The genesis of this note came from a reading of the blog post by Phillip Edward Alexander, “The Abuse of Culture… (Who Say Advantage?)” and its respondent commentary. His thesis was the degradation of our Carnival culture as exemplified by the “quality” of a recently leaked soca tune by Machel, “Advantage”. Phillip did not like it in the least, and lamented that this was a portent to the “dumbing down [of] our nation.”
My comment to the Facebook Note edition of the post was as follows:
“Apt commentary. I, however, take a more holistic and historical look at road march and Machel’s place in it. As you alluded to in the note, this is business, not cultural attachment: ‘if its drivel they want to a hook and a killer beat, by all means give them.’
The year Machel won the road march with ‘Big Truck’ in 1997 was a cusp much like an earlier era when Sparrow won with ‘Jean and Dinah.’ Sparrow ushered in the era of music and tempo in the road march. In the decade prior to 1997, Pelham Goddard was arranging consecutive road marches for Superblue and Tambu. Tempo, melody with some sing-along lyrics. Machel’s win signaled the tempo at all costs era with no-lyrics tuned to drive the hordes across the stages at Carnival and in the fetes. The mas took on a different look also. Poison rose while Minshall and Berkley were the last bastions of ‘art.’
Your request of revelers and soca providers to leave a legacy at this point is noble, but like most things in life, there will be a rising to the top of quality. Every nation that produces music all have a barrel full of shit music in their musical and cultural canon. Future generations may look at it with different eyes and ears and see [and hear] ‘art’, all we can do is be a marketplace. Either we buy it or not, jump to it or not, request it or not. We don’t write our history, it is always written after we are gone.
I wish to expand on my comment and include my theory of where we are now in regards to nature of Carnival music and performance. I believe that there was a marketplace desire to fit in with an assumed status group that drove soca artists to forego the nativist elements of their craft, and sell their sounds to revellers of the fun bands. Added to this idea of the artist as influencer has to be the equally potable idea of the audience influencing the artist. Remember, Xtatik was Poison’s musical band. Machel was hired by Poison and had to make that crowd of revellers move and get on bad “behind the big truck”. The transformation of that crowd into “Savage” or a “Tribe” was part of the magic of the Trinidad Carnival experience. But transformation is a two way street like commerce. Give the customer what they want, and you could be successful in business. That is a clue to the metamorphosis of Machel in the 1990s.
Poison, the epitome of the fun band was an offshoot of Edmond Hart’s band. The Hart’s band was a gathering of like persons who socialised in the same milieu, and garnered a following of those who wanted, for status-seeking reasons, to be part of that mileu. It was a middle class thing in the 1990s to play mas in Hart or Poison or Barbarossa. Some say it was a “white thing.” Ironically, Minshall Mas’ was heavily peopled by Black people seeking artistic enlightment in the mas. Barbara E. Powrie, writing in 1956 said of Trinidad coloured middle class society,
“The ideal person and form of behaviour is still ‘white’ and life is patterned to conform as closely as possible to all that is felt to be contained within this ideal. The idea that there is anything identifiably Trinidadian which could command respect, interest, or imagination is ardently rejected favour of outward imitation of the ideal, the white culture pattern.”
—Powrie, BE (1956) ‘The changing attitude of coloured middle class towards Carnival’, Caribbean Quarterly 3 and 4: 224–32.
It didn’t look as though much had changed in the intervening years.
Pat Bishop, in an illuminating article in the January/February 1996 issue of BWIA Caribbean Beat (remember that?) wrote the following:
“…Carnival is about people who come out onto the streets of the island every year to claim and affirm for themselves, however briefly and improbably, an alternative reality. And it is in this notion of an alternative reality that the origins of Carnival exists. Carnival allows the ordinary man to assume, however briefly, the roles and swagger of a king…the mas frees the masquerader of the status quo.”
—Bishop, Pat. “What is This Carnival?” BWIA Caribbean Beat Jan/Feb 1996: 52-56
That last sentence is ripe for analysis and reflection. [Read this on any other Monday in the year and then ask your girlfriend to walk down Frederick Street in a bikini and a sneakers. Note the reaction! “You mad or what?” never sounded so sexy.] That we transform over time, is a given. The stimulus for this carnival transformation is the idea of anonymity in a crowd under the influence of alcohol and music. In music, our chantuelles, calypsonians and soca singers have over generations informed, mocked and encouraged audiences. Audiences in turn have admired, envied and imitated the songs and singers.
The lack of inhibition, the “exuberance and brio” of the Black Trinidadians have been noted by writers over decades. The assimilation of the posture and psyche by white Trinis over time was as a consequence of a kind of accommodation by the singers to expand their audience or as Derek Walcott says in “What The Twilight Says“, “imitating the problems of the metropolis by pretensions to its power, its styles, its art, its ideas, and its concept of what we are.” (Walcott, 1998, p.24) There was comfort in this assimilation; there was comfort in this accommodation. From Chieftan Douglas patronizing the white patrons at his tent, “hoping to attract a more sophisticated audience, and corner the so-called middle class citizens,” and so evolving it, to the CDC making and breaking calypso and carnival costume rules to encourage the new aesthetic of joy and celebration and “Carnival is Colour”; the evolution of change was to make a radical transformation in the 1980s.
Lil Hart was a pioneer in more ways than being the First Lady of Mas design. According to the Harts Family website, “For Lil, Carnival was about fun, revelry, beauty, colour and of course, her masqueraders, the people who came back year after year, the people she saw as part of her extended family, she believed in ‘a people mas’ and designed with them in mind. Winning awards was just the icing on the cake. The band was like her “baby” and she,” the over protective mother” took it very seriously. “Lil had even been known to scold masqueraders for not wearing their full costumes…” (My emphasis.) In a television interview before her death in 1991, Lil discussed how she did utilize the bikini elements in a section of her band, but some female masqueraders chose to use only the bikini as the costume against her wishes, and the rest is history, as noted below:
“Beads and under-wire two piece bathing suits for women? Yes…again Harts was the FIRST to take such a daring risk. We tried it with just one section at first and the result? … Well, look around at all the bands today and what do you see?”
Lil Hart was a pioneer going where others like her never wanted to go.
The emancipation of the Trinidad white mindset was almost complete. Walcott again: “Once we have lost our wish to be white, we develop a longing to become black, and those two may be different, but are still careers.” A music to soothe them was needed. That, and a cabal of like-minded souls. “If they could get on so, who is me?” There is joy in repetition, and comfort in numbers. Young Machel Montano, who was “too young to soca” was now a young man still making music and mimicking his hero Superblue who for years made the masses “get something and wave.” At the right time, in the right place, Machel hooked onto the right riddim and instructed the horde to hold on to the big truck. Soca, as I see it, has never been the same. His comfort among his new captive audience contrasted with his other audience of a different hue who followed him on the greens, on the drag, in shows and fetes outside the all-inclusive circuit. One gave him energy, one gave him money. But he was conscious in his devotion. The society, now “flaccid and colourful,” was happy with the “commercial elation.” Hence the Trini Posse stand at cricket, the gentrification of the North Stand, and Donna Hadad in comedy! The emancipated Caucasian mind triggered a revolution of the mas’ and the quality of the soca that is either a boon for the music industry or the bane of the cultural heritage of the country. That, and a little ageism: Superblue and Shadow were now too old.
Another pioneer going where others like her never wanted to go is singer Denyse Plummer. I don’t know how many remember when multiple kilograms of garbage were pelted at her as a psychic revenge for apparent colonial domination and subsequent freedom, an artificial rage. Denyse received orange skin and pith that suck-up already, plastic cup with ice and drink and spit, toilet paper, and whatever else that the Skinner Park posse could grab up from the ground under their feet to fling stage side. By taking that trash, and NEVER QUITTING, and even more, returning to sing a second song, she paved the way for Coleen Ella and Michelle Xavier years later, and I will add, Taxi, Second Imij, Kes the Band, and any other “high brown” bands and artists moving to the fore of calypso and soca stage and successfully commanding the masses to get on “wotless”. I will also say, controversially, Denyse paved the way for Drupatee and Rikki Jai and all that chutney bacchanal being accepted widely in non-Indian fetes and society. As an aside, the steelband community had to be a more inclusive community for White, Indian and other non-black races: Curtis Pierre, Junior Pouchet, Steve Achaiba, Bobby Mohammed, Jit Samaroo didn’t seem to get pelt or psychologically beaten with “bootoo, bull-pistle, and big stone” like Denyse.
And in the end the age was handed
The sort of shit that it demanded.
Philip Edward Alexander is not happy with the state of soca and carnival: an abuse of culture. The word abuse implies a willful mishandling. The evolved spirit of Trinidad society has rendered a kind of lax standard, a deification of mediocrity together with the validation of commercial indifference to art that would be the norm all these many years after the birth of Carnival. We play mas’ because it’s fun. We sing a soca song to move us and justify limber waistlines and trampling feet as a catharsis for two days before Lent. We are modern and global. We have emancipated ourselves from one kind of mental slavery to another, the pull of the metropolitan and the apotheosis of sybaritic idyll. We like it so!
The modern Carnivalist is now on display on the world wide web via social networks and websites dedicated to the “tribal simplicity of celebration and imitated decadence”: click here if you dare and are over 18 years.
© 2011 Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.