Carnival – Partying for the right to fight.

Around the world this week carnival celebrations are taking place. Dave Randall looks back at how carnivals developed as acts of political defiance, and argues that we should all bring the politics back to our parties – and the parties back to our politics.

Photo: Lucy Angell John

Photo: Lucy Angell John

Aside from the moving corporate celebration of buttock shaped hearts and red roses, February is all about Pancake Day. At least that’s what I thought as I grew up under the grey winter skies of South East Essex. But on becoming an adult and moving to London I learned that the same day takes rather different forms in other latitudes. As kitchens here are crammed with eager tossers, millions of people elsewhere take to the streets for carnival. Last year I decided to give my frying pan the night off and travel to the home of one of the world’s largest carnivals – the Caribbean island of Trinidad – to find out more. I discovered that carnival’s many rich traditions arise directly from a clash between oppressed people determined to reclaim some time, space and pleasure in their lives and a ruling class who fear them.

My education began at Port of Spain’s ‘Carnival Village’, where I met Barry, an elderly and rather irascible representative of Trinidad and Tobago’s steel pan union. On discovering my nationality I saw a glint appear in his eye. It came, I soon learned, not from any fondness for the British but rather from thoughts of a much celebrated riot against them.

The tradition of pre-lent masquerade, he began, arrived on the island with French ‘planters’ forced from Haiti by the revolution of 1791–1804. Predictably, slaves were excluded from the festivities. Following the formal ending of slavery in the 1830s the former slaves and other workers decided to make their own parallel celebration called ‘Canboulay’. Barry speculated that the term came from the French cannes brulées, meaning burnt cane. People would set fire to the crop that symbolised their oppression and parade into town in celebration. Masks were worn partly to help disguise identities, thwarting ruler’s attempt to pick out individuals for retribution. When the authorities prohibited the wearing of masks, mud and paint were used instead. (To this day, carnival goers cover themselves in mud and paint during the J’ouvert [day break] procession). The musical origins of carnival lay in West African ‘kaiso’; narrative songs led by griots or ‘chantwells’, long used by slaves to mock their oppressors.

Unsurprisingly the plantocracy hated Canboulay, seeing it as a a powerful symbolic challenge to their authority. A report commissioned in the 1840s concluded:

We will not dwell on the disgusting and indecent scenes that were enacted in our streets – we will not say how many we saw in a state so nearly approaching nudity as to outrage decency and shock modesty…but we will say at once that the custom of keeping Carnival by allowing the lower order of society to run about the streets in wretched masquerade belongs to other days, and ought to be abolished in our own.

Over the next decades more and more legal restrictions were imposed on carnival until, in 1881, the British colonial rulers tried to stop it outright. Captain Baker and his troops violently rounded on the crowd with truncheons, but people fought back leading to the infamous Canboulay riot. After several hours of clashes, the police were forced to retreat and carnival was saved.

Ruling class opinion was divided about what the next move should be. An investigation by R G Hamilton for the colonial office in London advised:

However objectionable some of the features of carnival are, I believe it is looked forward to as the only holiday of the year by a large number of the working population of the town, who derive amusements from it and I think to stop it altogether would be a measure that would justly be regarded as harsh and might lead to serious dissatisfaction on the part of the working classes.[1]

Rulers finally agreed to try a new strategy in 1883, banning not the procession, but its musical heartbeat; the djembe style ‘skin drum’. Musicians responded creatively, reasoning that if drums were prohibited they would simply find an alternative. They set about exploring the percussive qualities of an abundant natural resource on the island; bamboo. It seemed that different lengths and thicknesses produced different tones when banged on the ground and hit with a piece of hard wood. Bamboo groups, or ‘tamboo bamboo’ (from ‘tambour’ – French for drum) soon became the sound of carnival across the island. Players tended to come from the rougher parts of town and running street battles between groups were commonplace. But it’s unlikely that public safety was uppermost in the minds of the authorities when in 1934, they stepped in again, this time to ban the tamboo bamboo.

Trinidadian calls for self-rule and universal suffrage had been growing throughout the first decades of the 20th century. Troops were sent to break a strike by dockers in 1919 and with the hardships of the great depression being felt by the islanders through the 1930s, more militant nationalist voices were coming to the fore. The colonial regime became nervous and sought to curtail any excuse for people to take to the streets, fearful as to how things might escalate in the increasingly politicised atmosphere. The outbreak of World War II provided them with a pretext to ban carnival altogether. Musicians bided their time, exploring possible alternatives to bamboo.

When the US joined the war its navy commandeered large parts of Trinidad, littering the island with huge numbers of oil drums. In slum areas such as Laventille in East Port of Spain, musicians got to work, the more attentive of whom noticed that the tone produced at the start of a playing session changed as the drum became dented. Over time a tuning system developed and something similar to the now familiar tuned steel pan was revealed to amazed revellers at Trinidad’s Victory in Europe day celebrations in 1945.

The much loved steel pan – one of the few acoustic instruments to have been invented in the 20th century – exists only because of the creativity and determination of ordinary people facing political repression. The instrument symbolises our indefatigable desire to express ourselves through music.

The story Barry told me would be remarkable enough if it ended there. But he went on to describe how an all-star delegation of pan players were sent to represent the culture of Trinidad and Tobago at the Festival of Britain in 1951, starting a love affair with the instrument in ‘the mother country’. Britons swooned at the sound of the steel pan orchestra and radio broadcasts and a three week tour were hastily arranged. In a decision that would change the cultural history of the capital, one member of the orchestra, Sterling Betancourt, decided to make London his home. Betancourt taught pan to jazz musician Russell Henderson who promptly formed The Russell Henderson Steel Band. One August bank holiday in 1964, a year after Trinidad and Tobago gained independence, the band was invited to perform at a street party in West London. It had been organised Rhuane Laslett, a Ladbroke Grove based social worker and community activist. She wanted to provide a fun day out for local children whose parents couldn’t afford to take them on holiday. Lloyd Bradley described the modest affair:

Far from being any sort of Caribbean celebration, it was simply about the area itself…the children who attended were a junior United Nations of English, Polish, Irish, African, Russian, Portuguese and West Indian. The entertainment laid on for them was equally varied, including a donkey cart donated by market traders from Portobello Market, an African drummer with an elephant’s foot drum…a clown, a box of false moustaches and the Russell Henderson Steel Band. [2]

At some point the pan men decided to lead an impromptu procession through the surrounding streets. As Russell Henderson recalled:

It was real exciting and people were swept up with it, so we just kept on going… It was
like we were Pied Pipers; the police did nothing because they thought if they stopped us there might be trouble. A lot of English people joined it too, most of them were happy to see it, but some didn’t know what it was – they saw so many West Indians on a parade like this and they thought it was a demonstration. They were shouting at us ‘What have you got to demonstrate about? If you want to complain go back to your own country!’ The thing was in those days we did go on demonstrations, we used to go on Ban the Bomb marches, and when they come up from Aldermaston we
used to join in at Kensington and go up to Hyde Park with them. So some people thought this was the steel band doing a demonstration again. [3]

From those spontaneous steps would grow the annual Notting Hill Carnival – now the largest street festival in the northern hemisphere attracting over a million revellers. Steel pan orchestras remain central to the celebrations. How many of the party people know, I wonder, that the event owes its very existence to a more or less unbroken sequence of acts of political defiance and ingenuity stretching back to the Haitian revolution of 1791?

Carnivals around the world continue to be politically contested spaces. Authorities try to restrict, sanitise and depoliticise every festival of the oppressed. Multi-national companies, some of whom make huge profits by extracting the natural resources of those same once colonised countries, attempt to win favour with the people by sponsoring stages or steel bands. A traditional part of carnival is the masked procession, or ‘mas’. Sponsorship of carnival, it seems to me, has become a key corporate PR tactic: an opportunity to create, if you will, masks of corporate benevolence. We need to challenge their attempts to conceal their agenda and co-opt carnival. We need to remember and revive carnival’s radical roots.

An interesting initiative launched by some of the organisers of the Trinidad carnival is a now annual theatrical reenactment by local students and volunteers of the Canboulay riot. It takes place in the early hours of the morning near to the scene of the original riot. A heavy armed police presence and overhead police helicopter lend the performance a contemporary realism. Lovers of carnival elsewhere should take note. We must all bring the politics back to our parties – and the parties back to our politics. When ordinary people take over the streets in celebration, our collective confidence and spirit of defiance grows. So as you tuck into your pancakes on Tuesday, be inspired by the thought of all those who are taking to the streets. Theirs has been a long fight for the right to party, and they party for the right to fight.


[1] J. Cowley, Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso. Traditions in the making. p.2.
[2] L. Bradley, Sound Like London 100 years of black music in the capital, p.79.
[3] L. Bradley, Sound Like London 100 years of black music in the capital, p.82.

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