Now that we have come to the end of the major Carnival festivals in the Caribbean, Grenada’s being the last, the festivals staged by Caribbean migrants in North America and the UK have been taking the limelight.Caribana in Toronto kicked off the month-long festivals on the first weekend in August, followed by the massive Notting Hill celebrations in London (last weekend in August) which has won acclaim as the biggest street festival in Europe. To crown it off was Labour Day celebrations in Brooklyn, New York, always on the first weekend in September.
While some might view these as merely “nice time” or bacchanal events, they represent much more for Caribbean people. It was not easy for Caribbean people to get the space to express ourselves so emphatically in hostile environments and it is a tribute to our resilience that we have been able to overcome the racism, police brutality, and all the social and economic pressures to establish our presence in these far-off places.
All have their roots in the struggles of our people for self-expression, in the face of not just economic and social oppression but cultural suppression as well. All three of these now major festivals took hold in the mid-sixties, a time of rising consciousness and cultural re-awakening for Caribbean people, here at home and abroad. The timing is not just coincidental, there is a connection between what was happening in those societies at the time and the determination to let ourselves be heard and seen culturally as well. In the process, Caribbean migrants have had to battle against negative media stereotyping, police brutality, the reluctance of local authorities to respect our right to cultural expression as other immigrant (white) communities are allowed. No praise is too high for the pioneers.
Taking advantage of internet streaming, in addition to the usual Carnival experience which showcases our talents on wider stages, there are a couple interesting observations which I made and wish to share with you. I will confine these to that wonderful and unique contribution of Caribbean society to global musical and cultural development-the steel pan.
At a time when pan still has its battles to remain on the centre stage of Caribbean carnivals, it was heartening to note the visible presence of pan in all three festivals. Thus, in both the Brooklyn and Notting Hill activities, Pan-o-rama occupies a prominent role and, while in all three, the changing times have seen the dominance of the ‘Big Truck’ with booming music and live bands, pan is still present on the streets, particularly at J’ouvert.
There are two particular observations that I made, worthy of sharing with readers. First, almost amazingly, I witnessed white folks at the Notting Hill carnival, playing, pan around the neck! Yes, white people doing what few of us would even dream of doing today, playing pan around the neck. Does that not tell us something about our cultural influence and impact?
The second one is the New York Police Department, (yes, the often infamous NYPD), having a band in the parade which was mainly steelband. We really don’t know our treasures!
KEEPING THE PAN ALIVE
Well, all is not lost. In spite of the neglect by many in officialdom in the region, serious efforts are being made in the regional pan movement to enshrine the central place of pan, and the drum, in our cultural expressions. There was even a battle about the place of pan in the recently concluded CARIFESTA 2019.
Although Trinidad brags of being the birthplace of the pan, recognition still has to be fought for and won. Fortunately, the steelband movement there, Pan Trinbago, is keeping the fight alive. Their independence celebrations feature pan, even in the official parade, as well as an annual “Pan on the Avenue” put on in the St. James/Woodbrook communities of Port of Spain featuring some of the top bands in a seven-hour street jam.
Can we learn from any of these experiences? The Youlou Pan Movement and Potential steelband of Calliaqua fought valiantly to stage an In-De-Pan-Dance for our Independence activities. Does our grandly-styled “Renewal at 40” provide room and support for pan expression? What of our dance and kaiso? All these must be central to our “Renewal”.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.