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OTHER WRITING from TRINIDADIAN WRITER ATTILLAH SPRINGER

Gods don’t die. They reappear in different avatars. Traditions don’t die. They are reborn in new rituals.

Africa lives in the consciousness of the world most powerfully and profoundly in the masking rituals that can now be found in over 150 Carnivals around the world.

 

It is a matter of historical urgency that we document this yearly return to the source, that we reconnect the Carnival celebration to its roots. To honour this connection is to ensure that their songs and dances and masks live on forever, not just on the days of Carnival.

 

A peeling back of these masks and masquerades reveal a complex and nuanced symbology of resistance and remembrance that tell us that Carnival is much more than a simplistic celebration of beauty. This festival has a far more potent reason for existing and replicating itself, urging the world to confront Africa and the legacy of colonialism.

 

Africa is reborn every year in the hours before dawn on the streets of Port of Spain on Carnival Monday. Emerging out of the Orisha yards hidden in the hills of Laventille, in the barrack yards of East Port of Spain where ex-slaves and indentured Africans mostly of Yoruba origin set up the first working class communities after Emancipation.
For over 150 years this celebration has persisted, a yearly occupation of the streets, dancing, fighting, laughing angry men and women who continue to dare the society to try and stop them.

What they succeeded in creating was a contemporary mythology based on the fragments they had retained and improvised from what they found in their adopted homes.
In the absence of writers and the land on which to build monuments, the streets of Port of Spain became classrooms for lost rituals, Midnight Robbers told fantastical histories and stickfighters were the warriors protecting their lost tribes negotiating the wilderness of the new world.

 

In the absence of museums and theatres the Africans created and curated a new vision of Africa – a global vision. They made the masks that gave their gods a chance to dance again, in their true garments, without the syncretic masks of Catholic saints.

Even the banned drum took on a new form, masking itself in the 1930s in a discarded oil drum that became the steel pan – the 20th Century’s only acoustic musical invention.

The trauma of migration, the indignity of enslavement, four hundred years of oppression are ritually defeated in two days of revelry. The calypsonian, masquerader, pannist, flag bearer join forces to create an alternate reality, a kingdom of their own creation where they are the gods and masters, they are the beautiful ones, they are ones worthy of praise.

 

Out of the Carnival came lasting and important interventions from the African population, democratizing the space, creating access for all to a celebration that was exclusively for the planter class.

 

Carnival became the template for movements of Independence, for movements of resistance against oppression when Trinidadians moved out of their home island in search of other opportunities in the United States of America and England.

 

While CLR James and VS Naipaul fought wars of words, and George Padmore moved to Ghana to help Kwame Nkrumah lead his nation to Independence, on the streets Caribbean people marched and danced and sang and played themselves into visibility.

 

In the same way that their ancestors sought to reconnect with lost homelands in Trinidad, the migrants who came from the Caribbean to England as part of the Windrush generation also sought to remember home here.

 

In the never ending cycle of recreation and remembrance, the Notting Hill Carnival became the space that once again re-asserted those 19th Century concerns. For visibility, for respect and a right to be seen as more than dumb sources of labour.

 

Carnival once again became a battleground between the powers that be and a dispossessed people searching for belonging.

 

Today there are over 150 Trinidad styled Carnivals around the world, including Calabar in Nigeria, a curious and telling import of a Carnival re-created from scraps and fragments of a people thought to be destroyed by the Middle Passage.

 

Through the Carnival the door of no return is opened again. The circle is unbroken between the old and new world in the post modern ancients found in the masquerade, in the steel pan, in the ritual drumming that becomes the hypnotic rhythm of soca.

 

As Trinidad and Tobago celebrates 50 years of Independence from Great Britain in 2012, culture remains its most significant export, from the steelpan to Carnival, Trinidad’s festivals have made a lasting impact on world culture.

 

Without the African presence in Trinidad the cultural forms that now have a lasting cultural and also economic impact would not exist.

 

It is imperative that institutions like the British Museum that have charged themselves with the responsibility of documenting timelines of human civilisation include this voice in the conversation. Carnival and the arts that inform it would be of even greater benefit to this country’s cultural wealth, if given permanent and mainstream spaces of visibility.

 

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