Trinidad Carnival: My Eden

At this moment, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, myself included, are traveling to Trinidad for Carnival, the season of fetes, masquerading, and feasting that precedes Ash Wednesday. To the liturgically inclined, Carnival, like Mardi Gras, marks the end of Ordinary Time and the beginning of a period of solemnity. But for an increasing many, Trinidad Carnival just marks the beginning of a global season where at least once a month, every month until October, there is an opportunity to “Free Up Yourself.” Even after the Soca Monarch is crowned, the lights on the stage go dim, the feathers and jewels are swept off the street, and everyone sobers up from the various Carnivals around the world, there is still a flurry of activity going forth to plan next year’s Carnival. Much like God, Carnival is always working.

In 2016 I attended my first Carnival in Miami and became a convert. I became a Carnivalist and soca disciple who didn’t know what I thought fun was before I played mas. Prior to attending Miami Carnival, I watched family and friends fete for hours, days, a week even, and then I experienced it–on a smaller scale–for myself. From that moment on I fervently held on to my last memories of a Carnival experience while I counted down the days until my next. And now, here I am, on my way to my second Trinidad Carnival aka “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Given this,  I wanted to take this time to reflect on what it is that makes Carnival so compelling to me and why I am going to Trinidad again. There are some who have misconceptions about Carnival, presuming that with the (increasingly) tiny costumes and scantily clad people, the sometimes suggestive music, the copious alcohol, and what seems like an entire ethos of debauchery, that those of us who attend are going there to be promiscuous and reckless. While that may be some people’s aim, the majority of us go for a completely different reason. I go because Carnival is a religious experience, an Eden even, where the mind, body, and soul are without shame.

There are a variety of religious experiences if religion is defined as a cultural set of beliefs and practices that people gather around. If part of this is the gathering of persons inspired to give focused attention, adoration, and commitment to a subject or object, then Carnival is it. Or maybe Soca is the religion and Carnival is the church. Either way, year over year people take a pilgrimage to Trinidad and other Carnival locations, spending months in physical and financial preparation, to come together and be swept up in the spirit of Soca–and some liquid spirits–and all that comes with it: ecstatic dancing, laughing, singing, bonding, and a celebration of life. In all of this, there is a great sense of unity among those gathered and a unifying power in the individual.

This unity has historical significance as the origins of the practice of participating in Carnival is one in which enslaved people celebrated apart from their oppressors–who were having masquerade balls of their own–and donned character and caricature costumes that represented important figures in African and Caribbean culture. These figures ranged from devils and mammies to tricksters and were a site of resistance and spiritual performance. These practices still exist today but on a slightly smaller scale as Carnival has experienced the boom of globalization which has made it so that pretty masquerading has eclipsed the traditional. Pretty mas has its detractors and one can surely write a think-piece about all the problems inherent in the concept, but I find promise in the pretty masquerade as it is a special site of resistance for women, especially Afro-Caribbean women who sometimes exist in spaces that do not affirm or proclaim our beauty. In Carnival, the pretty masquerader proclaims and flaunts her beauty and embodies the saying, “Carnival is woman.” I would go so far as to say that the practice of playing mas in Carnival can share affinity with doing womanist work as it is woman loving her body, music, dance, love, roundness, other women and men both sexually and non-sexually, etc.

So, one of the parts of the Carnival experience is “playing mas,” otherwise known as masquerading–this could involve joining a traditional band with the aforementioned characters or joining a pretty mas band. Every year, a masquerade band has a theme and costumes designed by local and international designers connected to that theme. Note: You are not commissioning a random person to make your mas costume, you buy it through the band and your costume is distributed in the region where the Carnival is held–that means that my Trinidad Carnival costume is in Trinidad, not something that is shipped to me in Atlanta that I then have to figure out how to get down to Trinidad and back again. In Miami I played with Generation X whose theme for 2016 was Erotica, and I played in the Bondage section. If you know my research you know that I considered it Kismet that my first time playing mas was with a band whose theme for the year was Erotica. The costume consisted of a lot of black, chains, and restraint-like accessories, yet I was anything but restrained or in bondage. I was free, the freest I’d been in my life because I was in a place where I was at one with my body.

Carnival is not only the place to dash weh your inhibitions but to dash weh your insecurities about your body because it is truly a place where all (bodies) are welcome. Playing mas in Carnival is an experience of becoming one with your body in private to be at one with it in public. I find this significant as someone raised in and a current adherent to a Christian tradition that makes the body a problematic. My comfort with my body has come in waves and it has taken me nearly a decade to embrace my body as a woman, fully sacred, and fully good. Carnival felt like a culmination of this work and attending a Carnival annually or bi-annually is an opportunity to celebrate bodies, particularly in the womanist way of celebrating roundness. For me, adorning my body with nothing other than a bra made of wire, a strip that covers my nipples, and a tiny bikini bottom is a step to my liberation. When I put on my costume and look at myself, it is like seeing myself for the first time. Everything looks new and incredible to me. Finally, my body is enslaved to no one and no thing, it is liberated and it dances among other liberated bodies. Thus for me to spend nearly a week in various level of undress is not something to be ashamed of–that is why I post and speak fairly openly about it because I want to decrease the judgment and shame that is sometimes implied and put upon women in particular for enjoying this exhibition of our fearfully and wonderfully made bodies. We came into this world naked–and by that I not only refer to our natural birth but the divine birth through which we knew no shame and our bodies were good.

Furthermore, those of us who are part of the diaspora but are chained to the West, benefit from participating in practices that explicitly unlink us from the notion that our bodies are bad or that a naked body equals a corruptible body. At Carnival, bodies are without shame, there is no objectifying gaze save for those who are completely out of their league in understanding what is liberative and sacred about participation in Carnival–I say this as one who believes that an argument forwarding a notion of objectification in this context is one that ignores that the objectifier, i.e. European colonizer, came before objectification. Among the diaspora there is no objectification because we understand our bodies and ourselves not as objects or objectified, we are subjects of our heritage and our liberation. We are free, and as subjects to our heritage we also experience that freedom through music and dance.

I’ve been dancing in some way, shape, or form throughout my life, it is what frees me up to do more and to process a spectrum of emotions that cannot be excised in the mind. Dancing is how I commune with myself, with God, and with the earth. Carnival allows me to commune with those parts all the more because of the Soca music that is integral to the celebration. The waistline is the focal point in much of the dancing done at Carnival and its primary job is to whine–which is why many songs will focus on the whine. While the ability to ability to whine the waistline is woman’s work, men have also become as proficient, providing some healthy competition and a hell of a time. Men and women meet on the road and enjoy a kind of promiscuous dancing, going from one person to the next, usually thanking their partners along the way. Shame is non-existent here because there is a sense that this is what our bodies were made for, to consensually congregate and dance freely. Together on the road, no harm can befall us. We are safe there dancing with one another as freely as we want to and there is nobody or no gaze to disrupt us as the vibrations of the sound system blasting soca moves us.

Being raised in a Jamaican family, I was exposed to all of the genres of Caribbean music but never took a liking to soca, I was a strictly dance hall girl. But after a weekend of living on a soca soundtrack in Miami, I was hooked and couldn’t imagine my life without it.  The pure positivity and vibes of soca music are infectious and seemingly does something to its listener. Whether the song is about giving a man or woman a good whine, celebrating life, or giving praise to God, it imbues the listener with a life force unlike any other genre of music–with the exception of some Gospel music. That life force is a positive productive power best articulated in Benjai’s 2015 hit, “Phenomenal.” In it he says,

Soca does give me meh powers
Turn me into masqueraders
Soca does give meh meh powers
Draw me straight in different colors
Masqueraders, we get powers
Is a wonderful feeling
On Stage together holding me banners With different colors
We crossing the stage

This song asserts soca’s power as a unifying force individually and communally. It gives people powers to come together from all walks of life and celebrate life against all odds. The different colors are a reference to both those of the vibrant costumes, flags, and the people who represent the multitudes of the world. Many gather around the sound of soca and experience themselves in the world as never before because they are reminded of who they are in relation to themselves and in relation to everyone else. Some soca music also manages to situate itself within the Christian tradition through songs that ground a Judeo-Christian conception of God as bestower of blessings, protector, provider, and comforter. This explicit reference to religion aside, soca at its core is about unity and establishing the power of people coming together. This year many of us have the hit “Famalay” by Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, and Skinny Black to look forward to as we once again affirm our unity as people when we sing,

We doh see skin
We doh see colour
We see strength
We see power
We doh see race
One or di other
Once he is breathing on dis earth he is ma brother

Soca is a great equalizer for the masses that can help us to see one another by collapsing difference for one moment in time and celebrating our common humanity. This is something we are hard pressed to do in many other places, but somehow it works in the context of soca and Carnival.

Soca reminds us that a celebration is always around the corner and the riddim drives us to shake off everything that binds us. The sound calls us to live in the moment, love life, and love one another. This is why I consider myself a soca disciple. I fell in love with soca precisely because the music’s message is so consistently positive and celebratory in a way that one almost can’t account for by words alone. There is metaphysical-level goodness happening in soca that takes me to another level both on the road and in my daily life. Soca is, literally, good for the soul.

In all of this, Carnival strikes me as a religious experience because it gathers every part of the self and penetrates it with generative, positive, productive energy. It does so within the context of a community that gathers for the purpose of imbuing itself with this energy. It takes the body and redeems it, restoring it to a pre-Fall moment where shame is not an issue. It takes the mind and gives it a higher consciousness, bending it toward unity and love as a consistent ethic. It lifts the soul to a higher vibration. It is more than just an opportunity fling it up, it is an opportunity to get free. And so, off I go to my personal Eden to live on top of the world–the Black Church folk will get that. See you all on the flipside.

 

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