Carnival & Caribana_ Some Context

Little girl sits beside parade route in Trinidad

I usually don’t go to Caribana in Toronto (Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival.. my bad Scotia.. sigh). it’s not because I have any particular issue with Caribana and I won’t deny it’s importance and influence in the culture I was born into (both of my parents were born and raised in Trinidad) but I would rather observe than participate. I still have never been to Trinidad Carnival (I have family in Trinidad who are quite disappointed in me for this tragic fact).

When I was younger on Saturday I would head to the parade (late) with my people from high school and slowly stroll around the grounds then walk Yonge Street in downtown Toronto until the early hours of the morning, I was too shy to talk to girls that I didn’t already know so it was and exercise in observation, it’s not too different now if I do find myself somewhere around Caribana, but I haven’t actually left my house specifically to go to Caribana in about seven years.

I do however find Carnival fascinating, especially since it’s probably the single most well-known cultural expression to come out of the island both sides of my family is from and is tied directly to Calypso music and all its many different incarnations. Yesterday evening I walked down Yonge Street on my way home and found myself thinking about Carnival. It’s funny that Yonge Street has become just as much a young persons tradition as Afrofest when the sun goes down (you know what i’m talking about). People go out, look their best, blast music out of their cars, men try to talk to women, women look for men they actually want to talk to, some pride/ego driven fights might happen, but it’s generally a good time.

I have many friends who complain about what Caribana is and is not, what it used to be, Scotiabank’s purchase of the whole thing, and the sexual nature of the costumes and interactions that take place during the now largely American festival in Toronto. I know many people who write-off the entire thing but as long as nobody gets hurt or harassed it’s all good as far as I’m concerned (‘harassed’ is a debatable/relative term depending on your desires and intentions for being out in certain places on that day; this is probably not the greatest time for a young woman to be going to HMV to get the latest Cool Kids record if she doesn’t want a certain kind of attention, but that’s an entirely different conversation).

I came home last night thinking of the context of Carnival and did some research and wanted to share. I have always heard that Carnival was a celebration of freedom from enslavement, which of course intrigued me, but I’m not sure this is completely true. The most prevalent explanation is that Carnivals all over the world derive from a tradition based in Catholicism in Italy that involved costumes, masks and festivities before the first day of Lent. Lent is a Catholic religious tradition of fasting for forty days that requires followers to abstain from meat, dairy and in some cases oil and wine. This also requires people to give up other things during their fast that are considered worldly similar to the month of Ramadan in Islamic tradition or the fasts of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The idea of Lent specifically is to abstain from certain worldly things as atonement for ones sins as a reflection of the Gospel stories of Jesus going into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. The ‘Fest Carne Vale” was a celebration of worldly pleasures before Lent began (I guess to get that stuff out of the way before fasting time).

I read a few different explanations of what the word ‘Carnival’ means, they are similar. Some say that it is from the Italian word ‘Carne’ meaning ‘meat’ or ‘flesh’ (the root of the words carnivore meaning ‘meat eater,’ ‘carnal’ which refers to physical especially sexual needs/desires or ‘carnage’ meaning the killing or brutalizing of people’s bodies/flesh) other definitions say the root means ‘to put away meat’ which is what Lent literally asks people to do and still others say it is in reference to “Carrus Navalis” (a ship cart or naval car) which is the Roman name for the ‘Navigium Isidis’ (ship of Isis the ancient Egyptian goddess of motherhood & fertility) where the figure of Isis was carried to the sea to bless the beginning of the sailing season (this festival included a parade of people in masks following an adorned wooden boat similar to the floats of the contemporary Carnivals across the globe).

Carnival was introduced to Trinidad and Tobago in 1785 when the french began to come to the island. The French also had a hand in the world famous Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans (a heavily French city also heavily influenced by the Caribbean with ties to the Haitian Kanaval). The wealthy (slave-owning) planters had lavish balls where they put on masks, wigs and fancy dresses and danced well into the night (alcohol was often involved). Enslaved people would hold their own small festivities in their quarters and in the fields even though they were banned from practicing their traditions, rituals and speaking their folklore. In Trinidad, Haiti and New Orleans former slaves sometimes dawned ridiculous costumes to mock their former masters, making fun of their pomp, wealth and superior attitude. When slavery was abolished in Trinidad in 1838 the freed Africans began hosting Carnival celebrations in the streets to celebrate their freedom openly often taunting and ridiculing their former masters in the process. They played Mas, a short form of the word ‘Masquerade’ and partied in the street. Artistic and cultural traditions like Calypso and J’ouvert emerged out of these celebrations. Of course Calypso music is intimately tied to Carnival as the most prominent and identifiable of Trinidad and Tobago’s musical forms. This film enabled me to understand that I came out of a storytelling and musical tradition that was in line with that of the West African Griot. Below is a little clip of Lord Kitchener and Lord Pretender.

I have to admit that although I appreciated the music of Trinidad it wasn’t until I purchased a documentary called Calypso Dreams that was recommended to me by Itah Sadu from A Different Booklist in Toronto that I really appreciated the art and storytelling of Calypso music in it’s classic form.

Some scholars have argued that Carnival does not have European (Roman/Italian) roots at all. There are African traditions of parading in circles through and around villages in masks and costumes that were believed to bring good fortune to the villagers. Hiram Araújo (a scholar and researcher) argues that researching the origins of Carnival led him to Ancient Egypt four thousand years before Christ. Egyptians would celebrate a good harvest year and were intended to connect Egyptians with the cycles of nature, the universe and the divine though the sacred act of ritual. Three celebrations would happen per every lunar calendar year that involved celebrations (and drunkenness).

There is also the opinion that Carnival dates back to an Ancient Greek spring festival in honor of Dionysus (The God of wine). The Romans took on this celebration with Bacchanalia, a feast to honor Bacchus (most likely where the term ‘Bacchanal’ came from), the Roman equivalent to Dionysis. There was also Saturnalia, where enslaved people and their masters would exchange clothing in a day of drunken celebration that included sex and feasts; this tradition was eventually modified by the Roman Catholic Church into a festival leading up to Ash Wednesday that I mention above.

Whatever the reality of it’s origin Carnival is now all over the world, with some of the most famous happening annually in Trinidad, New York, London and Brazil (Rio & Bahia) as well as Crop over (Barbados), Mari Gras (New Orleans), Carnival, Junkanoo (Bahamas) as well as in Haiti (Kanaval), Toronto (Caribana) and so many other places around the world it is almost impossible to name them.

Boys in Haitian Kanaval from book Kanaval by Leah Gordon

There is so much to Carnival as a cultural practice, a ritual related to spirituality and freedom, as well as all of the art and expression that goes along with it that I wish it still maintained more of those traditions or at least that they were more widely known. I think most people just go to party without any context. Even if some of the traditions are forgotten there is no denying that this celebration of freedom and communal celebration has influenced millions across the world and although I won’t be jumping up personally, I appreciate it’s root and it’s value in bringing people together to celebrate life and freedom in some way.


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