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.

What Caricom did next….

It is especially repugnant that the ruling ignores the 2005 judgement made by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) that the Dominican Republic adapt its immigration laws and practices in accordance with the provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights. The ruling also violates the Dominican Republic’s international human rights obligations. Furthermore, the ruling has created an environment where, with the abrogation of rights that flow from citizenship, arbitrariness can flourish as illustrated by recent media reports of the forced deportation to Haiti of persons claiming to be Dominican and with no linguistic or familial ties to that country.

 – Caricom Statement on Dominican Republic’s citizenship ruling.

Last night I attended an impromptu audience with Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves who was in Trinidad for the Heads of Government Meeting at which they finally made their statement condemning the shocking and racist court ruling in the Dominican Republic against Haitian descended Dominicans.

The meeting was hosted by Jouvay Ayiti – a Trinidad based collective dedicated to addressing the question of Haiti through what Rawle Gibbons described last night as the ‘mechanism of mas’.

Jouvay – the opening of Carnival celebrated in several islands across the Caribbean- has always been a point of protest and social commentary in Trinidad.

So the choice to use mas as a means of confronting our past, present and future engagement with Haiti is not only valid it is vital.

Jouvay Ayiti first responded to the DR question on November 6, with a mas action in Port of Spain. This was followed up with a petition sent to Caricom.

Meanwhile it’s taken over two months for a statement to come from Caricom and it is largely, I am inclined to believe after last night’s audience with the SVG PM, due to his agitations. He even joked about the similarity in the language of the Caricom’s statement and the letters he sent to the DR’s  on October 11 and another on November 11 (neither of which has received a response to date).

As Angelique V Nixon points out in her article on Groundation Grenada, Haitians are also regularly discriminated against and deported from the Bahamas.

The Bahamas — somewhat like the DR’s new ruling — also denies rights to the children of migrants, the difference being that children of migrants do have access to birth citizenship rights, which they have to apply for at 18. However, this process can take years, especially if one does not have access to legal assistance. Unlike the DR, Haitian Bahamians do have the right to stay in the country until they turn 18. However, many Haitian Bahamians remain stateless after 18 because of the difficulty in securing their status. On top of the legal challenges that Haitians and Haitian Bahamians deal with, they are socially stigmatized — from slurs and stereotypes to poor treatment at public clinics and hospitals, Haitian people bear much blame for a variety of social ills in Bahamian society. When times are rough, tourism is down, crime is on the rise, or people get laid off, Haitians are the scapegoats for everyone’s troubles and strapped resources. This resonates eerily with what has happened in the Dominican Republic, and I offer this comparison to remind us of the vulnerable position in which many Haitian migrants find themselves — not only in the DR but also elsewhere in the region.

Gonsalves openly stated last night that he disagreed with Caricom’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach. He read the two strongly worded letters he sent to Medina and also the letter he sent to Venezuela’s  Maduro, calling on him to consider suspending them from the Petrocaribe agreement.

So aside from threats of suspension from Cariforum and CELAC, the Petrocaribe issue is probably going to be a defining factor in the outcome of this regional embarrassment.

Money talks, after all.

And in as much as I am glad that Caricom has finally found  voice and interest enough to make a statement (Norman Girvan in introducing Gonsalves last night said it was the first time he could feel proud of the Community) I’m still concerned about issues of free movement in the Caribbean. 

Since the issuing of this statement, the planned talks between Haitiian President Michel Martelly and a high profile team of officials from the Dominican Republic have fallen through.

So what comes next? Aside from the threat of sanctions and diplomatic snubbing how are we really going to start to address institutional and other types of racism in the Caribbean between nations?

It brings me again back to my concerns with regards to the reparations issue – what is Caricom’s policy position on the complexities of our ethnic and racial interactions?

How are we engaging with these complexities at the level of education, at the level of policy, at the level of government initiatives?

 

Because let’s face it, the reason for our lack of action on Haiti is the fact that in 1804 a bunch of enslaved Africans had the audacity to fight against the French, win and then declare themselves a Republic.

And the question of blackness and/or African ancestry is still a point of shame for far too many Caribbean people of African descent, despite the fact that we have given the world some of the leading luminaries of Pan Africanism (Henry Sylvestre Williams, Marcus Garvey, CLR James, George Padmore, to name a few). And of course one of the major issues plaguing our relationship with Haiti is the continued fear and loathing of African spiritual traditions

One of Gonsalves’ closing observations was the virtual non-existence of any critical thought or action coming from the University of the West Indies.  This is something that has bothered me for years. I’m watching and waiting but I’m not terribly hopeful.

Gonsalves started his speech talking about his days as a student at the University of the West Indies Mona campus when he organised the protest against the banning of the late great Walter Rodney who dared go into the ghettoes of Kingston to ground with his brothers. 

45 years later the issues we are afraid to confront are similar if not exactly the same.  

Put the Mask back in the Mas

Notting Hill Carnival in 2013 Brianna McCarthy Maker + Mender mask.

Notting Hill Carnival in 2013 Brianna McCarthy Maker + Mender mask.

One jouvay morning in Port of Spain a couple years ago, an Egun priest told me that the ancestors were upset because we were playing mas with our faces uncovered. This year for Jouvay I covered my face and at Notting Hill Carnival yesterday I made the transition back to a mask.

I had the pleasure of wearing a piece of art made by Brianna McCarthy, one of Trinidad’s most exciting young mixed media artists.

The politics of beauty in Trinidad is problematic at best. Look at any band launching event and notice that black women, dark skinned Indian or African women are virtually non-existent.

I am really excited about the ways that Brianna’s work confronts this.

Her website says:
‘Her work takes on the intricacies and dynamics of representing Afro-Caribbean women who are portrayed as being strong, long-suffering, exoticised and picturesque beings against a backdrop of poverty, hardship, abuse and/or scorn. McCarthy’s constructions and representations revolt against and subvert the stereotypical trends of representing the black body.’  

Once upon a time Carnival was a space for women to claim power. These days I can’t tell if Carnival is a space of power or – given the size of the costumes, the expense of the make up and increase in gym membership from October to February – a space where women are forced to seek approval under the gaze of a society that is male and judgemental. 

So the mask is part of that confrontation that needs to take place.  I loved the fear, awe, intrigue, attraction that the mask caused. Men begged me to take it off, children cried, old people smiled and bowed.

Culture should never be fossilized fragments. It should always evolve to serve the needs of the people who practice it. 

But we always need rituals. And performance as ritual – we’ve lost that from our Carnival with the loss of the mask.

And that is what I loved most about about wearing Brianna’s mask – it was a very contemporary take on a very ancient practice of masking – for the purpose of healing, for the purpose of transformation, for the purpose of liberation.

It’s a key part of the obeah that is Carnival and it occurred to me yesterday that half of the reason why the Carnival has lost its power is because of the removal of the mask.

Nothing fantastic after Carnival

If it’s special
Then with it why aren’t we as careful
As making sure we dress in style
Posing pictures with a smile
Keeping danger from a child

If it’s magic
Why can’t we make it everlasting
Like the lifetime of the sun
It will leave no heart undone
For there’s enough for everyone

If it’s Magic, Stevie Wonder

 

Went for a walk in the city at dawn Ash Wednesday morning. Hopscotching over rubbish piles and discarded wings. Splattered blue paint on the roads. It looks as though the city has been hit by an attack of naughty pixies. The bloodshed is glitter, the casualties bruised and smiling at the encounter. In the early morning light the truth of your Carnival tabanca takes hold.

You see your reflection in the stagnant pools of water blocked from a free passage to the drains by bits of costume. Your old face is there. Not the new one you got on J’Ouvert morning. Post-Carnival you look like the person you remember, although the glow of Carnival catharsis has you feeling sweet.

You are still tired. The ache of Carnival exuberance has not left your body. But if you had to do it all over again tomorrow, you would. You would jump on your bad knee the same way. You would spread your hands and let go of all the hurt you feel about Trinidad. All the vexation at how abjectly dotish certain things and people can make this place.

Which is worse? The Carnival tabanca or the Trinidad tabanca? The heartache that fills you up when you think that Carnival is something to be swept away for another year. Carnival has left you like a lover in the middle of the night. And when you turn at dawn in search for the reassuring warmth of another body, all you find is the crisp coldness of linen.

And you have to depend on your own warmth. Wrap yourself around yourself. Into a tight little ball of self-sufficiency. There is no cure for the loneliness and emptiness that comes after. Leaves you wandering on the streets in the early hours of the morning for some evidence of what happened the night before.

The debris is the only proof that Carnival is not an elaborate fantasy of your own making. In the silence you can hear the ghost of big trucks. In the distance the Savannah shimmers, self-conscious in the haze of a new morning.

But the rumbling of Phase II is still in your ears. And the weight of the flag you carried on the stage still strains the muscles in your upper arm. You know the precise moment when you did that thing to your knee that created this occasional lancing pain that temporarily renders you incapable of putting pressure on your right leg.

Pan disappears again. Aside for the token moments it is trotted out. Panyards that could be the cradle of community development lie fallow or under-utilised. From Ash Wednesday I start counting the hours, months, days it will take to recover from Carnival before I start preparing for the next.

Carnival is successful for those who understand how to package things and make money. Carnival is special for those who create their best work whether or not they get paid.

When Carnival is over where does all of that creativity go? In the hours and months and days between Carnivals who bothers to teach Trinbagonian children about the geometry of making a fancy sailor hat? Or the physics of creating king and queen costumes that can structurally withstand the breeze in the Savannah? Or the obeah of keeping dancing while you try to untie your rolled up flag?

Carnival, aside from being a time of bacchanal and excess, could also be a time for us to explore a less one-dimensional approach to our culture. But of course this is not art and our Carnival artists are not scientists. Cars whizz past the point where mere hours ago the crowds made music with their chipping feet.

I miss that Carnival time. That point when you see your friend and start screaming for no other reason than your euphoria at this moment of Carnival perfection. The problem is that my Carnival tabanca is my Trinidad tabanca. Unfulfilled potential, lacking in vision, beautiful but flawed.

Carnival is everything we could be but can’t be bothered to go through the effort of attempting. This eerie, post-apocalyptic kind of quiet is jarring. Just as jarring as hearing Fantastic Friday now. In the aftermath of the Carnival. When you struggle to find anything fantastic.

First published in the Trinidad Guardian February 16, 2013

Kambule or Canboulay?

The received wisdom was that the term Canboulay derived from the French ‘cannes brulees’ or the burning of the cane. The unseasonal burning of fields of immature sugarcane by the enslaved was done as an act of sabotage and groups of enslaved Africans were then forced to go and put out the fires. Along the way they sang songs of defiance and also danced kalenda as their ranks were made up of stickfighters.
However revered Trinidad and Tobago linguist Maureen Warner-Lewis in her seminal work Guinea’s Other Suns – one of the first comprehensive studies on the African presence in Trinidad and Tobago – lists the term kambule as a Kikongo word meaning procession. Africans held kambules throughout the year – as a form of celebration but they were also times when they could re-engage with spiritual and other cultural practices.
Professor Warner-Lewis believes the two terms to have been conflated to create one meaning – the march of defiance by the working class that happened in the pre-dawn hours of Carnival Monday morning.

Dancing for Dawn

There I go again, talking about the only thing I love more than starch mangoes…

The glorious morning has come, and I don’t know if to laugh or cry. Because I’ll have to wait another 364 days to feel this way again. J’Ouvert is what happens when someone opens the prison gates. J’Ouvert is the moment of truth in lives of endless fiction.

Check out the full piece in this month’s issue of Caribbean Beat Magazine.

Ogun and the Jouvay Warriors.

jab

Doing research for a piece I’m writing about African retentions in Trinidad Carnival, I came across this.

The procession referred to as sagun (literally, “to run Ogun’s race”) derives its name from the fast tempo of the music and warlike-dance. Each individual or group parade is referred to as
Ologun(“Ogun bearer”)…. Every conceivable professional group in Ondo, except for the civil service and white-collar workers, participates in the celebration.
Most are dressed in rags and parade through the town with their bodies smeared with blue, white, and black paint.
They sing in praise of the deity and of their procession. The festival is an occasion to celebrate Ogun’s deeds and to display human workmanship.
The ceremony becomes an opportunity for a show of force by the individual medicine-Ologun and often creates a temptation for them to test their medicinal power in public and to confirm their superiority.
This aptly illustrates Ogun’s attributes as “the embodiment of challenge, the Promethean instinct in man, constantly at the service of society for its full self-realization.

Olopuna, J.K Kingship, religion and rituals in a Nigerian Community   Sweden, Almquist & Wiksell

Sound familiar?
We’ve been hinting at the links between Africa and Trinidad Carnival for a long time, but in the spirit of denial and prettification we’ve chosen to erase rather than celebrate what are some glaring and wonderful similarities between our Carnival and the masking rituals of West Africa, specifically the Yoruba.
And I get vex every time I hear the same recycled story about Carnival being a French thing that the Africans then used to imitate their masters. It never go so and it’s about time we start to explode those myths.
The truth is that the jouvay that got included in the two day Carnival celebration was initially an Emancipation celebration celebrated on August 1st. The procession started at midnight, was a mixture of solemnity, ritual, celebration and defiance.
It makes sense that the Canboulay was always a source of confrontation between the jamettes and the colonial authorities. And it makes sense that we should even as we confront the colossal stupidity and ongoing assness of this government, previous governments and I guess future governments, find new ways to use this still existing ritual to do the same confrontation with the authorities that needs to happen.
In light of all that is going on politically and socially in Trinidad right now, I am inclined to ask, for Jouvay 2013 what would Ogun do?