, when he rounded up 150 officers to go and confront the jammettes.

The confrontation took place on the corner of George and Duke Streets in downtown Port of Spain, now the home of the venerable All Stars Steel Orchestra. It was at this spot that John Cupid, a researcher and organiser with the Regional Carnival Division of the National Carnival Commission, staged the first Canboulay re-enactment with the assistance of playwright Tony Hall, along with Norvan Fullerton and members of the Malick Folk Performing Company.

In 2004, Eintou Springer’s pageant script was first performed at the historic site. Within five years, the crowd outgrew the space, and the National Carnival Commission identified the staging area at Piccadilly Greens as the new site.

The play Kambule opens on the Sunday night at the Governor’s Ball. Governor Freeling expresses concern to the ball attendees about rumours that the stickfighters are planning to resist any efforts by Captain Baker to stop their Canboulay. The governor disagrees with another strike against the jammettes by the Constabulary. The action then moves to street level, as the jammettes meet in a barrack yard to discuss the state of affairs. They talk tactics, recount past battles with the police, and of course all the latest bacchanal in a mix of Trinidad English and French Creole.

The story is narrated by the wordsmith masqueraders: two Pierrot
Grenades provide history and humour. The story is also told in the songs of the chantwells and the stickfighters themselves.

The production brings together a number of community cultural groups, university and high school students, professional actors and musicians. The play also features several elements of Yoruba ritual, including the passage of the egungun masquerade. For much of the twentieth century, ancestral masquerades of this kind were frequently chased off the streets. Aside from private festivals at Orisa yards, this is the only time you can see egungun masquerade on the streets of Port of Spain.