Carnival reflections – Use opportunities to improve
R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
February 16, 2024
Carnival reflections – Use opportunities to improve

Official Carnival festivities have ended in most countries where this Festival is observed, though in many Caribbean countries the dates have been changed for mainly commercial purposes. Globally, the Carnivals which seem to be best known are those in Brazil, famous for its floats and street parades, and Trinidad and Tobago, where the street bacchanal has been dubbed “The Mother of all Carnivals”.

I spent some time over the weekend navigating the online difficulties in trying to follow the highlight events in T&T to see what we can learn from their festival.

Officials there have already expressed satisfaction with Carnival 2024 and based on my own limited knowledge, I can say that the two “high-power” events, Panorama and the Calypso Monarch competitions, were of a high standard and very competitive this year. But there is much that we can learn not just from those events but from the Carnival as a whole.

The local Carnival Development Committee sent a small team to Trinidad for the festivities and based on preliminary reports, once again the emphasis seemed to be how we could utilize the opportunity of so many visitors to that country to promote our own June/July VINCY MAS. All well and good, for if successful, this bodes well for the success of our own Carnival as far as attracting outside participation. But my interests and concerns go far beyond that.

It was obvious that in spite of all the imperfections and the commercialization of the Festival, pressures from the component bodies and the people as a whole have forced some attention to be paid to critical aspects of Carnival- rural activities, youth involvement, and in preserving the roots of the Festival along with education about its origin. I do hope that our Carnival ambassadors took time to also improve their understanding based on the Trini experiences.

Take the vital matter of the roots of the Festival. How many people here today, not just revellers, are aware of the origins of Carnival or where it fits in with our own historical experiences and development? What about our children? Do they only understand Carnival to be just wine and grind? How do we get them to make any connection between Carnival and our historical experiences?

Over the years, and particularly since our “modernization”, we have been moving away from our historical roots. There are not many tangible connections left and if we do not make conscious efforts, urgently, our Carnival will become just another festival.

We have to grasp that understanding and act to avoid such a tragedy.

I do hope that when we get the opportunity to send our Carnival ambassadors to Trinidad that realization becomes part of the mission. Our southern neighbours too made that mistake, and are making conscious efforts for resuscitation, in the face of resistance, mind you.

Just recently I was fortunate to get a history lesson about J’ouvert and Jab Jab. It is amazing how the true meaning and essence of our struggles and symbols have been distorted. For Carnival lovers, J’ouvert is the biggest fun part of Carnival but many who participate in it know little of its origin.

Worse, there are many among us, including those playing mas, who see the J’ouvert characters we portray and the symbols, as being part of the devil. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is important that we seek that truth, that we get to understand that the J’ouvert and ole mas represent our fore parents exposing the cruelty of slavery; that the “devil” is in fact the enslaver; and that what we consider to be the “begging” of the masqueraders in fact represents early demands for reparation from the guilty parties.

We could not in those days be so bold as to make such public demands. Even today, in calypso as exemplified by third-placed finisher in the Trinidad Calypso Monarch competition, “Chuck” Gordon, we skilfully tell “Charlsie” (King Charles III) to “gih we what belongs to we”. How are we going to reverse this wicked distortion without conscious efforts?

One other notable development that we can learn from T&T is the emphasis on music by the entertainers. The development of faculties of music in both the University of Trinidad and Tobago and The UWI has brought about renewed interest in music by calypsonians and pan players. It is reflected in improved musical compositions, calypsonians paying greater attention to their musical content and delivery as well as, in the case of steel bands, a healthy development of a young crop of arrangers and pan tuners. We can only benefit if a similar development takes place here, starting with our education system.

We need to utilize all the opportunities available, and Carnival is but one of them. Yes, let us by all means step up our efforts to attract more visitors to our Carnival, but at the same time with even greater gusto, let us seek the truth, find our roots and utilize every opportunity we can, not only to correct wilful historical distortions but to reclaim pride in our history and make justified claims for reparations.


  • Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.