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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Fifty Years of Carnival


Dr. Lester CN Simon

I get the Carnival spirit on Carnival Sunday. After many slavish weeks of rehearsal and playing in the calypso tent, the Calypso Monarch Competition is only hours away. I read and re-read my music sheets, looking for familiar and unfamiliar phrases and tricky parts. I play all of these parts over and over until I am freed from regarding every musical phrase. I tell myself that I and the other members of the band, who go through the same routine, are links in a chain of events that started long ago and must never die.

Tim Hector said that Carnival is an Afro Caribbean expression of freedom. When I consider the freedom with which we play the written music on Carnival Sunday night, I am reminded that freedom comes out of years of discipline and dedication and perennial frustrations and arguments during rehearsals and the tents. Freedom is not free.

To realize the spirit of Carnival to keep it alive, we have to confront the genesis of our freedom from slavery and plantation life. This requires a critical examination of the primordial state from which freedom was wrestled. In this regard, we must know that capitalism begot slavery and not vice versa and that the reasons for slavery were not moral but economic circumstances. This is why Eric Williams’ book is called Capitalism and Slavery, not Slavery and Capitalism. Eric Williams also recorded that “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery”.

Hence, all of us West Indians face an assaulting paradox. We must celebrate the freedom from the primordial economic slavery, which had become a blinding racial phenomenon, and at the same time, we must learn to enslave ourselves once again. This second, self-inflicted enslavement must be to the rigors and discipline of hard work for ourselves, our families, our communities and for nation building as we contribute to the entire development of human kind. In short, we West Indians, black, white, indigo and in between, have to find a new economic order together, whilst we celebrate our freedom from economic slavery. Keeping the Carnival spirit alive demands that we pay rapt attention to the root of all evil and the fruit of our labour that underwrote our freedom.

But another paradox is bearing down on us West Indians. As we prepare to take on the world by binding together in one community, we hear rumblings and clamours of a new economic slavery of the small, vulnerable Caribbean states by the large, powerful ones. We ignore history, our story, at our peril.
History has shown us the disastrous effects of enslaving black, African people on the basis of economics and then effecting racism. Why then did our new leaders use economics again as the basis for bringing the 15-member group of Caribbean states, with a market of 14 million people, together in a Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME)?

A prerequisite to CSME must be an examination by West Indian black, white, indigo and in between, in public and in toto, of Caribbean people’s emancipation from slavery. Thereafter, the cultural celebration of Carnival as emancipation will be complete, such that “Jam and Whine” do not become the only, banal focus but stylized paraphernalia to our central Carnival spirit. After all, even ballerinas have to whine as they strut across the stage and stand en point, less they topple over from ignoring the laws of physics.

Only after we have done the examination and the real celebration can we possess what Tim Hector called, “a sense of focus, a sense of mission, or a sense of purpose, a sense of overcoming”. This is why he said that our first Carnival was in 1831. That was the year when closure of the Sunday Market was threatened and when, after fighting firepower with real fire, the slaves celebrated their triumph in a cavalcade of masqueraders, bands, drums, sticks and masks of horns of oxen.

According to Tim Hector, “African slaves here in particular, developed an African custom or tradition at Sunday Market, the one day, and the single day they did not work on the plantation…. (when) they gathered in circles talking and laughing, and ridiculing those in planter power”.

And so, on Carnival Sunday, as we musicians, calypsonians, spectators and judges prepare to re-enact our Sunday Market, we are indeed keeping the Carnival spirit of the freedom of Sunday Market alive. But we must never forget that freedom is predicated on a base of rigid discipline. What we must keep alive is the spirit, the eternal life-force to solve the unique, West Indian paradox that we cannot ever allow the severity of slavery to deny our attention to new forms of indispensable rigidity. This is the Carnival spirit we must birth and keep alive.

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