Carnival and Culture

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 22, 2012

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeI was stuck by Michael Narine’s post, “Culture is a ploy for more state money” and Newsday’s headline “Calypso gets $1M.” With that came a justification from Dr. Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool: “This is good for calypso. Calypso is the father of all different genres of music, so they must ensure that calypso gets a good prize. All these other genres of music: chutney, soca, they came out of calypso, so it’s only fair that calypsonians get a good prize.” I will not argue with the doctor’s thesis except to say that at the beginning of the 21st century we may have to revise our accepted concepts of the genre, its influences and the musical forms it has spewed.

Narine says: “More and more I am seeing the word ‘culture’ to mean the arts, entertainment, and national days of celebration. In fact, the term is used as a strategy by entertainers and promoters to demand more money from the state.” While I agree with his observation I am not inclined to see calypsonians as mere entertainers. At their best, they can be seen as educators and reflectors of the social and political scene.

Narine argues further that “we are losing sight of the fact that culture also refers to attitude, behavior, beliefs, values, expectations, and practices of the society. To transform the country, we have to effect cultural change.”

Again Narine may be correct but to speak about the influence of culture in the 21st century we have to talk about the commoditization of almost everything (including culture) and the impact it has had on distorting (or certainly changing) “values” which inform our responses to our society.

About a month ago I read an illuminating book, The Spirit of the Game by Mihir Bose, an Indian writer who examined the evolution of sports from a game that was played for recreation in the nineteenth century with the aim of shaping society for the greater good to a money-making machine in the 21st century, typified by FIFA and which explains Jack Warner. The commoditization of sports has not confined itself to FIFA and soccer but has also wrapped its arms around cricket, car racing and every other sport.

Carnival and calypso began just as cricket, soccer and other sports began: people doing it just for the fun of it. Here’s a report of carnival (and I presume calypso) in the 1820s in Carlton Ottley in Slavery Days in Trinidad: “In the gay 1820s everybody, young and old, black and white, royalist and republicans, danced…While the French and Spanish upper and middle classes cut capers at Mrs. Bruce’s, the rest of the population to whom dancing and singing were the acme of their social life, spent their evening whether in the country or the town around the flambeau in the clearing between their houses, recreating for themselves the songs and dances of their ancestors.”

Ottley then quotes from a visitor to the island. “One night, hearing a horrible drumming on the tum-tums, I followed the sounds, and in the suburbs of the town came to a very characteristic scene-a Negro ladies’ ball. A narrow entry led to a spacious shed, rudely thatched with palm branches; from the joists of which hung a clumsy wooden chandelier, and at intervals, stuck upon high poles, serving as candelabras, were large tallow candles, casting a fitful glare over the place.

“At the head of this dingy salon de danse were five huge Negroes, thumbing might and main on casks, the tops of which were covered with parchment. Ranged on one side were twenty Negresses roaring a chorus, each being in motion, turning half around alternatively without moving from the spot. These dingy damsels, of whose features nothing but their rolling eye-balls and brilliant teeth were visible, raised their voices to a pitch that would have satisfied the King of Ashantee” (my italics).

We are also aware that the earliest calypsoes, rendered in an African language, were sung at religious ceremonies, harvest festivals, and displays of martial arts. One of the earliest calypsoes, “Ja Ja Romey Eh/Ja Ja Romey Shango,” was sung at the calinda or stickfights, an African martial art form that was associated with Shango. According to Atilla, this song was handed down and interpreted “wherever the ritualistic ceremonies of the Shango cult are practices [as] ‘I am coming to the dance of the Gods.'” Atilla tells us that one of the earliest calypsoes described the massacre of hundreds of Africans in Marabella in 1838.

This was the 1820s, the 1830s and the visitor’s description I believe was made in the 1850s. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that we have moved a long way from such a time and setting to the modernity of the present. Needless to say, within the setting of a salon de danse where the patrons saw the artist working up close he or she also participated in the making of the meaning of such artistic productions. Patron and artist were one.

Today, things are different. The inspiration is different; the motives are different; the devotion is different and everything seems to be a big hustle. As a result, I don’t know if a first prize of two million dollars would do much to transform the calypsonian’s performance or his commitment to his art. With carnival bands such as Tribe (approximately 6,000 patrons), Island People (about 4,000); Fantasy island (about 3,000) etc. with each masquerader paying an average of $5,000 to play dey mas then, like soccer, cricket and car-racing we realize how money has invaded the realm, how little room there must be for cultural creativity and innovation.

There is no way we can go back to the old days which leads us to ask Mr. Narine how can we “stay focus[ed] on the true meaning of culture” when so much around us has become the victim of how much rather than how good?

Perhaps we need a new model and certainly a different way of talking about culture and carnival in the 21st century.

8 Responses to “Carnival and Culture”


  • Calypso is an art form which needs State money to exist and to sustain itself. There are numerous examples of State expenditure during carnival which one can site. I personally indulged in fine liquor and food paid for by the State in various carnival venues.T&T has a tradition of funding a variety of “cultural” events organized by various religious and cultural associations. I do not believe that this practice can suddenly be discontinued.
    There is great value in supporting calypso.It is the origin of Soca and Chutney.Having attended the National Chutney Soca monarch competition, I can say with objective confidence that most of the songs performed were total “garbage”, poor imitations of calypso and Soca.Should government continue to fund that crap? Don’t get me wrong, there were one or two acceptable songs, but the majority of the performers were just plain bad, using any credible standard.
    Steelband and calypso are and should continue to be cherished by the nation and funded by the nation.There are so many examples of great calypsoes and brilliant steelband performances to justify State support in the future.If only we can get the young people to pay attention and give Montano a rest, don’t turn off his music, but give steelband and calypso a chance.And cricket is another topic.

  • I cant believe that I am saying this but I am 95% in agreement with TMan. Calypso is an art form that’s the equivalent of the grio in African culture. Our performers are more than poets and masqueraders, many went on to be prophets with their evaluation of what society is dishing out. It is an art form that given the right form of privatization and cultural nuturing by someone like a Clive Davis (of Whitney Houston’s fame) we can turn this to be evolutionary, entertaining and quite simply profitable for the upkeep of the art. The same can be said for the steelband and chutney, these art forms that truly represent a behaviour coming out of our experience in Trinidad and Tobago. Government’s continued subsidization and funding does not help with the quality of the products that we look forward to enjoying each and every year. Yes, I believe that such funding should be de-emphasized and private entreprenuers encouraged with the evolution. Governments partnership in such endevours should not be more than 25% allowing the the other 75% to be managed for growth and innovation.

  • Well, Well, well…what direction are we really heading now?
    Sanctification -Crying Madonna, Exodus the second book of the Bible-
    Pretty soon entire Churches and Congregations would become Mas-Camps-Pastors and Ministers winning Road March Titles.
    Nah! come Ash Wednesday you could clean that up, Quick Fixes!!
    No name calling just do what you have to do……

  • I agree with TMan that Calypso is an art form. I am wondering if he ever heard any calypsoes that were absolute “crap?” What is your opinion about the countless number of calypsoes which have denegrated Indians over the years? Are those absolute crap?

    • GS
      Calypsonian have sang about everybody good bad and indifferent. Check calypsoes over the years black women have been the brunt of it all. yes recently Cro-cro and Sugar aloes have peppered INDIAN POLITICIANS in their calypsoes. So don’t try to make this a racial thing. There is nothing stopping Indians from singing calysoes. It is their choice.

  • Let me say that art is an expression of culture and also serves to perpetuate and shape culture within a given society. Dr Cudjoe alluded to some writers who observed an expression of our culture in it incipient stage as it sort to emerge and distill itself from larger African and European cultures. Elements of Indian culture would be added later as a more complete Trinbago culture emerged. I must hasten to say that culture is a dynamic force in the human experience and can never really be complete especially in today’s internet village. So because of this I accept the changes I see in our culture as expressed through our artistic renditions. Although I do not like making value judgments it seems that our standards as a people has deteriorated. Calypso it appears, as expressed at Dimache Gras has emerged as the social commentary art form and soca has emerged as pure entertainment. But does social commentary have to be boring, similarly, does entertainment have to be baseless. Look back, Jean and Dinah is one of the greatest social commentaries but it is also entertaining, so too was The Man With the Hammer. These are just two examples of countless others from Sparrow, Kitchener, Rudder, Shadow, Rose, Stalin, Shorty, Roaring Lion, Chalkdust etc. These performers put thought in their compositions and finesse in their delivery and their prize money was minimal in real dollars compared to what is offered today.
    So money is not a motivation for excellence in a sea of the mediocre but should be used to encourage excellence by a process of meritocracy. By now we should have institutions formal or informal which teaches calypso as an art form as a means of perpetuating excellence in the genre. As of today we do not yet have a music hall of fame where our best artists are honoured and enshrined in posterity for all to see, appreciate and learn from. We give millions in prize money but nothing for development, branding and marketing. We are yet to develop international products called carnival, calypso , soca, chutney, parang or steelpan. Prize money does not solve a problem it only promotes government dependence and a perpetuation of the mediocre.
    Our decent into the mediocre isn’t only revealed in or expressions of culture but also in our crime rate, our driving habits, our dress,the treatment of our children, our selfishness, our greed, our strident tribalism, our general demeanor, our use of language and our private and public discourse as expressed even on this forum. We are approaching fifty years of independence and it seems as though we have had fifty years of social decline juxtaposed against fifty years of economic incline. After the 1976 Olympics at the ceremony welcoming our hero, Hasely Crawford, home, the Father of our nation Dr Eric Williams said that money is no problem but probably money is our problem, Donald Quarry was second or third in that race but now Jamaica is first in Caribbean athletics. Money as it must, have influenced and changed our culture but we as a people must endeavour to preserve that which is good about it and improve that which needs improving. Money should be a catalyst for excellence not the mediocre. We are approaching our fiftieth anniversary as an independent self sustaining nation, its time for a POSITIVE CULTURAL REVOLUTION.
    Nuff Said.

    • Good observations and I concur with you in most of what you had to say. It is my belief though that the incentives to aim for excellence in Calypso and other art forms must come from within the art form and NOT the monetary prizes given by the government. We must reward good music and interesting commentary. If we allow the allure of prize money become our primary goal and only measuring stick to achieve fame, then we are spinning top in mud, without going anywhere for the next fifty years.

  • As the article, rightly, points out, Culture is more than Art. The argument as to whether a Society should fund its Art by State subventions, by taxpayers money, rather like roads, sewers, hospitals prisons,etc., has raged in most countries. The same is true of Sport. Indeed many have sought to justify the State funding of sport with the argument that it is a more universally used commodity than the Arts.
    No one seems to be prepared to address the thorny question whether the State should support either Art or Sport, if those activities are not capable of demonstrating their viability or relevance by attracting funding directly and voluntarily from the ciizenry; not Sponsorship, but rather box office returns and fees from participants.
    It is interesting that at present “mas” seems to be the only one of these activities in T&T that would survive without State or Corporate financial inputs. There was a time, within living memory, when the Calypso tents would have also fallen into this category.

Comments are currently closed.