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Carnival, Freedom and Personal Responsibility

Friday, March 11, 2011

One of the really beautiful things about T&T Carnival is that it is open to all. It is truly a people’s festival. There is no need to apply and there are no admission requirements. In fact, there is no authority which has total control over all aspects of Carnival, and thankfully so. There are no entrance fees and no income barriers. It is only when you enter into the competitive realm that you encounter officialdom and controlling structures. You can be faceless and nameless. It is the only time of the year when the obviously insane can easily be mistaken for the sane. You can join in or opt out at any time and nobody cares. Carnival is truly an open space and it is in this space that the creativity and energy of the people of T&T bubble out. It is no wonder that the vast majority of the population is involved directly or indirectly as masqueraders, artists, entertainers, spectators, media workers and the vast array of service providers.
It is in this free space that the culture of T&T is primarily defined and progressively changed. Carnival is the single most important annual event impacting on the culture of T&T and, I dare say, the economy, despite the many attempts, primarily out of political correctness, to give equivalency to other events. Carnival is a creative space that defies authoritarian control since individuals do not require the permission of anyone to be involved.

Hence, Carnival always has its surprises. It is like an annual hide tide that breaks on the shores of T&T early in the New Year, bringing with it a lot that is beautiful and some that is ugly. Sadly, some chose to see only the ugly. Carnival is about freedom—the freedom to be. Carnival creates a mental space in which society relaxes its social norms and people are free of the prison of their normal and often boring work environments. Out of that creative space emerges the creative costume designs and choreographic displays, the ingenious lyrics and the unbelievably beautiful music and the musical instrument of the steelband. These creative outcomes transcend divisions of politics, race, ethnicity, class and wealth disparities. At Carnival time the society gives you permission to be yourself. It is up to the individual to determine how best to utilise that space. You can use it by acting responsibly and bringing out the best of yourself by way of your creativity and responsible behaviour. Or you can utilise the space by being irresponsible, thus disrespecting yourself and others and denigrating your own humanity. It is in the dimension of the responsible use of the free space that Carnival releases the positive energies of our people and becomes a spiritual expression of the best of ourselves. Carnival, more than any other activity, has brought to the fore the creative genius of the people of T&T.

I am always amazed at how tolerant, caring and generous people are during the many Carnival festivities and more so on Carnival Mondays and Tuesdays. Yes, there are always a few incidents, but these are relatively few and mostly minor in relation to the scale of Carnival in terms of the number of activities, the number of venues and the density of the crowds. For example, somebody may accidentally step on your foot and they immediately say sorry. You might step on somebody’s foot and they respond “ no problem.” They may even follow up with the offer of a drink. It is amazing how many people willingly share their drinks and food with total strangers. Over the years, including this year, I have taken the time to study the faces of masqueraders and spectators and, by and large, they portray joyfulness, serenity and a state of bliss. And the interesting thing is it is not just the effect of alcohol—surprisingly many masqueraders consume very little alcohol, and some none. In the joy- ful state of bliss, pain recedes as people jump and dance over the many days of the Carnival season; intolerance and anger wane as people’s selfishness and divisiveness give way to a feeling of togetherness as part of what can only be called the Carnival brotherhood. I cannot think of another national cultural event that brings people together in the way Carnival does.

People become enwrapped in the spirit of togetherness, bringing to mind the African word umoja, which in Swahili means unity. Foreigners are often dumbstruck by this overwhelming state of togetherness and bliss that they witness at Carnival time. As I traversed the densely crowded Ariapita Avenue on Carnival Tuesday afternoon, my own spirit was lifted as I experienced the joy and unity of masqueraders and spectators. But, as noted earlier, there is a negative side to this wonderful celebration. And it is the negative side that generally makes the news. Creativity is by its very nature unstructured and indisciplined. It cannot be caged and hence it is not easily managed since management is about order and planned production. Creativity demands freedom and of the products you are never certain. Hence, the twin brother of Carnival is bacchanal. The judging of vastly different creative materials is always a matter of personal opinion and dispute is inevitable.

Some people are unable to manage themselves in the free space of Carnival and allow their baser emotions to drive their behaviours, often aided and abetted by the sumptuous consumption of alcohol. What may have begun as a blissful experience becomes one of a mental blur and the loss of self-control accompanied by lewd and vulgar behaviour, with some engaging in a public simulation of the sexual act. Some people are public exhibitionists who gravitate to wherever there is a camera. Hence the televised production of mas in its unscripted form may not be a true representation of the mas itself. Likewise there are a few calypsonians, soca artistes, chutney singers and mas makers that are downright crude and vulgar in their songs and portrayals. These are some of the folks who bring an otherwise beautiful and wonderful experience into disrepute through their abuse of the free space of Carnival. But it is important to remember that the irresponsible behaviour we see during Carnival simply reflects the state of morality in the society and it is not just a consequence of Carnival. It just becomes move visible in the free space of Carnival and is driven by people’s insecurity and a lack of a true sense of self. In the relative quietness of the post-Carnival season my hope is that all of us would reflect on our behaviours and personally commit to becoming better role models for the nation’s children who are always watching.


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