Next week is Carnival week, and, on Monday and Tuesday, the streets of Port of Spain, San Fernando and Scarborough will be packed with Carnival bands, masqueraders and, mostly spectators. We haven’t quite got the management of it right—for spectator comfort, ease of movement for bands, and maximisation of economic benefits for the artistes in particular and the country in general—but there’ll be a show, a great show and multitudes of people will have an exciting, cathartic time.
For Carnival Monday and Tuesday are a time, as the soca artistes of different hues tell us, to get down, let go, play yourself, get on bad, mash up the place, shake the bumper, work the waistline, and wine, wine, wine.
Lovely images, those. Lovely for their capture of both generality and specificity of behaviour. When, for example, you play yourself, you become an instrument of music and entertainment, as well as a musician and entertainer, and you cause the consumers of your play to see you, hear you, touch you, smell you and taste you on at least the imaginative level. No, especially on the imaginative level, where a multitude of sins go on the rampage.
And when a girl shakes the bumper, it can activate not only your visual sense—at Carnival, action easily morphs into event, doesn’t it?—but all the others as well in a potpourri of longing.
The soca singers understand this quite well, as they unfailingly demonstrate every year. And the images they conjure up use the auditory and the visual as the base and the olfactory, tactile, and gustatory as the superstructure. They align their themes to this formula, and these themes centre on the critical importance of rum, sex and music as an escape from the stresses of life in Trinidad and Tobago. Rum, sex, and music as catharsis.
Hear three of our singers on the power of rum. First, Machel.
In “Happiest Man Alive’’, after telling us that happiness is the measure of success, he gives rum the central role in the achievement of that success:
Ah come out to drink meh rum
and live meh life
I’m the happiest man alive.
Rum on meh mind
so ah ready to go on the road
drink meh rum and live meh
ah got no time for no worries
no stress in meh mind
so ah ready to go on the road.
The imagery is mostly gustatory and, clearly, rum facilitates his escape from the stress of living in Trinidad and Tobago.
Now Machel is one of our richest artistes, and presumably a millionaire, so you may be doubting that he has the stress of the ordinary man and therefore conclude that he is not referring to himself but to the average masquerader. Right, Machel?
Hear 5Star Akil on his addiction to rum:
I’z a drinker to meh heart
when you tink ah done
I now start.
And Farmer Nappy:
Ah wa(nt) big people party
(ha)ve liquor up inside me.
What is it about rum that it is, automatically and necessarily, it seems, a part of our Carnival celebrations? Is it our history of forced and cheap labour on the sugarcane plantation? Is rum in our blood? Is it now liberating us after first oppressing us?
In the masquerade, sex liberates us as well, and the singers know it. Hear Lyrikal:
A gyal in front meh
ah prowling like a hunter
gyal, wine on it
wine on it.
The allure of the female posterior, and all Lyrikal had to do was place it in front of him on Carnival Monday and Tuesday… and then invoke another powerful image—the hunterman on the prowl. Lyrikal is on the hunt for a public sexual experience (because, clearly, private ones are either not easily available or else are insufficient), and he selects “a girl’’ and, with boldfaced entitlement, orders her to wine on his manhood. Lyrikal shows his fondness for backward engagement here, and Carnival regales him with both the public stage and the entitlement to express it. What a stage!
But hear Bunji now (in “Red Light District’’), a cleverer composer:
Aye, when she flip
and then bust the split
aye feel I’m in a red light dis-
Bunji transported to a place of prostitution on the tantalising antics of a female masquerader. These antics are powerful visual events.
When soca play
and them gyal shake the bum-
every man say they activate
Bunji, like all other soca singers, enthralled by the rampaging female posterior and, like “every man’’—thanks, Bunji!—coming alive phallically. Hail the visual power of those images—the misbehaving posterior and the ready-for-action phallus!
Any woman that can play the
once they can handle the pole.
First, lumber, now pole. No wonder he could sing, ‘This gyal she sweet, dis gyal so sweet.’
Powerful visual images, Bunji. From a man’s man. The sweet gyal is Fay-Ann, right?
I am wondering where I fit in the coming catharsis.
• Winford James is a UWI
lecturer and political analysis