Dr. Fraser- Point of View
July 6, 2007
Vincy carnival has a long history

I have been completely turned off by advertisements and statements to the effect that we are celebrating thirty years of mas because some of our younger folks and strangers might get it completely wrong and believe that we are new to the carnival business, not realising that we have been there as long as anyone else. I have by chance, found a piece I had written sometime ago and have decided to rework it for this occasion.{{more}}

Even though it is difficult to trace its origins, the roots of Carnival appear to go back to the immediate post-emancipation period. The problem with tracing its origins is that it has assumed different forms over the years. In the mid-nineteenth century the Acting Lt. Governor noted that “It was the custom of the lower orders of the people to dress themselves in fantastic attire and wearing masks to parade and dance through the streets with sticks or whips in their hands, with which they struck at any persons passing by.” There were allegations of serious disturbances having occurred and so after numerous attempts it was suppressed in 1872. By 1879 however, the people were determined to revive their festivity and appeared on the streets, defying the ban. Attempts by the police to stop them led to riots during which the Chief of Police was attacked and the Acting Governor stoned.

Masquerading as it was called was then associated mainly with the lower classes in the society. By the 1950s it gained official recognition and came under the distinguished patronage of the Administrator. From the 1950s it followed the pattern set in Trinidad because of the close connection with that country through the popularity of their radio stations and the regular flow of traffic, particularly with traffickers taking ground provisions and animals for sale and returning with dry goods and other products. Of course there had also been a long period of migration of Vincentians to Trinidad, hence a lot of family connections. It must be remembered that our carnival was like Trinidad celebrated in the pre-Lenten period and it was largely because of the competition from Trinidad that a decision was taken to change the date of carnival, so that today we celebrate that change that gave us the space to develop our carnival to its fullest potential. In fact, Trinidadian visitors became an essential part of carnival with many of them being regular participants and visitors. The festival had developed into one of the Caribbean’s biggest summer festivals although it has had its ups and downs and had been losing some of its stature in recent times.

The change of date also brought with it a new show, the Miss Carival Show, a regional queen show that attracted a number of participants from the region including non-English speaking countries of Puerto Rico and Venezuela. This show which was one of the main features of Vincy Mas in its new form, has now run out of steam and really needs to be refocused if it is to recapture the interest of local patrons and continue to attract participants from the wider Caribbean. I had said sometime ago that this show might even have been a victim of its own success in that it was becoming difficult to entertain the requests for participation that had been coming in. That was really the point at which some evaluation of the show should have taken place with a view to reorganising it. I hope it is not now too late.

The change of dates coincided with the appearance on the scene of a number of gifted calypsonians, particularly Becket and Soso who are based overseas and who had become internationally recognised. Becket’s song ‘Teaser’ was adjudged record of the year and best party tune at the first annual Caribbean Music Awards in New York. ‘Teaser’ has been translated into other languages and had actually received the Billboard/Univision and BMI Latin Awards as best salsa song of the year. Although the quality of our ‘mas bands’ has remained extremely high it might be true to say that we have made our biggest impact in the area of calypso. On the local scene Vibrating Scakes, Poorsah, Ipa, Abijah, Sulley are only five of a number of talented bards. The change of date has also witnessed a greater involvement of calypsonians from the Diaspora, particularly from the United States of America from where seven of the twenty contestants for the Calypso semi-finals came this year. The Dean of that tent is undoubtedly De Man Age who has been a fixture in the calypso business for a long time, and is best remembered for his classics, “Society Needs a Spectacle” and “Who Cares”.

This year calypsos have generated a lot of discussion because of the unprecedented number in the semi-finals that were political and highly critical of government. This takes us back to the traditional role of the calypsonian, the peoples’ messenger, holding up spectacles to the society, as it were, and singing about things that people don’t often want to talk about. This role of the calypsonian has always sent shivers up the spines of politicians around carnival time because one expects biting calypsos tearing away at the political ills of the society as they see them. I am not sure how many calypsos have been banned in the past although I believe that Age’s “They Go Ban It” might actually have been one of them. Many people might also remember the occasion when during a rendition of one of Lord Have Mercy’s calypsos the lone radio station went dead. This was then seen as an alternative to banning. Today, of course, with so many radio stations this would not work. But generally governments have realised that it is not in their best interest to try to ban a calypso regardless of how hard hitting and critical it is since like the banning of a book, it simply increases its popularity. But additionally people look forward to their calypsos and will not take too readily to any attempt to ban them because this is what they expect of the calypsonians. Of course if it is done with artistry, humour, creativity and taste it redounds quite well to the art form but often calypsonians produce calypsos that are like speeches in song lacking the fundamentals of what should constitute a good calypso. To make an impact, a calypso generally has to connect with the feelings on the ground, which is why one can refer to the calypsonian as the peoples’ bard.

Carnival is undoubtedly the biggest festival in this country. It is more than a peoples’ festival in the sense in which we see festivals, in that in today’s market economy, its income earning possibility becomes key. It becomes a tourism product as efforts are made to market the festivity far and wide with the intention of attracting as many visitors as possible. With this in mind Carnival has to become more integrated with other efforts at development within the society. The enormous talent that it exposes every year in a variety of areas needs to be capitalised on to develop the festival even more and to lend that talent to other areas of development within the society.