By LENNOX FARRELL
Trinidad’s Carnival, some folk argue, has its origins in French culture; in French balls and masked dances. One might also hear, combined with such comments, that this is so because the very word, “carnival” originated – true – from the Latin phrase, carne valle, ‘farewell to the flesh’, a period of festivities preceding the season of Lent.
One might also hear this line repeated even more insistently now because of the current attempts by City of Toronto reps to purloin Toronto’s Caribana carnival.
However, it is not only Africa’s role in carnival traditions and festivities which are being questioned as to their authentic cultural origins. Consider yet another, the Negro Spiritual.
There are moves afoot here, claiming that the Negro Spiritual is an imitation by the slaves and their descendants of European music, themes and lyrics. The point is not that the slaves could have avoided being influenced by the European cultures into which they were enforced. In fact, today many of the descendants of these slaves no longer speak their ancestral tongues, but instead speak European languages. Therefore, why would the slaves not have been influenced by European music and themes?
Spirituals form a vital part of the great musical heritage of African-Americans. As an art form, they incorporate elements from history, literature, religion, drama and music. Do the spirituals of African-Americans exhibit to a high degree or to a low degree cultural traits derived from West Africa? Or are spirituals, the “original folk music in America”, primarily borrowings from Europeans?
Perhaps, the element of performance, as stated by Black musicologists, “should be regarded as the single most important factor in spirituals. In other words, it is the performance that shapes the song; that determines its rhythm, melody, texture, tempo, text and, finally, its effect upon listeners. This is largely due to the importance of ‘improvisaton’ in the African tradition”.
Is this “improvisation” the musical equivalent to what in Trinidad’s kaiso is called ‘extempo’? Or in Cuba the ‘decimar': 10-line syllables which follow the opening stanzas in the Rumba?
One other assumed creation of Africans that also accompanies carnival is the steel pan, unique in more ways than have already been discovered. Incidentally, the term steel drum is considered as less correct than steel pan since drums, usually made with animal skins are membrano-phone, while the steel pan is considered to be in the idio-phone family of instruments.
Is the steel pan also an invention of Europeans? For example, weren’t the 55-gallon drums initially used by the first pannists not brought into Trinidad by the Yankees? Therefore, can they be considered as having created the steel pan? Or is this assumption absurd?
Of note regarding its unique complexity, the steel pan is not only the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, but is also – since Pythagoras, the Ionian mathematician and philosopher, calculated the formula for the musical Cycle of Fifths – the instrument which most follows this configuration.
For example, and here I paraphrase, relying on information gleaned from authorities in these fields, “if one was to play four ascending notes in a major scale, say C-F, then another, F-Bb; continuing thus, after covering five octaves one would return ‘home’ to C, hence the Circle, discovered by Pythagoras in 500 BC”.
The steel pan, the original instrument of the 20th Century, is itself a creation of tamboo bamboo ensembles. The tamboo bamboo, made from bamboo sections, was varied in lengths to create different scales of music. They played a vital role in the development of the pan. Tamboo bamboo, part of Trinidad and Tobago’s music celebrated for decades, required extraordinary techniques and dexterity and was played by African practitioners in stick-fights, folk dances, bongo-night funeral wakes, for Dame Lorraine and especially in revelries at Carnival.
During Carnival, brass and string bands found themselves playing alongside tamboo bamboo bands. At first, these musicians complained about the noise made by the tamboo bamboo. Eventually, many string bands and brass bands joined forces with the tamboo bamboo bands.
The experience gained by the tamboo bamboo players – usually men – through the union of the bamboo and these other musical instruments, led them to substitute many other objects into the band to replace destroyed bamboo stalks which often broke on the road through pounding. Bamboo was replaced by oil drums, evolving today to the pan.
Why, too, is it that musical forms created by Black people, today form the backbone of cultures which are neither French nor American? Take the Samba, the national musical form of Brazil and the instrument used to convey not only the masquerades there but also the musical themes which carry these masquerades along.
The Samba is to Brazilian carnaval what the calypso is to Trinidad’s carnival, and the Afro Cubanismo Rumba is to Cuba’s; all tied to Africa, to enslavement, and to Africa’s carnival icons. These are not carnivals which, like the Labour Day parade, Caribana and the Notting Hill carnival, copied other carnivals. These carnivals from Brazil, Trinidad, Cuba and New Orleans, despite their iconic similarities, had origins independent of each other, but not of Africa.
These common iconic forms of masquerade include the mud-men, Dame Lorraines, Jab-jab, and Moko Jumbies or stilt walkers. Even the peculiar hat worn by the Midnight Robber masques is still worn by high priests and priestesses of the Yoruba in Nigeria.
The fact is that the music brought by the slaves was, along with their beating hearts, the only possessions they could retain, and the memories these carried from their past informed the instruments used to record the narratives of their lives, struggles, griefs and victories.
“Nobody knows de trouble I seen, but glory hallelujah!”
Thus, wherever there were African slaves, the national music of other carnival cultures, be it the Samba in Brazil, or the afrocubanismo forms of Cuba’s Rumba, are tied to Africa and to Africa’s iconic carnival forms.
Very useful here is Corey Gilkes’ article on the origins of calypso and carnival, “Trinidad Carnival, Afri-Caribbean Resistance”. He states, “… most people who have written about the many pre-Lenten carnival traditions around the world usually credit the ancient Romans with the origins of the festival and the French for spreading it. This is because most of them, whether consciously or not, were Eurocentric in their outlook … (and) the roots of these pre-Lenten festivals lie in Africa where, ironically, they had nothing to do with Lent at all.”
Much of the African heritage was lost because, among other things, the slaves were denied the right to practice their religious rituals.
The question of whether ‘Black’ music and cultural forms would survive or not, depended on whether the slave was sold into a British (Protestant) or a Latin (Roman Catholic) colony. It appears that the African culture and music better survived Latin colonies than Protestant ones where the practice of these ‘heathen customs’ was strictly forbidden.
Thus, in the Caribbean, Jamaica, being anglicized but close to Spanish-speaking Cuba didn’t have a strong carnival tradition. However, Barbados, also anglicized, but geographically and linguistically much closer to other Catholicized, English-speaking islands like Grenada and Trinidad, thus developed their carnival, or Crop Over, interestingly similar in practice today to that of slaves in America during their ‘corn-shucking’ gatherings of singing and dancing. In fact, the Spirituals and work songs were derived from what were called, ‘corn-ditties’.
Finally, like Bob Marley writing and composing reggae from within the bowels of his Trench Town culture, so too do Black Brazilians like Leci Branda, born and bred in poverty-stricken favelas, the home of the Samba. She sings from her experiences of how the samba and its carnavals, once denounced by the Euro-Brazilians, are now owned and controlled by them. Meanwhile, the Afro-Brazilians are, as she puts it, ‘dos trabalhadores’ or the workers.
Are the same conditions found in T&T’s carnival, and with offspring like Caribana? Truly, to see the real face of an individual or a culture is to put it behind a masque.
Finally, back to the initial question: did the French create Trinidad’s carnival?
If the French masques and balls were the origins of Trinidad’s carnival, why didn’t the French create these carnivals in France? Why, too, didn’t French culture create these carnivals in colonies where there were few African slaves, for example in Quebec, the Maritimes or New France; but created these carnivals where there were African slaves, for example, in New Orleans?