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

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Beautiful, brutal people’s justice

One more, officer, one more
Before we go down the road and fight with we brother
One more 
Run the music man or we will come out and burn this town
Stop the music
You got to be mad
Listen, Inspector, we doh want to have to shake you down
This ain’t the Gaza Strip
This is Trinidad.

One More, Officer, 
David Rudder

The big joke last Saturday on the social media was that San Fernando stores were experiencing a toilet-paper shortage. I imagine that Sugar Aloes and De Fosto were not themselves finding this situation as funny as the rest of us watching on. But a calypsonian is like a stickfighter. He or she knows the risks involved in going into the ring. Such are the perils of the job description and if you can’t deal with the jamming, then don’t be trying to eat a food and then attempt to display moral rectitude.

You can’t legislate that kind of beautiful anarchy. You can’t predetermine that kind of ugly and brutal people’s justice. Even in the midst of an over-regulated celebration, branded and cosseted by people who don’t seem to really have a grasp of what this festival is. Even in the midst of a Carnival that is overshadowed by so much of what is wrong with here, the wastage, the unnecessary spending, the elevation of frills and frivolity into the main show.

Moments like that are the truth. The off-key, jacked-up, belligerent truth of Carnival. The side where the people get their revenge on those who they perceive as traitors. The placards are no less crude and cringe-worthy than anything that has ever come out of the Minister of National Security’s mouth. But these placards have a kind of exactness. The surgeon’s slicing motion. The bitterness of aloes on your tongue.

I am not sure if there is catharsis. But the evidence is clear that people are vex. It is not the kind of vexation that is at risk of ever going away. This is a centuries-old anger. This is the forever confrontation between the jammettes and the planter class. We still sing for someone else’s amusement. We are still the laughing, angry men and women who will fete and fete and then mash up everything, santimanitay. We love this ritual of beauty and destruction that we are constantly engaged in. 

In the finals of the NCC stick fight competition on Wednesday night, the blood flowed freely. In a cramped space with hundreds on the outside trying to get in. Because I mean, it’s only our indigenous martial tradition. It’s not special or significant enough to warrant a space that is properly equipped.

For the participants and the supporters, it is more than buss head. It is the beauty and the terror and the way the drums match your heartbeat and the skin on the back of your neck stands at attention when the tip of a bois connects at lightning speed with the forehead of an opponent. The chantwells are shouting: “If yuh lose a finger, if yuh lose yuh eye,”  and the chorus responds, “Doh cry.”

Fight on. In spite of what you have lost. Fight on because you stand to lose a lot more than your pride. In this never ending tragicomedy called Trinidad there are certain characters who will always exist.  Carnival is the time when some of us try to redress the imbalances. Some of us try to use the opportunity to show our great beauty while asking how come we don’t notice it for the rest of the year.

The Carnival-haters. The racists. The Christians who think Carnival is some kind of deepest heart-of-Africa devil worship. The Ariapita Avenuers who take loans to look affluent in all-inclusives. The ones who cah get over the tabanca they get from some sweet woman who give them a taste and then disappear like a Carnival stranger into the beckoning darkness.

 

Carnival always will be a fight. Between those who have and those who don’t. Between the arrogant young contender and the elder attempting his last stand. Between the people for a voice to adequately reflect their pain and the bard who wants to eat a food.

 

Carnival is when we play a bigger version of the same mas we are playing all year round. Except at Carnival we tend to over-exaggerate. Shout louder and more dotish than everybody. An endless confronting of difference. Even if it is to celebrate it. An endless confronting of what we love and what we hate and what we don’t mind losing and what we are prepared to preserve.

Play on, Trinidad. You looking sweet too bad.

Published in the Trinidad Guardian February 9, 2013

Police and the Pan pushers.

Overseas
We from the West Indies
Anytime we start to party
Dem does run and call police
Well now we come back home
People playing stiff like stone
We does move this party from zone to zone

Savage, Bunji Garlin

 The moon is rising over the hills and the air is alive with the sound of sweet pan music. But police are stalking the perimeter of the stage like a flock of belligerent cobo. Guarding the stage like a La Basse carcass. I start to wonder if this stage is where our culture comes to die. Where the regulation and competition transforms former beauty into a lifeless, embalmed thing. A shadow of its former self.

 I’ve been here before.The last time I remember the police being so hognorant at Panorama was when Papa Patos was at the height of his unpopularity. The Guard and Emergency Branch were on a rampage. One scraped my arm and tried to grab my camera because I was trying to get evidence of his brutality.

 Since then, pan and other people-centred elements of the Carnival have continued to die slow painful deaths. Even as the season gives birth to new children. I do not join the new life in the Greens. The new life that does not have any connection to its past. We are on the track to celebrate the life that once was. Dragging our band’s pans towards the stage.

 The belligerent cobos swoop down. Assault rifles and batons at the ready. The moon shines on. We pull the racks forward, breaking into a run at the bottom of the ramp to get enough momentum to take them up and onto the stage.

It’s not an easy thing to push pan. But I’d rather take my jamming in the pushing than the playing. Spending weeks living in a panyard drilling a song into your brain every night for two months. Living, breathing, eating, dreaming this song. This ten-minute piece of heaven while there is a fete going on just next door where maybe five people out of the 10,000 care about your sacrifices to make it to this point.

 Pan is a community effort. Pan Trinbago, which has instructed the police to move dread with pan lovers, didn’t seem to get that memo. Meanwhile on the Greens: pockets are picked, young women get groped by tusty men over-stimulated by the sight of so much of Trinidad’s finest. Women are being attacked on their way out of the Savannah, by strangers and lovers too. Women getting slapped up by jealous boyfriends.

 The ring of belligerent cobos push us back. Shout at us. I want to spit in their faces for doing their jobs so well.

 Earlier in the evening, my neck craning over a barricade looking for a friend, a police officer told me I couldn’t stand where I was, although I was causing no obstruction. I ignored him and continued to look. The officer’s voice gets more insistent and as he makes as if to physically remove me, I walk away, feeling the mad blood rising. Not wishing to end up in an unnecessary altercation.

 “Family,” the man on the track addressed me. “Family, he doh know who is you or what?” Who is me? A Trinidadian. A Carnival lover. A panatic. It’s hard to keep a sense of humour. It’s hard not to want to pelt a bottle just to see what they will do. Start a riot just out of curiousity to find if they would really use those assault rifles in a crowd.

You shout stupidness at the officers. You know the arrangement your band is playing so you sing it back, you pam pam pa da the song into the officers’ faces. Officer Screw Face is properly scowling at us. Looking damn vex that we were still having a good time. He stretches his arms out to his sides to meet the batons of his fellow Corporal Stupidees.

 He pushes us back more. We resist. We do a Hafizool on them. Except that we have more moral authority to stay on the stage. We are qualified to be here. We know this arrangement already. Like I could whistle you the full eight minutes and 13 seconds of This Feeling Nice. It’s not just now we reach in this thing, officer.

 There is a tiny German woman up in one officer’s face. He keeps his cool, having enough presence of mind to know that a big black badjohn police hitting a little white woman in Carnival is a bad scene. I don’t take that chance. Knowing that Rasta is usual suspect. I stay behind, shouting my insults outside of baton range.

 Boogsie’s arrangement is sweet. But there is a part three-quarter way through, where the pan rumbles menacingly. Like Shango’s thunder self. It is a warning. Phase II gets top marks. Pyrrhic victory. Carnival is a battle that the people are losing more and more every year.

Published in Trinidad Guardian February 2, 2013