Trinidad Carnival History and Contemporary Practice Term Paper

Pages: 8 (2718 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 7  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Music

Trinidad Carnival:

The Greatest Show on Earth

The Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, celebrated the week before Ashe

Wednesday every year, is among the largest and most popular in the world.

According to the Trinidad and Tobago official website, this annual event is

unrivaled in the world. "There is no experience on earth to compare with

Trinidad Carnival, the oldest and greatest of them all, the mother of all

Carnivals, often imitated, never equaled" (Trinidad & Tobago Official

Website). It would be hard to argue with that. Out of a population of a

little over one million, over 100,000 participants dress up in masquerades,

"singing, dancing, and miming" thus keeping the tradition going strong

through to the present day (Hill 3). Rich in history and a reflection of

its history, the Carnival continues to evolve to the present day with such

additions as Peter Minshall's dancing mobiles. A symbol of freedom, and a

celebration of freedom from slavery, the Trinidad and Tobago Carnivals are

significant to island as a celebration of freedom that is deeply rooted in

the culture of the nation, however Carnival is not merely a celebration but

also an outlet for commentary on the important issues affecting Trinidad.

Trinidad's history has had a great influence on its Carnival, as the

influence of history through the years has continuously shaped the

Carnival. Trinidad was discovered by Columbus in 1498 and ruled by Spain

for 300 years as an extremely "underdeveloped" possession (Cowley 9). InDownload full Download Microsoft Word File
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the late 18th century, Charles III decided to "rejuvenate" the colonies and

invited Catholics to settle the colony resulting in French planters

bringing slaves to work on new estates (Cowley 9). This policy, enacted in

1783, helped to increase the small population of the islands, yet the

island remained sparsely populated, but this did help to entrench a French

culture in Trinidad (Cowley 1985). The French held "elaborate masked balls"

and despite the British takeover in 1797, the French culture remained

Term Paper on Trinidad Carnival History and Contemporary Practice Assignment

dominant (Gilkes 2003). This French culture was the result of the slaves

being born in French islands and having a combination of an African,

French, and Caribbean amalgam of culture was not diluted with the arrival

of new slaves from Africa (Cowley 10). These developments beginning in

1783 marked "a development of great consequence in the history of the

island and to the institution of carnival" as the historical development

set the stage for the creation of Carnival in Trinidad (Hill 7).

As Trinidad began to develop as a multicultural island, the social

conditions behind the population growth would influence the origins of

Carnival. As tight regulations kept social and racial classes separate,

those of African descent would create a parallel society that reflected the

culture of the white elite class (Cowley 11). Africans would use

celebrations to express discontent with social divisions, an example being

the Shand Estate Revolt of Christmas 1805 as festivals during holidays

would be an opportunity for cultural and political expression. The most

significant event, however, was the abolishment of slavery in 1834 that

created a class of 22,000 free men and the subsequent immigration of new

people from China, the United States, and the African coast (Hill 9).

Following the freeing of the slaves, Carnivals erupted in Trinidad and

Tobago as, according to a letter written during the time, "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," which reflects on the growth in

street celebrations after the slaves were freed (Gilkes 2003). Coupled

with the tradition of masquerade balls, Christmas celebrations, French

influence from New Orleans celebrations, and socially motivated reasons to

celebrate, the historical atmosphere of Trinidad set the stage for a rich

Carnival culture.

It was after emancipation that Carnival continued to proliferate and

the black presence in Trinidad continued to express its dissatisfaction for

the white establishment. Although ritualistic celebrations were prevalent

since the days of French immigration to Trinidad, it was after the

abolition of slavery that Carnival began to assume "the role of satirical

parody and other rituals associated with the masquerade, in both European

and African settings" (Cowley 1985). This indicates the influence of both

African and European customs on the Trinidad Carnival and military bands

became an institution of Carnival (Hill 14). At this point, there was a

wide range of influence on the Carnival between competing Creole masquerade

bands, mocking of European customs, and stick fighting which was probably

of African origin (Hill 25). The use of molasses, for example, to cover

the body was one adopted custom that was a freedom symbol used in

masquerade (Hill 24). Racial tensions were still prevalent as the Carnival

celebrators maintained as sense of their African heritage. A key event in

1881 illustrates the tension as a new commander, Captain Baker, took over

the police force to be tougher on the celebrations. During the popular

Canboulay celebrations which celebrated the burning of the canes on slave

plantations which would unite slaves after they put out the fires, the

Carnival celebrators carried torches through the streets against Baker's

wishes. Rioters then clashed with police and despite the violence the

Carnival continued (Gilkes 2003). They then mocked the police in future

celebrations as tensions between the authorities and those celebrating

would continue throughout the 19th century. Ultimately, the Trinidad

Carnival was influenced by its history as a slave plantation island and the

social and racial tensions would contribute to the practice of Carnival.

Even after emancipation, the issues of slavery and racism were still being

expressed and celebrated and maintained a presence in Carnival parades and


An important addition to Trinidad Carnival around this time was the

calypso. Originating from West African slaves who were forced to use song

to communicate and mock their slave masters, Calypso developed over the

years and became an integral part of Carnival. Present in masquerade since

1838, it came to be a term to define a Trinidad carnival song (Hill 61).

These songs often took on political meanings, as one such song "Majouba

Hill" referred to the Boer War as marchers dressed as an attacking army

"led by their calypsonian" (Hill 61). Although the marchers remained loyal

the crown, there were increased restrictions over the years placed on

celebrations. It is in this context that in the late 19th century and turn

of the 20th that calypso became more significant as it assumed its name and

adopted the English language. Calypsonians began to compose lyrics in

advance as the carnival developed. Competitions began as Calypsonians

became to be recognized for their costumes. An example is Richard Coer de

Leon who represented English history in his song and was noted for his

elaborate costume as he sang his version of history backed by a choir (Hill

64). These satiric songs became a feature of Trinidad Carnival, although

not necessarily unique to Trinidad. Important to the Carnival in tradition

and ceremony, often rivalries would exist between bands of masqueraders and

this tradition continues to this day (Cowley 1985). Calypso took on an

increased political meaning over the years, and often singers would be

forced to be enigmatic in their lyrics. In the 1930s, for example, there

was a "return of police censorship of the calypso (Hill 67). However, the

Calypso remained an important aspect of the Carnival, not only for its

entertainment value which was very high, but for its storytelling,

political influence, and the individual "point of view of the life

experience" expressed in its lyrics (Hill 68).

Steel bands are another important characteristic of Trinidad Carnival

as they are a famous aspect of the Carnival. Steel bands began using "an

odd assortment of discarded metal" and evolved over the years to play

musical notes in a scale (Hill 48-50). Very early in its inception, steel

bands were used for political celebrations, such as the 1945 celebration of

victory in World War II (Hill 49). However, because there were

restrictions on street celebrations during the war, these celebrations

immediately returned the previous problems of struggles between police and

masqueraders. As the authorities tried to shut down the steel drummers,

and as it was looked down as a form of music because of its use of

nontraditional instruments, there was a movement to stop the processions.

This created a small and rabid group to support the panmen and measures

against them began to ease (Hill 51). In 1949 panmen were further

legitimized as a national steel band selected the best panmen to perform in

Great Britain (Hill 51). Developed from the bamboo drums used by Africans,

the steelpan became an influential aspect of Carnival and it is presently

celebrated today. Steelbands had to overcome obstacles in more recent

times, as there was a stigma attached to them. An original steel panman,

Norman Darway maintains that it took political statement to help legitimize

the steel drum music as Silver Stars… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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