Friday, April 30, 2010

"Bacchanal is not Carnival"?

The following statement was made by Keith Noel, a contributing writer to the Jamaica Gleaner on April 15, 2010:
"In recent years, the capitalist urge has led to a number of designers outfitting their groups in pretty but skimpy clothing and although their groups are still colourful, one associates them with this rather than with their artistry. The celebratory, highly sexualised, aspect of the celebrations are also a focus. It is this 'branch' of carnival that was 'transported' to Jamaica and has become very popular. This is an integral part of carnival, but when it is the only focus and the cultural aspects are removed," it en really canaval yuh have! So dat is why I, a big, big Trini, not in dat!"

I respect any Trinbagonian's decision not to take part in Carnival in Jamaica especially if you expect it to be exactly the same experience as in Trinidad. In fact, the first thing that I tell any Trinbagonian when they ask me about Carnival in JA is that they should not expect the experience to be like Trinidad. I think that Mr. Noel failed to conduct proper research before making his assertions. First of all the Trinidad-style Carnival was brought to Jamaica by the Trinbagonian and Eastern Caribbean students who resided on the Mona campus in the 1950s. The activities included fetes, ole mas, a Carnival Queen show, a las lap fete and pan. By 1976, a group of affluent Jamaicans who made their annual visit to Trinidad formed the Orange Carnival which took place in the uptown residential community of Cherry Gardens. It eventually became a four day event that consisted of an all inclusive fete that featured calypsonians such as as Mighty Sparrow, Denyse Plummer, Gypsy and Singing Sandra. Byron Lee and the Dragonaires as well as the UWI Panoridim provided music. The event ended with a day long parade of masqueraders.

By 1990, Byron Lee had created his own "Jamaica Carnival" which featured costumes by Trinidadian designer Stephen Derek and Stephen Lee Heung as well as Peter Minshall's infamous King and Queen, Tan Tan and Saga Boy. In the early nineties, Byron Lee's Jamaica Carnival consisted of a Calypso Tent, steel band and a Junior Carnival parade. The mid 1990s, saw other activities being introduced such as wet fetes and j'ouvert by other emerging groups such as Oakridge and Jokers Wild. By 2000, there were two major organizations for Jamaica Carnival: Bacchanal Jamaica and and Jamaica Carnival. Bacchanal Jamaica became the main body for groups such as Frenchmen, Oakridge, Revellers, Raiders and Jokers Wild. Bacchanal Jamaica focused on their Friday night fetes, soca aerobics, j'ouvert and road march. By 2003, Byron Lee announced that his organization would be reducing its number of Carnival events and concentrating on their adult road march. In recent years, Bacchanal Jamaica is the dominant organization for Carnival events in Jamaica. Jokers Wild continue to host a J'ouvert and Island Mas promotes an annual wet fete.

It is true that there has been a reduction in traditional Carnival activties in JA which is also true of the Carnival in Trinidad. We have seen the slow death of the calypso tents, less persons at the pan yards and very little support for the King and Queen competitions as well as the Calypso Monarch. In Trinidad, sponsors flock to the fetes, j'ouvert and the road march which whether we like it or not, these are the dominant events for the Carnival. During the road march, the beads, bikini and feathers are the costume choice for the majority of masqueraders. In addition, one cannot ignore the impact of Jamaican dancehall on soca music whether through sound, performance style or collaboration. So if someone were to implement a model of the Trinidad carnival, soca music and the skimpy costumes would definitely stand out since this is what we have decided represents the festival. I'm not sure what "cultural aspects" have been removed since costumes and soca music are what currently define the Carnival culture of Trinidad. I believe that Mr. Noel means that the "traditional" aspects have been removed from the Jamaican interpretation but this phenomenon is also occurring in Trinidad. It should be noted that cultural expression evolves in any society and of course the older generations would feel a sense of loss and ultimately criticize the new forms.

I would also like to ask Mr. Noel if he attended the Soca on Sundays fete in March which featured a Trinbagonian DJ who played calypso and soca from the 1980s to present? What about the pan fete on April 7th at the Pegasus with steelbands Invaders and UWI Panoridim? or even the Calypso show on April 10 with Calypso Rose?

The idea is that Carnival means different things to different people, even in Trinidad and Tobago... but its liberatory nature is always who is Mr. Noel to say that Carnival in Jamaica is not "carnaval"???

Note: Keith Noel's article could be retreived from

More on the history of carnival in Jamaica can be found in the article "Carnival as Lived-Meanings: Producing Trini-Style Carnival in Jamaica" (2005) by Hilary Brown.

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