What is culture? According to La Belle and Ward (1996), a current definition of culture encompasses the shared attributes which delineate one group as separate from another ( p. 28). A slightly more specific definition for this very broad term comes from Frantz Fanon who says that a “culture is first and foremost the expression of a nation, its preferences, its taboos, and its models” (2004, p.177). From this standpoint we will examine Trinidadian culture or more specifically the significance of Carnival, an integral part of Trinidadian culture, as an outpouring of expression which originated with the French Roman Catholic aristocracy and later was influenced by slaves and former slaves. We will also examine the role it plays in inspiring national pride and uniting the Trinidadian diaspora.
According to Mr. Walcott we have lost much of our historical legacy and it is from this loss and the consequent necessity for something to fill that void that the innovation of our culture (i.e. Caribbean culture) materialized (Walcott, 1974, p. 6). I disagree with Mr. Walcott on this point. I believe that a great deal of history was lost yes, whether it is because it was irrelevant as he says or not is in itself immaterial for the purpose of this discussion. It is my opinion that culture was not simply an upwelling of inventiveness due to large gaps in historical memory, but also an amalgamation of what historical heritage was left behind regardless of the fact that it was in tatters. If we take Carnival as an isolated part of culture, this point can be proven as we examine the origins of Carnival and see for ourselves that it began in Trinidad with a French Roman Catholic tradition of the aristocracy (Zavitz & Allahar, 2002) in the pre-emancipation era as a last prelenten celebration, which symbolized the abandonment of propriety. It was transformed with the advent of emancipation from a celebration in the form of masked balls, song, drama and dance which indirectly, covertly and subversively confronted issues of social restrictions of class and race, since most wore masks, into a fusion in the post-emancipation period of West African religious practices and beliefs and the pre-existing French celebration (Nurse, 1999). The initial celebration of Carnival by the recently freed slaves was in the form of re-enacting a scene that they had become all too familiar with and which they had named ‘Cannes Brulees’ or burning cane (Carnival). This is one instance of creation such as that which Mr. Walcott speaks of, however we can clearly see that the entirety of the Carnival practice, once taken as a whole, contains old and new elements, old from both French and African historical celebrations separately and new from the synthesis of new ideas based on experiences and the mixing of two cultures together, one forcibly oppressed for many years, and the other, living in extravagance comparatively.
Let us now take a look at what Carnival is, what it symbolizes presently for the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. Carnival as seen by the spectator and masquerader alike is not viewed as anything static. “It is a dynamic and fluid process” (Green, 2007, p. 206). It is a vibrant, exuberant, triumphant, colourful display on the one hand of freedom from one’s inhibitions as passed down from the originators of this festival, in which fast-paced, up-tempo music urges revelers to jump and gyrate in time with the syncopations of the melodic ‘soca’ music (Green, 2007, pp. 207-208). Feathers, beads, staffs, headbands, bright dramatic make-up, sequins, beads and all manner of shiny things bob and weave with the rhythm of the uninhibited who proudly bare their costumes and newly fit bodies for cameras and tourists alike. Big music trucks patrol the streets with thousands cavorting to the tune reverberating from the massive speakers that take up the entire truck-cab and face in all directions. This maddeningly spectacular display of peacock-like feathers, glitter and lithe bodies strutting to the beat, begins on Carnival Monday morning with ‘J’Ouvert’ which means opening of the day and continues right through into ‘Las’Lap’ on Tuesday night until the stroke of midnight (Scher, 2002, p. 461). This is the part of Carnival that is marketed, packaged and sold to the masses every year. The package includes the enticement of watching steel-bands vie for the title of champion in the Queen’s Park Savannah, during Panorama, the most renowned steelpan competition during the Carnival season. It is not to say that this is all that Carnival consists of, however when considering the diasporic culture of expatriate Trinis, as they are called, and their descendants, these are the images that bring to life that longing for the homeland and have inspired stirrings in the soul to return to Trinidad, just to participate in this festival of colour and unadulterated elation. The term diasporic mentioned refers to the dispersion of a community away from its homeland to more than one peripheral region, which remembers or has some cultural connection to the homeland and is not fully acknowledged as a member of the current country (Clifford, 1994, p. 304).
Although they may be expatriates, during the Carnival season, many Trinis faithfully return home to take part in festivities and can be heard speaking ‘d lingo of dey people’ even if with a slight North American twist. As was stated by Clifford (1994) the “language of diaspora is increasingly invoked by displaced peoples who feel a connection with a prior home” (p.310). “Many Caribbeans in New York, for example, have maintained a sense of connection with their home islands, a distinct sense of cultural, and sometimes class, identity that sets them apart from African Americans” (Clifford, 1994, p. 315). The reclamation of ties to the homeland can also be seen through the migration of the celebration of Carnival to major cities around the world. This repossession can be accounted for by marginalization and “experiences of discrimination and exclusion” (Clifford, 1994, p. 311). It is the way that the diasporic mentality makes up for the bad experiences (Clifford, 1994). It also however speaks to the issue of nationalism. “Expatriates and their descendants must look to Trinidad for innovations in the Carnival arts” (Green, 2007, p. 213) speaks to the issue of national pride as well and the refusal to allow the denigration of the achievements of the nation.
I digress here to discuss this issue of nationalism and national pride. Nationalism, according to Greenfeld (2006) “refers to the set of ideas and sentiments which form the conceptual framework of national identity” (p.69). Four concepts that are key to Greenfeld’s theory that factor in here in our discussion are: equality, respect, dignity and citizenship(2006. She says that the fact that one’s national identity is coupled with dignity and self-respect, due to the elevation of citizens to the level of membership in the nation, guarantees one’s investment in the community that constitutes the nation. The dignity imparted with feeling like one belongs is what spurs national pride. The prestige associated with that feeling of belonging encourages international competition. This concept speaks to the pride that Trinidadians feel, particularly at Carnival time, possibly more so than at any other time of the year, on professing that, yes they come from the land of Carnival and ‘pretty mas’ and what’s more they know how to wine. It may well be that other islands craved the sense of pride that they saw in Trinidadians at some point since we are told that “it is from Trinidad’s Carnival that they take their inspiration, form, and structure” (Cohen, 2007, p. 898). I don’t suppose we will ever know if this adoption of carnival stemmed from regional competition or from a different historical legacy.
In support of this argument that Carnival has inspired national pride we look to Mr. Green, who talks about how these other carnivals derived from Trinidadian Carnival has instilled a certain drive in Trinidadians to have their originality and cultural innovation recognized and their country acknowledged as the birthplace of the copycat Carnival that is now marketed in at least three major metropolitan centers internationally: Toronto, London and Brooklyn respectively (Green, 2007, pp. 210-213). Even still, we find that the visitors still number in the thousands to Trinidad for Carnival each year. “Currently, most of those who come to Carnival are either expatriate Trinidadians or individuals who are very familiar with some aspect of the Carnival” (Green, 2007, p. 206). But “non-Trinidadians and descendants of Trinidadians living abroad also learn about the…Carnival-like events… inspired by Trinidad Carnival” Caribana, Notting Hill, and West Indian-American Day among them, in the three aforementioned major cities respectively (Green, 2007, pp. 210-211).
We can see from the comments made by the interviewee in Mr. Green’s article, that national pride and the resultant desire to seek the nation’s interest in reclaiming what is rightfully Trinidadian is spawned from the prospect of stolen ideas and the frustration at other countries inadequate imitations of a distinctive cultural marker “People in promoting their own Carnival based on Trinidad’s Carnival, forget about Trinidad… So we have got to look after our own laurels… to re-establish ourselves… And once we do that, people will remember that this is the Mecca, this is where you come for the real things that are rich and flavorful and tasty about Carnival (interview, 13 August 1993)” (Green, 2007, p. 212). We learn that sadly, it is mostly Trinidadian expatriates and individuals who have had some exposure to some aspect of Carnival, who come to visit each year” (Green, 2007, p. 206). It is still encouraging from my standpoint however to know that “non-Trinidadians and descendants of Trinidadians living abroad also learn about… Carnival-like events… created by Trinidadians… inspired by Trinidad Carnival” Caribana, Notting Hill, and West Indian-American Day among them, in the three aforementioned major cities respectively (Green, 2007, pp. 210-211). Even if the name of the country is mentioned and people are able to experience and capture some essence of what Carnival is about, we never know, it may instill in them the desire to come and visit Trinidad 1themselves.
Carnival is broken down into parts and must be expressed in such a manner that can be experienced by others in order for it to be brought to the educational forum and projected into the public arena both nationally and internationally (Green, 2007, p. 207). It can be broken down into music, costumes, food and so on. The end to this breaking it down, when we consider edification of the nation in itself of its own tradition and festival , is cultural nationalism. Cultural nationalism as described by Mr. Green has as its aim to “inculcate among members of the nation a sense of shared national culture, one that is not “distorted” by outside cultural influence” (Green, 2007, p. 203). Simply put, this has the ability to put the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago in a position of stemming its vulnerability to outside cultural forces because it has been educated on the importance of its own. Globalization is inevitable, however, the question that has to be posed is how much is Trinidad willing to lose its culture to other nations?
How has Carnival indirectly affected culture negatively? It has opened the country up to the influences of massive influxes of tourists and the impact their culture has on the uneducated populace. Unfortunately though, as Derek Walcott so eloquently expressed his feelings of dependence on America that can be easily transmitted to many an educated Trinidadian regarding Carnival “the more West Indian I become, the more I can accept my dependence on America … not because America owes me a living from historical guilt, nor that it needs my presence, but because we share this part of the world, and have shared it for centuries now…” (La Belle & Ward, 1996, p. 3). Again, the only solution to avoiding vulnerability and to ensuring sustainability of the festival and the uniqueness of Trinidad’s Carnival as opposed to what is being produced in the name of Carnival, is education.
Now that Carnival has come to pass: national pride has been boosted, global awareness of the festival has exploded and tourism has grown as an industry during that period of time, the Carnival season. With increasing globalization, Trinidad stands to lose out on a large percentage of income and also the “proper credit, recognition, and appreciation for what it has contributed to the world” (Green, 2007, p. 214) that could be earned through these festivals, these pseudo-carnivals initiated by members of the diaspora uniting to recapture the essence of their homeland in metropolitan hubs around the world. The positive side of the coin is global recognition for innovativeness and diversity as a culture. What will become of Carnival and Trinidadian national pride in the years to come? We will have to wait and see.
Carnival. (n.d.). Retrieved November 23rd, 2009, from Trinidad and Tobago National Library and Information System Authority Web site: http://library2.nalis.gov.tt/Default.aspx?PageContentID=206&tabid=161
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