Trinidad Carnival Preview

In two articles, artist and musician Pat Bishop explains the real significance of Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival and the music of the steel pan

  • In many bands, women heavily outnumber men. Photograph by Bertrand de Peaza
  • Orange sunset: young masqueraders from Ricard Bartholomew's 1994 Junior Carnival winner The Rainbow That is Real. Photograph by Bertrand de Peaza
  • J'Ouvert fireball. Photograph by Bertrand de Peaza
  • Masqueraders from Peter Minshall's controversial 1995 band Hallelujah in downtown Port of Spain. Photograph by Bertrand de Peaza
  • Masquerader from Poison. Photograph by Bertrand de Peaza

Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival is not a newly-invented tourist festival: it is a deeply-rooted ritual that goes to the heart of the people. Artist and musician Pat Bishop explains

Band of the Year and Panorama; King and Queen of the Bands, Calypso Monarch; a Robber perhaps, a Fancy Sailor on shore leave, Kiddies Carnival – these are just some of the essential ingredients of the Trinidad Carnival.

There is Carnival in Tobago as well, but the Tobagonians, like rural Trinidadians, are more deeply rooted in their folk traditions. Carnival in Trinidad is mainly urban in character, with Port of Spain as the principal centre and the Queen’s Park Savannah as its main arena.

Carnival is public art, a matter of national concern. Steelband rehearsals are not private: the progress of the masquerade bands in the weeks and nights before Carnival is closely watched and hotly debated. Costumes begin as ideas in the imaginations of individual designers, but their construction in the mas camps draws in band members, supporters and critics. “Will the King’s costume stand up?” is a question for the public at large as well as the King.

Carnival falls every year in the period between Christmas and Lent; the timing is rooted in the Christian tradition, and everybody knows that the word Carnival derives from carne vale, which means “flesh, farewell”, a last spree before the austerity of Lent begins.

The festival was brought to Trinidad in the late 18th century, mainly by Catholic French settlers, who continued their European festivities in a tropical setting with masquerade balls, house-to-house visiting and much jollification. The oldest Carnival characters have their roots in that time, as the plantation and house workers mimicked their European masters.

But after the abolition of slavery in the 1830s, the whole character of the Carnival changed: instead of being an elegant, upper-crust amusement for the white elite, it became a euphoric Afro-Trinidadian street festival and a symbol of freedom and defiance. In addition to mocking and satirising the colonial elite, Carnival took pleasure in provoking it with drumming, noise, disorder and defiant bad taste.

The authorities reduced the Carnival days from three to two, clamped down on security and even banned the African drum and the popular Canboulay procession, but to no avail. The harder they tried, the deeper Carnival dug in its roots; nowadays, there is virtually no segment of society which does not take part.

It was out of these 19th-century confrontations that the modern Carnival evolved. Slave society had its own underground world of secret hierarchies and rituals. By the 1840s, there were communal backyard “tents” of bamboo and thatch, rudimentary mas camps and calypso tents in one, presided over by prototype kings and queens. The music leader was the chantuelle, forerunner of today’s calypsonian, who would rehearse the Carnival music and lead the band on the streets.

Calypso, rooted in the praise and satire songs of West Africa, became an essential ingredient after emancipation, functioning as a sort of popular press, a source of information and commentary as well as a way of further scandalising the white establishment. By the end of the 19th century its language was changing from French patois to English, and the first calypso tents were only a few years away, not to mention the great pioneer artists.

As for the steelband, it was a direct legacy of the banning of the African drum by the British in 1880s. The instinct of the drummers produced percussive bands of bamboo, thumped and beaten, then a whole variety of metallic drum-substitutes from biscuit tins to car parts, and finally, during the second world war, new drums made out of discarded oil drums, which the players learned to cut, shape, tune and turn into an entirely new musical instrument.

So the Carnival of which we speak has come a long way from the déja vu elegance which can still be seen in Venice. It is certainly not a fun-fair with rides and fortune-tellers’ booths and tea in the marquee. In Trinidad, you won’t find the strings of beads and the decorated lorries of the New Orleans Mardi Gras. There won’t be the samba bands and the near-naked ladies of Rio, though it must be admitted that Port of Spain’s suburbanites are trying hard.

What you will find is the Panorama competition, held over several days, in which steelbands of more than a hundred players participate. Dozens of calypsonians will sing topical songs in praise of the festival itself and probably also about the most recent iniquities of the political life of the country.

The Trinidad Carnival is also about fierce competition among individuals and bands of fantastically costumed revellers. One of its most sacred moments is the shadowy dawn time of J’Ouvert, where mud and liquor prevail in a hedonism which can hardly be imagined.

Above all, however, Carnival is about people who come out onto the streets of the island every year to claim and affirm for themselves, however briefly and improbably, an alternative reality. And it is in this notion of an alternative reality that the origins of the Trinidad Carnival exist.

Carnival allows the ordinary man to assume, however briefly, the robes and swagger of a king.

Role change and exchange have been fundamental to the human condition since the beginning of time. Cavemen wore animal skins and threw spears at huge graphic representations of animals to facilitate the hunt. Early civilisations were quick to recognise that their existence depended upon powerful supramundane forces which had by various means to be placated.

So there evolved many masquerades all over the world in which, for example, men pretended to be women in order to facilitate fertility. People wore masks of various kinds, or in other ways sought to assume the forms of the phenomena which they desired or feared. In this regard, masquerade was primarily functional.

But even after mastery of the environment makes masquerade unnecessary, the impulse to pretend remains. It does not die, and all over the world the desire to be something else remains constant. In Trinidad, that desire is manifested in its Carnival.

So the origins of Carnival are deep, mysterious and universal. The ritual of assuming an alternative reality has survived even though the forces which initially called it into existence no longer prevail. How does this alternative reality manifest itself in the Trinidad Carnival today?

The masqueraders join bands and choose costumes which they wear on the two principal days of Carnival. These costumes may “upgrade” normal status, converting ordinary citizens into kings, queens and courtiers of all kinds. Or the masquerader may be an “old mas”, exchanging current status for something much more lowly. A suburban housewife may opt for a body stocking and a sequin or two. In all cases, the mas frees the masquerader from the constraints of the status quo.

The calypsonian, who is Carnival’s troubadour, goes on stage to lecture the society and its leaders about their shortcomings. All aspects of life are grist to his mill, so he too becomes “big in the dance”.

Steelbandsmen wearing the T-shirts of their bands walk tall in the city, if only for the hour, because their fans require them to be heroes. The season makes them authorities about music, pan, “the arranger” and all the other esoterica enshrined in the panyards. He therefore has his day in court which none of the usual deprivations of his life can destroy. The ordinary citizen suddenly finds that he can drive up the down streets, that he can behave in ways which would not be permitted at other times of the year.

For Trinidad, a transformation occurs which conjures up Caliban’s words: “the isle is full of music”. Somehow, for a moment, we forget about the poverty, the unemployment, political iniquities and national fecklessness. We set everything aside in the affirmation of an altogether more lovely and desirable reality, however brief and improbable.


Ordinary Music

Trinidadians call it pan. American musicians with an interest in things ethnic call it the steel drum, and so it is, given that it is a drum and it is made of steel.

In Trinidad and Tohago, it has been de clared the national musical instrument, which is a singular circumstance. Nations have flags and national anthems. But no other West Indian island seems to have a national musical instrument, nor do any of the countries which border the Caribbean rim.

Trinidad and Tobago are, however, supremely musical islands. Few people living in them stand entirely apart from music-making of some kind. This is not to say that there are large well-funded orchestras with an accompanying corps of professional musicians, sustained by an educated elite. But the islands are full of festivals, all with musical components, and also full of churches, which, in turn, are full of singing congregations. The singing is not necessarily good; most times it isn’t. But it is impossible to factor music of some sort out of national life.

Above all, there is a. proliferation of steel bands of varying sizes, standards of proficiency and provenance throughout the islands, about which, in the public mind, there is nothing extraordinary. We do, of course, have favourites. Certainly the fans of Phase II Pan Groove or Desperadoes or Renegades are fanatics at Carnival time, but this will subside during the rest of the year.

It is the very ordinariness of music in Trinidad and Tobago which made it inevitable that when a musical instrument was needed, it would be invented. And we, the ordinary people, would be the inventors.

We already had the drum. We knew how to make it and how to tune it. We understood that the deeper the skirt of the drum, the lower in pitch would be its voice. Once we stumbled upon steel (and here it must be admitted that the earliest drums were purloined dustbins), fixing the pitch and location of the notes on the drum head, then we would be away.

It took less than a generation to send the steelband to Carnegie Hall to play Borodin and Offenbach in a Liza Minelli concert and to take the substantial honour there. More troublesome was the task of moving an Apollo Theatre, Harlem, to standing ovations for classical music! But, executed on the pan, the steel drum, the task was not at all impossible.

Why? Because the pan pioneers of these musical islands always understood that the secret of the acceptance of the instrument was the quality of its sound.

This perception is entirely a product of the fact that Trinidad and Tobago are musical islands. If we talk about pan, then we say that the pan is sweet (or that it is not).

Not everybody can tune a pan. Pan players understand this very well. Get hold of the Robert Greenidge/Michael Utley CD recording of Come Dance With Me and hear the sound of double-second pans tuned by Rudolph Charles. Then you will begin to understand the word sweet as it relates to the steel drum. The accuracy of A440 standard pitch is in place; but that is not what we are talking about. Our real concern is the special sonority of a drum’s particular voice. When a musical instrument aspires to this kind of quality, then we know that it is real.

In the honour roll of special pan people, names like Bertie Marshall, Tony Williams and Lincoln Noel are spoken of with reverence. They are the people who “sweeten” the voices of the pans, and the people of Trinidad and Tobago, who are natural-but-ordinary musicians, are the ones who affirm the achievement.

The romance of the pan, the saga of the steel drum, has its origins in urban dispossession. But its aspirations have always been magical. Even when the music played has been devised by a street-wise pan wizard like Boogsie Sharpe, the musical intention has always been the upliftment of the heart. No other musical oeuvre has ever had such clear intentions. The music has always been required to take the listener out of himself, out of the concerns of the ordinary, into the achievement of the sublime.

In this regard, melody has always been crucial. But so too have been orchestration and the employment of those musical devices which astonish and overwhelm. Not for us the calm inwardness of a late Beethoven string quarter. Instead, the Panorama tune parented by the late 19th-century European overture with its surface attractiveness, its overt virtuosity and all those technical devices which make us catch our breath – lies at the heart of a pan arranger’s goals.

If you would hear these amazing musical statements, you must catch us now, while the old intuitive panmen still hold sway. Because a new kind of pannist is abroad in the land. This kind reads music, has no time to waste, no appreciation of sentiment and little respect for the old days. The new pan boys and girls claim kinship with metropolitan youth in the northern cities for whom pan is a second instrument, or even a first.

These are the ones who will demystify the instrument and bring it into the mainstream of all other musical instruments. They will make the pan valid. But they will also make it ordinary — as ordinary as all the other musics in Trinidad and Tobago today.

If you would hear the steel drum in its magical ascendancy, now is the time to come to Trinidad and Tobago. It’s a well-kept secret of course, and you will have to seek it out. You may hear it downtown on Carnival Monday in the pre-dawn hours playing an up-tempo classical piece or a down-tempo Carnival pan arrangement. Or you may hear it playing Mars from Gustav Holst’s Planets in an obscure panyard located on the wrong side of respectability.

These are the glory days of pan; but they are fast being swallowed up by the bottom-line and the factors of cost-effectiveness which, as we all know, have absolutely nothing to do with magic. Do not delay. The musicians of Trinidad and Tobago still believe in miracles and the chief of ours is the pan, the steel drum. Try to hear one soon before progress, and the computer, tame it out of existence.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.