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Saturday, March 10, 2012

In Search of Carriacou's Traditional Carnival

“This is a celebration which involves almost the whole population as only the lame, the blind, and the Seventh Day Adventists may remain at home on Carnival days.”
                                                                     -Donald Hill, 1977                         
 

A few weeks back, a bunch of us PCVs went out to Carriacou, Grenada’s sister-isle, for Carnival. Carriacou is a quiet place, reminding me of what Grenada was probably like 50 years ago. They hold Carnival at the traditional time, just before Lent, and have some interesting customs that are sadly fading away.


While I would have liked to see what else I could find in the countryside, I was determined to see at least two traditional events. The big one that was still on all the Carnival event schedules was Shakespeare Mas (more on that in a minute). The other thing I wanted to witness, however, was Canboulay, the traditional start of Carnival at midnight on Sunday.

As soon as we landed, I started asking about Canboulay. I asked bus drivers and people on the streets of Hillsborough; I asked our neighbors in Lauriston and older people on the bus, but nobody knew a thing about it! Actually, the older folks did know what I was asking about: “Oh yes, that a kinda ole-time ting you talkin, hah ha.” But nobody knew where it might be held. Unfortunately, this timeworn event has changed little since its post-Emancipation origins, whereas Monday Night Mas and Jourve (pron. “joo-vay”) have all changed with the times (under Trinidad’s influence). Those more popular events drive modern Carnival, but I clung to the hope that there was still a rarified opportunity to see what Carnival was like 100 years ago.

Around 10pm on Sunday night, our group headed down into Hillsborough to see what was going on. We knew Calypso Monarch (Dimanche Gras or “Fat Sunday”) and a “wet-fete” were at least happening, but I was determined to catch a bus up-country and go exploring. While my friends all said to forget about Canboulay, I decided I’d rather waste my night seeing for myself that the old Carnival traditions were completely dead than stand around in a loud bar getting sprayed with water. Stephanie and two others came along for the ride. (Unfortunately, we didn't bring a camera!)



I looked for an older bus driver headed to Mt. Royal and asked what was going on up there. For the first time, there was a glimmer of hope: “Yes, I tink there some Big Drum an ting underway.” We jumped aboard. On the way up (maybe around Top Hill?), we passed a bar with a bunch of drunk Short-Knee players (an Old Mas band descended from Pierrot masqueraders) and I made a mental note to go there if Mt. Royal was a bust.



Now, according to Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English, Canboulay actually means cannes broulees, the spectacular burning of cane fields in colonial times, both unintentionally and intentionally. Local historian Christine David (2004) seems to suggest a number of possible origins, but an intriguing one is that planters from all over would bring their slaves to help with a burning field. Bringing slaves and indentured servants together may have given rise to a big cook, with dancing and drums late into the night (a harvest festival). After Emancipation (August 1st, 1834/8), bottle torches were added and the event was continued at different times of the year such as at Tombstone Feasts, Big Drum ceremonies, and Emancipation Day celebrations, eventually becoming the crux of pre-Jourve festivities. In Trinidad, where it may have originated, Canboulay was the Emancipation Day celebration but became part of Carnival when non-whites were banned from participating in the colonial elite’s Carnival. So in the countryside, they threw their own Carnival, calling it Canboulay. Here is where existing elements (indigenous as well as African) began to merge with European Carnival traditions and morph into the modern Caribbean version. Even more interestingly, according to Wikipedia, this was the beginning of a number of laws that banned elements of Carnival (stick-fighting, drums, tambou bamboo bands, etc.), that forced revelers to continuously seek out non-banned materials like spoons and metal buckets. Within the course of about fifty years (1880-1930), this determined innovation evolved into the beautiful Caribbean instrument we call steelpan.

The bus whipped around in the darkness and dropped us by a junction lined with old, crumbling rum shops and a small circle of people. The crowd was decidedly older, retired folks: well-dressed and in nostalgic high spirits. At first they were holding a practice Shakespeare Mas session (without costumes), so we stood politely in the back, straining to hear what was going on. A nice lady came up and asked if we were hungry. As she ladled complementary cups of fresh pea soup, the endorphins were blasting away in my brain: It’s still going on!

I ducked off into one of the rum shops and bought a “quarter” of rum (about 3 shots) and some popcorn. As I walked out, a few guys were setting up drums. In the circle, two older men danced with sticks held outright, reenacting the kalinda, or stick fighting, of their youth in a friendly, artistic style. Aside from the bottle torches (which perhaps were absorbed by Monday Night Mas?), stick-fighting was a big part of Carriacou’s Canboulay. I asked another onlooker about it, and he said these fellas were too old now, “but back in the day, they would give heavy lash! All kinds of blood and stupidness. No time for dat anymore,” he concluded, an allusion to how violent many of the Carnival events once were.

Another man stepped into the ring and began swinging his orthopedic cane around…. As I was learning, these traditions are upheld by a small group of rapidly aging devotees. Accounts I’ve read talk of a Canboulay in every village. Just forty years later, however, this was all that seemed to be left. Here were the effects of acculturation, experienced first-hand. Tradition Mas is not dead, but it’s certainly in the parking lot, looking for a spot.

Then the dancing started: dressed in colorful, West Indian gowns a small group of women fluttered in beautiful, syncopated displays. Men pounded varying rhythms on hide-skin drums while people in the crowd clapped and chanted. This wasn’t a full-blown Big Drum celebration (listen here), but it seemed that they were performing from a similar repertoire. Interestingly, many of these dances have been traced to West-African tribes, most recently the Temne of Sierre Leone.


It was quite exciting to be part of an old-time Canboulay, but because this post is so long already, I'm going to stop there and briefly mention Shakespeare Mas. Basically, on the morning of Carnival Tuesday (the last day), participating Carriacouans dress in colorful, masquerade-style costumes and quote lengthy passages from Shakespeare. It seems that, whereas in the past they would quote a wide variety of speeches (initially taken from British Royal Reader textbooks), they now only orate the surrounding passages of the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” monologue from Julius Caesar. You can watch parts of it here (or, more hilariously, here). (Note that the Short-Knee still perform original speeches, often politically-related.) The Shakespeare players battle one-on-one, and when one messes up, they beat each other with wiry switches (“bulls”), protected by paper-mache capes. Here are some of my pictures from Brunswick and Hillsborough, where the final inter-village showdown took place. With young players mixed in the group, it seems likely that Shakespeare Mas will carry-on a while longer. I wish I could say the same about Canboulay.

-JH


References:

Allsopp, Jeannette
2003    Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, University of West Indies Press: Kingston, Jamaica.

Ashie-Nikoi, Edwina

Chase, Thomas, and Zarah Chase
2011    Abridged Handbook of Grenadian Creole English and French Names, ACLAIMS: St. George’s, Grenada.

David, Christine
2004    Folk Traditions of Carriacou & Petite Martinique, Christine David: Belmont, Carriacou.

Hill, Donald R.
1977    “The Impact of Migration on the Metropolitan and Folk Society of Carriacou, Grenada,” Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, v.54(2):New York, NY