Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Live Yuh Life Like Yuh Playing Mas?

Academic scholarship has agreed that the ideas of Carnival and Masquerade speak to a temporary adoption of an identity different from our everyday lives- one that offers escape. The idea of "freedom to the flesh" has long been associated with the Carnival. Philospher, Mikhail Bakhtin suggested that the carnivalesque spirit offered persons from the lower classes relief from their oppressive lives. During their celebrations, they mocked the upper classes, and for a short time, they voiced non conformist opinions. It was indeed a time for humor and revelry. But at the end of the festivities, the workers had to return to the reality of their lives. Today Kees and David Rudder are asking us to live our lives like we are playing mas; let's carry this free spirit and abandonment outside of the confines of Carnival.

But the Trinidad Carnival of today is outside of the realm of Bakhtin's theory. Does the contemporary Carnival protest in the same way as the canboulay, the kalinda, the early steelbands, the pissenlit or the calypso? Our Carnival is largely defined by high priced costumes, all inclusive fetes, all inclusive j'ouvert bands, and exorbitant cash prizes for the soca competitions. From my perspective, there's no culture of protest or resistance. If we look at other elements such as the dimanche gras competitions, steelband and traditional mas, there is very little evidence of oppression. What we do have are promoters, sponsors and band leaders setting high prices to attain this 'freedom'. We also have a culture of aspirants grabbing at middle class signifiers, which in turn feeds the pockets of these Carnival business persons. Where is the resistance to this greed? What matters most to these aspirants is that they got into a certain band or that they got tickets to one of the exclusive inclusive fetes. Some argue that Carnival can level social inequities. Can it really? The fetes and the road march certainly do their best to keep out certain people. Despite what we think, there's no "all ah we is one famalee"  in j'ouvert, the road march or in fetes.  In fact, the "all ah we" is only an extension of the middle class identity of the aspirant. Whether we like it or not, this is the Trinidad Carnival today.

The freedom can actually be a relief from the participants' everyday roles, but how oppressive are these everyday roles? The people who can pay up to US$1000 for a costume or US$200 for a fete ticket or who move from Carnival to Carnival throughout the year are living their life like they are playing mas. But what of those who can't afford this experience, those who live in actual poverty, what escape does the contemporary Carnival give them?

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