Carnivals of the Caribbean and Its People
by Carolyn J. Curran
So Yu Going To... CARNIVAL Magazine
Carnivals are a dynamic blend of African rhythms, colors and sensuous movement, sometimes with European religious connotations, combined with the Caribbean people's unique flair for hospitality, entertainment and all around great fun.
The Carnival format is based on several hundred years of development, arising as it did out of the slave culture with its feeling of momentary, ecstatic release from bondage. Carnivals are so popular, they have spread in the last 30 years or so throughout the Caribbean (with the granddaddy being Trinidad) and to major North American population centers where large numbers of Caribbean peoples have settled.
Most, if not all, of these Carnivals, now numbering 45 or more, share common features that make them an artistic and cultural achievement. They are often the artistic climax of an entire year of effort for the artists of the particular island or region. In many instances, a significant portion of the population can be classified as artists, for in many places the level of participation in creating Carnival is very high.
For some, it is a year-round activity. In fact, the seductive quality about Carnival is the blurred distinction between "participant" and "observer". Unlike the general concept of a military parade or parade with marching bands common to Europe and the rest of the Americas, Caribbean Carnival parades are not really parades in the same sense at all. They are masses of dancing bodies following a more relaxed configuration, one which offers irresistable temptations for the onlookers to join in or "jump up".
The quality of the music usually created especially for the occasion, is very high due to the intense competition involved in displaying it. In most islands, Carnivals are preceded by weeks or even months of competition so that what you see and hear when you finally get there is the end result of a rigorous winnowing process. Creating the music and costumes anew each year is not only outlet for personal expression on the part of composers, designers and performers but is also a contemporary statement, a signpost signifying the meaning and characteristics of this years experience.
It is history captured in the time capsule of this year's Carnival. The country's political, economic and social condition is measured and manifested in this way. Thus, it becomes possible to study the cultural history of a people by learning or remembering its Carnival songs over the years. In addition, these Carnival memories have a unifying effect on those who enjoy them as a common experience. It is, in the words of one of Trinidad's renowned poets, Paul Keens-Douglas, "a celebration of the ancestors."
For English speaking countries, the music which expresses in poetic and melodic form the affairs of the time and how the populace feels about them are the upbeat calypso, its recent counterpart, soca, and reggae, heartbeat of the oppressed. In Latin countries, the same themes, qualities and African based rhythms take the forms of meringue (native to the Dominican Republic) and bomba and plena (native to Puerto Rico) and samba (native to Brazil).
In French speaking areas, similar musical values are manifested as cadence and its more modem version, zouk. Carnivals are not only a feast for the ear but for the eye as well. The most sophisticated costume designers and creators use wire bending techniques that enable construction of almost unimaginable fantasies that weigh several hundred pounds and can be three times the height of the wearer as she or he balances the whole outfit on wheels. Carnival troupes or bands in the most active areas (the largest being Trinidad) number in the hundreds to the thousands, with smaller segments dressed in the same "uniform".
The familiar carnival goer quickly learns after the first one that it is possible to "play mas" by paying a modest charge for a costume and joining the band. Many returning celebrants put their money down one carnival to have the costume ready for the next. The ongoing parties (fetes), performances (tents) and extravaganzas (panorama, king and queen of the bands, etc) are an implosion on the senses, a lifetime peak experience and an event not to be missed, wherever you may happen to experience yours.
With the number of carnivals proliferating in recent years, it is now possible for the serious carnivalphile to do as many international performers now do, attend an ongoing schedule of carnivals, going virtually from one to the next. The only month that may be lacking an actual celebration at this point is November, but that is only it you don't count the preparatory events leading up to the Christmas and Pre-Lenten Carnivals that are already underway.
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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.