This time next week, I’ll be in the midst of the bacchanal that is Jouvay. Jouvay is truth in a way that nothing else can be.
So as I get my heart and mind ready for this week, I’m reflecting on my Jouvay truths. My love for Trinidad and Carnival and art.

Our own rape culture

How yuh jammin so?
Like yuh feelin hot or what?
Mr, why grinin so
You come out to jump or not
Every time yuh swing yuh hand
Yuh bounce mih tot tot or mih butt
You behaving just like if you want to eat me
Right here on the spot

How Yuh Jammin so, Mighty Sparrow

The roar of anguish coming from the women of India echoes and ripples around the world. It took the death of a 23-year-old for some members of Indian society to sit up and begin to confront a situation that is tacitly accepted around the world, even by those of us who think we are all modern and progressive and cool about sex.

It is a double-edged sword that the filmi fantasies of the purity of love between Indian men and women that some of us in the West hold have been shattered by the savagery of the five rapists’ act. But it doesn’t mean that we are any closer to confronting the fact that rape culture is as pervasive as capitalism.

We will happily sign a petition demanding that they do something about rape in India. Meanwhile the broadcasting of the sexual abuse of an Ohio girl is not as much of a news item as Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy. It’s time for us to put away another myth about Indian women: that of the submissive, shrinking violet who accepts her fate meekly and quietly.

I see the images of women raising sticks against the police trying to stop their peaceful protests. I read the stories of Phoolan Devi the Bandit Queen. About the Pink Sari gang defending the environment. About the hundreds of women of Koondakoolam who have stood up to the Government and international corporations trying to build a nuclear reactor in their backyards and I don’t need any more convincing that Indian women are anything but passive.

The women who have taken to the streets are demanding not just justice for the late Damini but also a change in the perception of what it is to be a woman. The extreme positions of goddess or whore. Because women are not supposed to either enjoy sex or choose who they want their sexual partners to be or, heaven forbid, defy the demands of the man to whom she “belongs.”

To those of us who watch on from the West, all smug in our post-modern liberation, what are we going to do about rape culture in our own backyards? How have we sought to question the way that our own bodies are treated?

Who wants to have a conversation about dismantling patriarchy? Who wants to confront the fact that whether or not you think the Prime Minister is good at her job or not, the criticism of her is always bordering on disturbingly sexist and overbearingly sexual? Who wants to talk to their young people about sex? Who wants to change the warning issued by generations of parents: “when ah leggo mih cock yuh better tie up yuh hen”?

Who wants to take on the thinking behind the bizarre comments of the Deputy Commissioner of Police blaming teenage girls for the increase in sexual offences. I’m no longer willing to accept that rape culture is part of the burden women have to bear and surely somebody with a little bit of sense needs to tell Mervyn Richardson that the way to address sexual offences is not to start by blaming girls for filing reports.

I thought we’d come a long way from denying that young people are being abused. I thought we would be at the point where we would be trying to deconstruct the psychology of why young women are only able to value their sexuality as a commodity that they can trade to get the material possessions that this society says they need to have to matter.

Every Carnival we get a slew of advertisements and articles admonishing women about what to do to avoid being raped or attacked on the streets. Don’t go off by yourself, they say. Don’t accept drinks from strangers. Women are always expected to take responsibility for their actions. Where are the campaigns addressed to the men?

Where are the campaigns challenging backward notions of masculinity? Where are the boofs for men to man up and stop raping women? Why are we raising women to be victims and men to be aggressors? The idea of ownership of your body is perhaps one of the most radical ideas that a woman could ever have. And I don’t mean choosing to wear a wire bra to play mas.

Maybe one day we’ll stop seeing rape culture as somebody else’s problem. Maybe one day we too will take to the streets for all the Daminis in our communities who are too terrified to report their own sexual offences for the fear of being blamed by a society that is still to scared to talk honestly about sex.

Walking the Talk

jouvaywillah

I come from the land of chance
Where man does do dey dragon dance
And cross the waters of destiny
Builders of a legacy
Out of nutting
They still dared and dreamed to be something
Shining bright for the world to see
Everyday we walk
Where these giants walk
Everyday we walk de walk
But still we can’t walk de talk
—Giants, 3Canal

It is midday on Carnival Monday and I am only just walking home from the best J’Ouvert ever. Hoping if I stayed out to wring all the possible enjoyment out of the morning. In the stark light of noon I imagine I look like a misplaced jumbie who has lost her way back to the other realm where no one minds if your face is a mosaic of mud and purple blue green. I am at my freakish best, but it’s Carnival and the road is for everyone now. I do not combust under the stares of the pretty mas girls who jiggle past me, their beads making shh shh noises. The mud and paint make a pasty moustache with the obscenely expensive coconut water. But I don’t mind. Because I have just had the best J’Ouvert ever and nothing else matters as I try to savour every memory of the hours before dawn.Walking into the sunrise and feeling that electric connection to everything and everyone. You forget fear and your uncrunched abdominal muscles.
There is no separation between sacred and profane. Everything is everything. A wine is still a wine and between your friends and the strangers and the tourists and the vagrants you find your humanity. You too drag in the canal. You climb walls and find your balance. You jump and spin and catch an old familiar power. You shout into the coming dawn. Look mih! You have no mirror to see your state. You imagine you look like the people around you. Absolutely stink. You fall in love with Trinidad and yourself again. It is perfect in its grossness. Like birth. Magical and horrible at the same time. Essential and unavoidable. It is midday on Carnival Monday and I am thinking already about how long I have to wait to be in this place of bliss again. And I wish I could do it all over again on Tuesday morning, but this is not to be so. More than one J’Ouvert might send the country more mad.

I walk through the Savannah. Listening to Carnival living around me. Past tired. Past happiness and misery, in a J’Ouvert state of mind. I am still thinking about Monday morning on Tuesday, on the streets, playing a protest mas. We are playing contemporary cow mas, walking on familiar roads with new swagger. My placard says there is too much at steak. We are enough to distract spectators and revellers from the endless waves of feathers, beads, silicone, high-heeled boots. We are enough to make people smile and want to take pictures with our absurd placards. We are going for the title of Best Unregistered Band because Carnival brings out our competitive spirit. We moo and stampede at will. There is no rope around us and we make our own music.  steak
We are liking ourselves in our little band. Because I guess we all end up playing ourselves at Carnival. A bigger, brighter version of ourselves. How we imagine we would be if we had the vision and the fortitude. It is the time when we actually manage to walk our talk. Walking across the Savannah on Tuesday night, past the traffic and the sound of Carnival dying all around, I am thankful for the opportunity to walk my talk. To take this idea of myself a little further. At midnight the silence comes, covering the Belmont Community Centre where Rasta bredrin and sistren begin to skank on tiptoe. No more frenzied feting sounds. No more pan sounds. No more late night speeding up the avenue hoping that no-one followed you home sounds. The Carnival is over and now the sleep that I was avoiding, does not want to come. So I lie in bed and I listen to the 3 am nothingness. Wondering how to walk my talk without having to wait another 365 days.

Carnival lives again

They don’t know their worth
Like they haven’t a sense of value
They don’t know their rights
Even that they cannot argue
Three quarter of a million people
Cannot get up and do something bout de struggle
But to plan the next holiday
To fete their lives away
And forgetting that they own the soil
Of which their foreparents toil
For the people who form constitution laws
For the oppressors and foreign investors
Trinidad is nice
Trinidad is a paradise

Trinidad is Nice, Brother Valentino

It is dawn on Carnival Friday and behind the bridge I watch the mother carré. The air is electric with a thousand bittersweet memories of mas and pan and fight and satire and wining. In this moment Carnival is everything it can possibly be. In this perfect moment before the light shines too bright on the pile of garbage to the left. Shines too bright on the rubble of houses rising up the hills behind me.

Carnival lives in this moment. In a state of suspended animation. Barely there but enough to keep you hopeful that somehow it will lift itself out of this non-being. Carnival lives. As both saint and sinner. Our last redemption and our worst imaginable flaw. I watch this Canboulay in the company of my Bishop’s Rasta sistren and my Mohawk Indian bredrin. We know all the songs. We remember these steps and these rhythms from other times. And solidarity is a thing that we live and not just allege to care about in public. The sky is getting light and I am thinking of Guadeloupe going through their own Canboulay riots now.

And how easy it is for us to ignore it. To not even know and understand or remember what it is like to fight for what you believe in. Where one person is dead and many injured. Peaceful civil disobedience since December turned into a clash between the people demanding fair wages and access to resources and the state. But we welcome the King of Spain and celebrate the fact that it was Spain that funded Columbus’ adventures. I wonder if anybody bothered to ask the local indigenous community how they felt about the King of Spain’s coming. If they were interested in demanding an apology for Spain’s past sins.

In Guadeloupe where the difference between French colony and French department comes into sharp relief with the rising cost of basic items, most of which are imported from France. Some sit back and watch their history played out before them. One man in the stands understands the desire to fight. He jumps up and starts to shout, “This is real! This is history!” In his mind, perhaps there is no difference between past and present. In truth it can be 1881 again. Fed-up people again. Oppressors in the governor’s ball again. Masqueraders being told they can’t harass the tourists for money, although what is the devil without his demand for tribute?

My mind is wandering in a way that reflects no sleep for 24 hours.
Because it is Carnival and it is time to keep vigil. To forget the caress of the cool side of a pillow on your cheek. Carnival lives in a way that, despite the feeling of drowning in a sea of bikinis and beads, I want to hold on to this electric revolutionary feeling. Sending Canboulay energy to Guadeloupe. To keep them strong and focused. To have victory over their oppressors, the ones that don’t look like them, and for us to have victory over our own oppressors, particularly those that look like us.

Carnival lives again. In spite of regulation and parameters. And if it is to survive, then it is up to the jamettes and the dispossessed and the too weird to be included to reclaim the Carnival. To bring back the underbelly. Bring back the resistance and defiance of the all-inclusive. To stage our own versions of Dame Lorraine balls and plan our own confrontation with our Captain Bakers. But it is Carnival Friday morning and before you know it, it is here and gone and you are left bruised and breathless and not quite sure what to do with yourself.

Flag Woman of Class

When yuh see she get that fever
Is plenty trouble
Whether youse a saint or sinner
You bound to wiggle
Aiya yai ayai ayai
—Flag Woman, Lord Kitchenertwflag2

I am standing in the middle of the street. Where the roads make a perfect cross. Marking the spot where I clear a path for Phase II Pan Groove to enter the Savannah. This is a piece of madness that is exceptional even for me. I am neither dancer nor sexy in that heavy T bumper kind of way nor do I possess any recognizable aura of Matador woman.

It is 15 or so minutes since I first held the flag. It is a red satiny one with zig zag letters, announcing the name of the band that I grew up listening to, committing whole arrangements to memory. I never wanted to learn to play but instead to drown myself inside music that is the sweetest pain. It has all happened rather fast. I go from hoping to get a bligh on the track, purely for documentary purposes to clearing a path for the band through the thousands of pan lovers gathered in this sacred space. It’s too late to turn back now.

To flake out or let the doubts that have been shouting at me all day lead me back home, chastened by the prospect of all those people judging my non-existent flag-waving skills. I am standing at the crossroads of fear and insanity trying to make a rational decision about the way to go. The regular flag man has a wild look in his eyes. He is concerned about my path-clearing skills. He shows me once. And then again. I am confused. He shows me again and I think I might have it. We start up the track. I hold the flag high over my head, my long arms coming to good use for once and all those months of warrior salutations finally paying off.

The flag is red, green and gold now. The flap of it in the light breeze is all that I can hear, as if my mind has managed to turn down the volume in the Savannah. I am clearing a path smooth and wide. People read the flag. They decide to stay a little longer. Linger on the track to hear the Panorama champs. Sister-friends hover close by. Offering water and words of encouragement. They still can’t believe that I am going to do this. In a way neither do I.

The truth is, this whole flag woman thing started off as a Facebook status update joke that spiralled wildly out of my own control. My inner jammette is at rest as I walk up the track. All day on Sunday I have been paralysed by various fears. Fears that I have neither the skill nor the gumption to do it. Fears that I will confuse liberation with objectification and end up with some convoluted radical feminist crisis of conscience that will spoil the whole damn thing. Really though, I am most scared that I will fall off the stage, drop the flag or the flag will get wrapped around itself and I won’t be able to get it flying again.

We press on, up the track, the moon full and daring me to keep going. The stage comes into view. NCC officials urge us forward. Next thing you know, I am walking onto the stage. The lights from the hills wink reassuringly. I was born to do this. The mother is somewhere in the audience. I smile as I remember how she likes to relate to me that I walked long after I was supposed to. But when I did, the first place I got lost was in the Savannah at Panorama time. The Boy gives me five and I am glad for the last bit of energy we exchange through our palms.

They are begging supporters to come off the stage. My inner jammette is preening, chipping, rolling up and out of me and I am not sure whether it is still me, me self there or some other woman. Someone surer of herself and her body. Someone more beautiful and poised and graceful. I use my flag-woman influence to push the crowds back. They smile and agree. The lights come up and Boogsie rings out a magic drum timing on the racks. I am pointer woman and path clearer. I am water and light and pure flag woman energy. Sure and strong and so happy to be in this magic moment.

Silence in the Land

Dey trying to blow mih mind
They want me to walk and wine
I cah take dis ting at all
They want me to jump and bawl.

—What’s Going On,
Mighty Shadow

Not a person in the Strand clapped. There were a few hundred people there although the opening night of Kaiso House tent was by no stretch of anyone’s imagination packed. They had clapped and called back twice for Marvellous Marva’s scathing commentary on belt-tightening. They had clapped and called for more of Sharlan Bailey’s brilliant Faking Evil, a thoughtful and humorous exposé on wannabe gangsters. But when MC Sheldon John called for a round of applause for the Government, the room was so quiet you could hear the ministers squirm.

Later that night I read more about the collapse of the Icelandic Government to the rhythmic sounds of pot hitting economists and tree huggers and about protests in France and excitement about the spreading tides of dissatisfaction that is bringing people into the streets. About belt-tightening the world over, even in Davos, Switzerland—where this week the world’s richest countries and companies gather to congratulate each other, under the glare of melting alpine glaciers—the mood is somber and those gathered are reported as saying the worst is yet to come. I remember the silence of the Strand and I wonder if that is a sign that perhaps Trinis are reaching a stage of fedupcy.

The artists have always been the most committed protesters. A few of them at least, not getting caught up with party cards and lucrative advertising deals. Those who have managed to stay true to their message are still ketching their nen nen, but remain dread and lovely. After the silence and the intermission the ministers slip out. They have done their ministerial duty and taken enough calypsonians pointing up in their faces that have that same expression you see on social people who come out to watch J’Ouvert only to get vex when a stinking jab jab comes and wines all over their nice pants.

Perhaps the calypsonians will give us our testicular fortitude back. Perhaps the next time we will not stay silent. Like we stayed silent on the deregulation of the quarry industry, or we stay silent on rapid monetisation of natural resources when the wise energy people say it’s worth more to us in the ground than dragging it out vie ki vie for every little Tom, Dick and Alcoa that comes around. Shadow puts his hands out and asks us, “what going on?” We jump and ray and love him for the sweetness of his voice. We take the question as rhetorical.

The answer comes two days later when I am rushed into a taxi by a big woman frantic in that laidback aggressive way that Trinis can be—as if what they have to do is much more important than the rest of us. Urging the driver to get going and not wait for one more passenger. It is a rainy Friday afternoon and the woman next to me is multi-tasking conversations. She chats on the phone about going to find out if her money is jumping up in the CL Financial collapse and the rest of the car comments. Shocked oh gawds fill the car as everyone thinks about their own two pennies they’ve been scrimping and saving.

The driver offers his own experience in the matter. He’s already taken in front and removed his own money from one of the big banks. Fear has come home and the far-off sounding credit crunch is circling like La Basse corbeaux. In-between the nervous laughter and the banter about money, the radio announcer breaks the monotony of the endless ads for Carnival fetes to say they’re waiting to go live to the Central Bank for a special press conference. Before the Governor has a chance to hold his press conference the woman has disem-barked.

In a show of solidarity, the driver sends her on her way although she can’t remember paying her $4. She goes into the rain and uncertainty, I can only imagine, her heart in her throat. I don’t know how much money she has saved, how she planned to use it, the dreams she has for her children. We fall silent. Silence is the only comfort we can find as the radio announcer cuts in again to say they’re still waiting for the Governor. A pregnant pause in a nation story. We fall silent because there is nothing to say that we haven’t all thought a thousand times.
The calm before the storm. I hear Shadow, plaintive and sweet. What going on? There is no one there to volunteer an answer.

The Bacchanal Now Start

They cah stop the bacchanal

They cah stop the festival

Nutting cah stop the carnival

Because tis the season to wine

Hold someting and wine

Hold somebody and wine

I telling yuh

Wining Season, Machel Montano

Who needs to play mas when there are people playing it on TV for us? A big big mas. Even before Carnival Monday and Tuesday. This kind of mas is the one to beat all cockfight. This kind of mas is even more exclusive than all the bikini bands with rope around them charging more money for a miniscule piece of cloth than most Trinbagonians stand to make for the first three months of the year. Only certain people could play this kind of mas. Big, high people playing a big big mas they call the Commission of Enquiry. And the rest of the country like burrokeets, getting ridden through the badly paved roads. The rest of the country could only play a donkey mas while their money jumping up like so many soca fans in a big fete. But who needs Carnival in this place where leaders could play mas with democracy? Watch the whole thing unfold like a Minshall tableau on the now gone Savannah stage. Watch the whole thing move in slow motion with high falutin’ Pierrot speechifiying in big English accent. Watch lawyers carré, dance a big dance with your money. Hear the Professor dreaden them like a King Kootoo doing a bluest devil jook. This is a big big mas and you don’t even need the jackass costume they give you. All you need to do is sit down and watch. Because this is real mas in all it’s mind boggling shiny splendour. This is mas in yuh masses. And sometimes you have to look twice because you not sure if it is a masquerade or mass hysteria, or masturbation. You not sure if to laugh or cry at how your leaders wining down on your right to know what they do with your money. You not sure if this is serious or just more entertainment. You not sure if you’re supposed to get vex and start to riot or hold your head and wine down low, lower than the price of oil. You not sure if all this bacchanal and long reports on the nightly news is just to distract you from the fact that we now have a budget deficit and we not getting anywhere near the proper royalties for natural gas. This big mas and noise come like last Carnival when the big sequins band push the 90-year-old blind Midnight Robber out of the way. Because this mas is the mas to beat all cockfight. Meanwhile Alcoa reported a 929 million US dollar loss and pull up brakes on several of their smelter projects in Iceland. Environmentalists breathing a sigh of relief that the economic decline has saved them from more unnecessary destruction of Europe’s last remaining wilderness. Meanwhile they just laid off 250 bauxite workers in Jamaica, because the global price of aluminum has plummeted so drastically. Meanwhile Rio Tinto Alcan just announced the closure of their Angelesey smelter in Wales, the largest single energy user in all of Great Britain. 14,000 jobs gone there to reduce capital spending by £5 billion.Meanwhile a decision is expected in the case against Alutrint this month, which has been in court since October, without so much as a sideways glance from the media. But aluminum is just as much of a nice mas as Udecott. Definitely not as sexy. Environment and mineral resources and small communities being bullied off their land is not as sexy. It not ready for the big stage yet. Let that stay on the back burners. Let us focus on the bigger better, louder, shinier mas. Because this mas is much more important. This mas is affecting the bottom line of many people who thought they were going to be getting a lot more out of this government. This mas is about the elite—some black skins in white masks, some wild Indians, some foreign drunken sailors on shore leave looking for Jean and Dinah in the construction industry. And all of them want to protect their bottom line and their right to wine. Meanwhile the lack of investigative journalists means the government could continue to play mas with the global financial crisis and say what they want without anybody bothering to question their robber talk. The bacchanal now start. But from the look of things, this masquerade will never end.