In the Fall of 2020, I took a class at Cornell titled "Caribbean Worlds" which discussed the history and culture of the Caribbean through a literary and academic lens. As a part of the class, we were tasked to do a research project and presentation on a "diasporic celebration," and so for my topic, I chose to investigate Carnival. I had the advantage of actually growing up in the Caribbean, plus playing the steelpan, so how hard could it be, right?
Or at least so I thought.
Being away from school for the past week to attend Carnival season, a lot of my friends from college have asked me the question, "What is Carnival?" And honestly, after doing the research project, and growing up with that as an annual part of life, you'd think it's a pretty easy question to answer. However, when put on the spot, I quickly came to realize that explaining Carnival to a non-Caribbean person really is a loaded question, and it means not only explaining a single event or even event season, but really explaining the history and culture of a region that stems from slavery and has its roots in colonialism.
If you're interested, here's the slide deck from my presentation in 2020 titled Diasporic Celebrations: Mapping Carnival in Caribbean Spaces.
So this week, in the lead up to Jamaica's 2023 Carnival Road March, I wanted to spend some time with my thoughts, and attempt to answer for myself and both my Caribbean and non-Caribbean readers, the question "What is Carnival?"
On it's surface, when asked that question, an easy answer would refer to the road march parade on Carnival Sunday, during which "masqueraders" wear elaborate, brightly coloured feathered costumes, marching through the streets of their respective country's cities, drinking and whining (twerking/grinding for my non-Caribbean readers) alongside huge trucks with massive speakers blasting soca music.
More academically speaking, two definitions of Carnival that I think are pertinent here are the following:
“Caribbean Carnival is the creative and artistic expression of dispossessed people.”
“Carnival is where Africa and Europe met in the cauldron of the Caribbean slave system to produce a new festival for the world.”
Carnival first came to Trinidad with the French Catholic plantation slave owners during the 1700s and it consisted of indoor masked balls and was an exclusive, high society event. Going further back in history, it actually originated as a pagan festival in ancient Egypt which was subsequently celebrated by the Greeks and then the Romans. That popular festival was adopted by the Roman Catholic Christian church in Europe as the festival of "Carne Vale".
"Carne Vale" is Latin for "farewell meat" and refers directly to the Christian tradition to give up meat for the season of Lent. Typically, Carne Vale was celebrated as a feast that happened before the season of fasting during Lent. Although Jamaica's carnival occurs post-Easter, this significance is not lost in the birthplace of modern carnival - Trinidad and Tobago - where Carnival is still celebrated in February, just before the commencement of the Lenten season.
The Carnival festival was transported to the Caribbean by the European slave traders. It underwent a process of "creolization" through which it experienced a "re-creation of African culture in the Caribbean landscape deriving elements from European, Amerindian and African cultural forms." On emancipation, the freed African slaves of the Caribbean transformed the European festival forever into a celebration of the end of slavery.
The Carnival festival had a new cultural form derived from their own African heritage and the new Creole artistic cultures developed in the Caribbean.
As a musician, Carnival is particularly personal to me because of the influence of the steelpan and "engine room" as a part of the genre of soca music that is characteristic of the event/season. Soca music derives from calypso music, and its name is derived from the phrase "(So)ul of (Ca)lypso" which pays homage to the way in which soca is a revival of calypso music in a modern context. The "engine room" refers to the metal percussion section of a steelband, which gets its name from the way in which the rhythms and beats "drive" the genre of soca music. Soca music is characterized as being energetic and upbeat usually associated with jumping, whining, and "chipping" which refers to the act of walking with the slow-moving DJ truck in a sort of dance shuffle.
This year, one of my favourite new soca songs is "Engine Room" by Olatunji because it is a perfect blend of old school and modern soca/calypso music which maintains classic engine room characteristics - such as the beating of the side of the steelpan that is heard at the start of the song, and the occasional steelpan riffs throughout the song.
So essentially, to answer the question, "what is Carnival?" my answer would be that it's a form of expression. It's an expression of creolization, of history, of culture and of what it means to live in a region that is defined by a legacy of slavery, colonialism and struggle for freedom. Today, it's an expression of happiness. An expression of perseverance and a celebration of what it means to be Caribbean especially in a post-colonial context. Above all, it's a time of year to feel-good, enjoy yourself, jump up with your friends and to have a good time!
See you on the road, and stay tuned for next week's Carnival debrief on Sunday!
Until next Sunday,