Wednesday, February 4, 2015


By Biko Agozino

In Trinidad and Tobago, I witnessed what many locals tell me is the ‘true’ carnival unlike the version in the Notting Hill Carnival of London where I first saw this phenomenon in the 1990s. The one in Trinidad and Tobago was not as huge as the London ones that I have seen given the fact that the population of London is more than three times the population of the whole country and that the carnival in TT takes place all over the country and not just in one city like London. But as in most things in life, size is not everything since the Trinidad and Tobago carnival still serves as the model for most other carnivals. I heard that delegates were sent from Cross River state to study this carnival and take back lessons for a better organization of the Amazing Grace Carnival that has since taken off in Nigeria. Typical of Nigerian ethnic rivalry, the result was that there are separate carnivals in Abuja, Calabar, Lagos and Port Harcourt on different days instead of having one weekend when there will be a national holiday to allow the people to 'play a little mas' in different towns at the same time as they do in Trinidad and Tobago to make for a bigger international tourist attraction. Here are a few tips for the cultural industries in Africa from my own observation of the events in Trinidad and Tobago:

The carnival starts months in advance as the Pan Yards get busy with rehearsals for the panorama competition. This is a key element of the carnival and it is based around the steel drum or ‘pan’ which was invented by poor Africans of Trinidad and refined to the extent that it has been adopted as the national instrument of the country, shown on the symbol for the highest national awards. Does any African country have a national instrument and if they do, is there an annual competition in which young and old play together to keep the national folk music alive while trying to win huge sums of money for their efforts? South Africa is probably the exception not only with the vuvuzeela that annoyed some World Cup commentators but also with contests in gospel music but I doubt if it is a national contest sponsored by the government rather than by civil society.

In addition to the panorama in which most orchestras use the magical steel drums to play all modern instruments and also ‘sing’ songs instrumentally, there was also the ‘Calypso Monarch’ competition in which singers go through quarter finals, semi finals and finals in front of judges to determine who would wear the crown as calypso king or queen for the year. Even prisoners had their own monarch competition and many government departments and educational institutions organized fetes in which people bought tickets for food, drinks and music as fund-raising efforts. Every weekend from early January till carnival weekend, there are multiple fetes (with top local bands) to choose, from the high priced all inclusive fetes favoured by the middle classes to mass gatherings like the Fire Fete (hosted by fire fighters) where there were once fights with axes and knives one year.

I know that many African countries are proud of the musical genres that they invented just as Trinidad and Tobago is proud of calypso, soca and rapso music that African people invented therein addition to chutney music invented by the East Indians in Trinidad but how many of African countries are organizing competitions in which children will vie for, e.g., Afrobeat, Juju or Highlife Monarch of the year to keep the talents growing? On the contrary, it was left to the children of the Afrobeat king, Fela Kuti, to organize the annual Felabration events in remembrance of their father who was repeatedly jailed and nearly killed by military dictators in Nigeria for his patriotic lyrics.

I was amazed to hear that many of the Calypsonians were serving police officers or teachers and yet they had the courage to ‘yab’ or abuse their government in their songs without losing their jobs. One police officer actually went to court to say that the reason why he was not selected as one of the semi finalists was because his song was critical of the Prime Minister and the court actually agreed that he should be allowed to sing in the semi finals where he again failed to impress the judges even though he already won in some other competitions, beating some of the monarch finalists. How many African countries would proudly promote music with political and social commentary as part of the culture of the people?Bob Marley was ambushed and shot with his wife while Peter Tosh was brutalized by the police and later executed by unknown assailants for rebellious lyrics in Jamaica.

There were also competitions in Soca music or the dancehall version of calypso and the Soca monarch one year surprisingly was a singer from Barbados. The Mighty Sparrow made this link clear in his 1978 soca hit song titled, ‘Dudu Yemi - Natasha From Nigeria’. I am aware that many African musicians sing versions of soca but how many of them would be sponsored by their countries or by businesses in their countries to participate in the annual soca competitions in Trinidad and Tobago where this genre originated among the urban poor Africans (they call themselves Africans officially) or host such contests in Africa to help promote the talents of the youth?

Apart from the musical competitions, there were costume design competitions, big band, small band, mini band and all sorts of different contests that started well in advance of the carnival itself. Then on the morning of the first day of Carnival, Jouvert morning, people went out as early as 4:00AM to roll in the mud and paint their faces blue or red and party on the streets until sunrise. This is part of the ritual of letting go of inhibitions and being free to explore your fantasies as part of the carnival culture. Although I have not played Jouvert, I saw many faces with mud and paints when I went to see the carnival processions in the afternoon of Monday but I did not see any of the fights that used to characterize the rivalry between the big bands in years gone by. To get a better literary description of all these, just read Earl Lovelace’s novel, The Dragon Can’t Dance.

Scantily-clad beautiful women and men file past in costumes that cost them thousands of the local dollars to buy. They dance and ‘wine’ their waists seductively with smiles of pleasure. Some of the costumes depicted dessert scenes with snakes and camels, some ‘masqueraders’ wear skimpy soldier costumes, some played ‘Old Mas’ as pirates, some as sailors, some as kings and queens, some as black Indians, some as African Tribes, while others present a coffin for some industrialization policies they did not like and the huge sound systems boomed from truck after truck to see which musical composition would be played most frequently and therefore be awarded the road march prize. Notice that men and women are encouraged to play mas or wear masks whereas the enthronement of patriarchy in Africa by colonialism now means that only men are allowed to play masquerades (including female masks like Agbonma or Gelede, played by cross-dressing Igbo and Yoruba men, respectively) as Nwando Achebe indirectly documented in her book, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria with the case of the woman who brought out her own masquerade only for the men to seize it with the support of the Colonial administration.

Among the revelers were many tourists and many of the spectators too were foreign in appearance. You guessed right, the costume business and the income from tourism, not to mention the many street traders hawking the winning tunes, food, drinks, memorabilia and allegedly pirated popular copies of Nigerian films must be adding a lot to the country’s economy annually. Trinidadians could also learn filmmaking from Nollywood.

The second day of the carnival is often more enchanting and is characterized by ‘pretty mas’. The costumes appeared more elaborate, the dancers appeared more daring as they would sometimes leave their troupe to wine on a spectator. The wining seemed to follow a rule that women were in control of the wining and the men were not allowed to touch the women wining in front of them except with their equally wining waists. Many of the women were playing ‘mas’ with their husbands or boy friends and any touching could result in a fight, I was told. Yet, I discovered that the no touch rule was also aesthetic because grabbing the waists of 'winers' could cramp their styles.

There were more female masqueraders than male ones and so I also found many women wining on each other. Most European couples wined together but a few of those black men that the Mighty Sparrow called ‘Congo Boys’ wined with European women; East Indian couples also wined together mostly in band sections all by themselves and African couples also wined together as if there was an informal rule that segregated the masqueraders by race and ethnicity. I was later told that people signed up for bands in groups of friends and family members and tended to dance together not as a result of discrimination but just as people who planned to party together.

Overall, the carnival is fun to watch and I am told that it is even more fun to participate in by playing mas or masquerading. There were rumours that some people were leaving the country out of fear that crime would be on the rise during the carnival but carnival was remarkably safe according to official reports. How many African countries could boast of such incident-free street carnivals that would attract tourists under the watchful eyes of security officials who were not distracted by the greed for kolanuts or bribes from spectators and performers alike?  Yes, some police officers have been charged with involvement in kidnapping for ransom but it was unbelievable to watch a soldier or police officer stand at attention while a woman was wining provocatively in front of his waist.

I am fully aware that Africa is rich in culture but we may have to learn from the African Diaspora, better ways of maximizing the returns from the culture industry. The African Trinidadians would be quick to tell you that their ancestors brought many of the cultural icons with them from Africa and so we should not be shy to study how they have evolved them into major industries with the support of public policy.

The key to the marketing is to open the doors to all who wished to participate instead of continuing with exclusionary practices that suggest that only men or natives could play masquerades with whips to chase women and children and intimidate them along the streets or fight each other physically or remotely without a cause. Yes, I was told that in previous years, there were fights between carnival bands but these days, such fights are merely symbolic in the sense that the sound systems clashed to see whose sound would be heard and loved by more dancers. Let us learn from their successes in sustaining a multi-racial democracy of Africans and East Indians, Europeans and Amerindians and avoid any mistakes they may have made.

Dr. Biko Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Professor of Africana Studies, Virginia Tech.

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