Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The last Carnival

 Year by year, with no particularly spectacular or dramatic event to herald it, Carnival has slowly but surely been losing its grip on me, to the extent that it has ever had any real grip at all.

My earliest memories of this annual street festival date back to my teens when I took to following my older sisters and their friends, in particular in coming out on the road for the pre-dawn start to Carnival, known as Jouvert (or “the opening of the day”). 

Inevitably we’d meet up with some steelband out on the road and join the hundreds, and later on that would become thousands, who took to dancing in the streets to the sound of steelband music. 

Initially I remember, we followed Silver Stars, led by the Pouchet brothers from Cocorite, because Silver Stars was then regarded as a fairly “respectable, middle class” steelband in those days—and probably still is so regarded, for all I know.

But in later years, we got more daring and took to waiting for Woodbrook’s Invaders to hit the road—and Invaders, in those days —say the late 1950s and early 1960s —had a  “badjohn” reputation.

 I may not have witnessed it up close and personal but it would not have been unusual in those early days for Invaders to literally “clash” in the street with some rival steelband, at which point all hell would break loose—in the form of bottles and stones flying through the air and the occasional cutlass flashing in the early morning sun.

There was a famous calypso, sung by Blakie, about such violent Carnival encounters whose chorus line went: 

“And when them two band clash, mamayo, if you see cutlash! Never me again to jump in a steelband in Port of Spain.”

Other notorious steelbands of that era had names like Tokyo and Desperadoes (which still exist though in much tamer form today) and while steelbandsmen might always have been noted and praised for their skill in making music on those pans, they were also noted, and feared, for their reputations as “badjohns” who “didn’t eat nice” and who could send hundreds, if not thousands, scrambling for their lives when the more notorious steelbands had a “clash”.

I can still recall taking refuge on the grounds of the Port of Spain General Hospital on Charlotte Street during one such infamous Carnival encounter and standing, with many other terrified people, in the hospital corridors while bottles hurled by the protagonists flashed through the air or crashed against the outside walls behind which we were taking cover.

A terrifying experience, believe me, but that didn’t stop me, or I’d imagine many other people, from regularly dancing to the music of various steelbands in the streets in the pre-dawn hours of Carnival Monday morning every year.

I have never actually put on a costume of any kind and played in a band on Carnival Monday or Tuesday. Though I have had friends who have done so and who have repeatedly told me that it’s an out-of-this-world experience that they will never forget.

I’m prepared to take their word for it. Carnival has never interested me to the point where I feel I should don some costume and join in the fantasy, however temporary, out on the streets.

The last vivid memory I have of taking part in Carnival is accompanying two friends, a Haitian-American journalist, Joel Dreyfuss, and his wife who were visiting me for that year’s Carnival. They loved the Jouvert experience and the highlight of that morning’s outing for them was going to Woodford Square and listening to the various steelbands play classical music compositions.

Several times that morning, Joel looked at me with amazement in his eyes and said: “It’s incredible that they can get ordinary  pans to sound like a full classical orchestra!”

Yes, that’s but one astonishing achievement of our steelbands and steelbandsmen. 

Increasingly, however, the festival of Trinidad Carnival has been accompanied by tales of immorality and what we know as “slackness”, especially among our female population. 

Just last week I listened with fascination as a young taxi driver related to his female front seat passenger a story about a woman, a bank executive mind you, who was so carried away out on the streets one Carnival that she had a sexual fling with a young man whom she later discovered, to her horror, was actually  a “street vagrant”.

The kind of person, in short, that she would normally never even had said “good morning” or “good afternoon” to but who, in the carnal flush of the moment, lost all sense of propriety and was simply literally swept off her feet. Much to her subsequent sense of shame and horror.

Such stories no doubt abound along with the now legendary tales of “Carnival babies”, usually delivered about nine months after the great street fete is over.

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a prude but the carnal aspect of Carnival is not something that has ever attracted me in any serious way and the more stories I hear about its increasing impact, on our young women in particular, the less attractive I find Carnival to be. So, without wanting to appear too judgemental or prudish, I can certainly see that the day is not far off when I would have taken part in my last Carnival.