We are now in the heart of the Carnival season! We are all familiar with the rituals that take over the country in the early months of each year as we prepare for the greatest festival on Earth. Amid the bacchanal, the fetes, and trying to learn all the new soca songs, it is easy to forget about the history and meaning behind this cultural celebration. Let’s take a minute to look back at the fascinating history and development of Carnival, which is so integral to Trinidad & Tobago.
Our Carnival has its roots in European pre-Lenten “farewell to the flesh” celebrations that were brought to Trinidad by French settlers in the 18th century. In the weeks between Christmas and Ash Wednesday, the island’s elite held lavish banquets, concerts, and masquerade balls. However, after Emancipation in 1834, the tradition was adopted by freed slaves, who combined parts of the European tradition with West African styles of dance and percussion. This fusion of cultures gave rise to the many characters that we now associate with traditional mas, such as the Dame Lorraine, Pierrot Grenade, Midnight Robber and Moko Jumbie, each of whom have their own fascinating story, which you can read about here.
A crucial part of the post-Emancipation Carnival was Canboulay, where freed slaves would celebrate their freedom by burning sugar cane (cannes brulées) and forming a procession through the streets. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Carnival quickly came to be regarded with immense distaste by the ruling colonial government. By the 1880s, these celebrations had evolved into the Jammette Carnival, which included lewd dancing and songs that mocked the white elite. The government tried to control and even outlaw these proceedings but Trinidadians would prove too resourceful and creative to be easily restrained.
A prime example of this creativity is the invention of the steelpan. In 1883, the British colonial government in Trinidad banned the use of animal skin drums as a way to quell Carnival celebrations. Consequently, people turned to bamboo, which they cut to different lengths with different tonalities and hit with sticks, thus inventing the tamboo bamboo. With the growth of the island’s oil industry towards the end of the 19th century, empty oil drums were freely available and so the people turned to this for percussion. By the 1930s, steelpan was the main instrument of Carnival.
Our local music is inseparable from Carnival. We all know that the traditional music of Carnival is calypso, with its “Lyrics to make a politician grin, or turn a woman’s body into jelly” (as David Rudder famously sang). Calypso music developed from the chantuelle (or chantwell) tradition of Canboulay, in which one singer would give voice to the frustrations of the people in call and response songs, accompanied by the tamboo bamboo and later the steelpans. People would gather in “kaiso” tents to hear the chantuelle, and eventually, the calypsonian perform.
In the 1970s, calypso started to change, developing into the genre we now call soca. Soca emerged from the introduction of Indian rhythms and instruments to calypso, as well as the growing influence of American soul and disco music in Trinidad (the word “soca” is said to come from “the soul of calypso”). Although there was initially some pushback from calypso peongs, today soca is the main genre produced and enjoyed in T&T year round.
Today, Carnival is a vital part of our national identity – as well as a phenomenal party. Its history shows us the vibrant, creative nature of Trinbagonians throughout time. Our Carnival is a celebration like no other on Earth, a celebration that could only have arisen from the unique mixture of cultures and people who coexist here today. As we take to the streets again for those precious two days of respite from our day-to-day lives, let us remember where this tradition comes from.