The true cradle of Trinidad Carnival
In recent times, Carnival Friday has become the most significant day of the masquerade.
It is the day which will have to continue infusing the Trinidad carnival with meaning, to avoid it becoming that meaningless festival in April that certain members of the carnival fraternity are calling for.
They contend that a permanent date, later in the year, will allow them greater opportunity to plan and market the festival as an activity to attract tourists: what gross disregard for historicity and a people's culture!
Friday’s re-enactment of the Canboulay Procession in 'foreday morning' recalls the time when the enslaved African was roused by the planter to douse the fires in the canefields to save the crop: cannes brulees or burning cane.
After emancipation, the freed African began converting the festival into a ritualistic replay of his sufferings on the estate; not as a meaningless parody, but as a means of reminding himself of the travail of slavery and so as catharsis and as a constant reminder to not allow himself to ever again become so shackled.
On the morning of that fateful day in 1881, confronted by Captain Baker and his police force, intent as they were to stamp out the re-enactment, and to silence too, the beating of the goatskin drums which frightened the life out of the planter, the men and women of old Port of Spain had physically only their bois to defend themselves and the Carnival they were protecting for the generations to follow.
But they had more; they had an appreciation of freedom and selfhood; they understood that a free people should develop their culture in the manner they chose, without edicts from the colonial authorities and from the moralizing of a society that had itself perpetrated the most atrocious crimes against them.
So fortified against the intervention of Captain Baker, the bois men and women, and the jamets of the old city confronted the force attempting to control them and take away their commemoration, their drums and their cultural expression.
I was asked recently how come someone like you, a journalist with a focus on politics, has an interest in Canboulay, perceived as a cultural street procession?
There could not be any activity in Trinidad and Tobago with greater political significance than Canboulay, was my response.
The confrontation and insistence of the masqueraders amounted to a statement of intent on the sovereign rights of a people 40 years before the likes of Ciprinani, the Trinidad Working Men’s League, Butler, James and the others began articulating and agitating for self-government.
British Governor, Stanford Freeling, called in to save his police force, and to see if he could appease the masqueraders and prevent a full-scale riot, expressed his concern for the flambeaus, and the fear of fire in the city.
The masqueraders were ahead of the Governor in their understanding of what was being attempted: they were intent on fashioning their response to the savagery of slavery and of their human hood, in the process beginning the creation of a cultural heartbeat of a people.
They understood that, to build a new civilization in the Caribbean, they had to devise a cultural self out of the ruins of plantation society.
There was, therefore, no question that they would allow the political thuggery of the colonial police force to smash their emerging cultural expression and their intent on political freedom to fashion their world in the manner they saw fit.
Almost needless to say, the British and the French-Creole planter class continued their attempts, after the Freeling intervention in 1881 to end the cultural expression evolving; they even attempted to stop the Hosein celebrations of the Muslim population of southern Trinidad.
This appreciation of the Canboulay Procession with its cultural and political significance is vitally important, as clearly there are those at the centre stage of mas, pan and calypso who are ignorant of the very elements of the carnival which they are responsible for developing and promoting.
Moreover, there is an urgent need for re-interpretation of our history to give direction to how we view Carnival and its cultural significance.
Unfortunately, what dominates the thinking, and so the reality of the mas, are the notions put forward in the newspaper reports of the era, (those newspapers, most naturally, were those of the colonial overlords of the society) and what visiting writers, with their ignorance of what was happening, thought of it.
Unfortunately, the society so absorbed those sentiments that it has come to unconsciously believe them, and has been moving steadily, and for decades to make the festival over into orgy and empty revelry; it is like fulfilling the most negative notion of ourselves envisioned for us by others.
History of the masquerade
That is why the Canboulay is so important: it has to, once again, ground us in the historicity of the masquerade; tell us what its original purpose was and that our ancestors perceived of it as a field of opportunity for self-expression in song, dance, creative mas making and street theatre.
From this field, Bailey, Saldenah and Minshall, the greatest designers of the mas, emerged. So too did the bats, clowns, the dragon mas, the molasses devil, Pierrot Grenade emerge out of the Canboulay.
And along with the masquerade, the musical expression of the 20th century, the steelband, also evolved directly out of the Canboulay.
The history is well-documented: first the freed African turned to the tamboo bamboo – the beating of different lengths of bamboo on the ground to create the percussion sound to replace that of the goatskin drum that was banned by the authorities, and then to the oil drums that gave the inventors the option of playing a melody.
To lyrically tell their story of the injustice perpetrated against them, the chantwell leading the band in song was the forerunner to the calypsonian.
Today, the empty soca jam is representative of where we are getting to, because we have unconsciously taken on the interpretation of others of what the carnival should be about: wine back and jam; meaningless beach wear and the limiting of the great steelband invention to the margins of the festival as we allow the electronic sounds, the technology created by others, to take over the mas.
But, in addition to the early morning Canboulay, the Friday afternoon mas that comes from the villages and is being portrayed by school children is also threatening to rescue the Carnival from meaninglessness.
The designers and mas makers of this era must go to the Canboulay, be out on the streets on Friday afternoon to absorb the meaning of the celebrations, and to re-interpret the mas for this generation.
BBC Caribbean wishes to apologise to its listeners in Trinidad and Tobago for the loss of its signal in recent times. This has now been rectified and BBC FM can be once again heard at 98.7FM