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Carnival: Reflecting on what some of the critics say

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Shortly after reading Pastor Noel Clark’s critique of Carnival, as reported in the News newspaper of last week, I came across a piece I had written for the Vincentian newspaper sometime in the 1990s.{{more}} It was a response to Cecil McIntosh of Bequia (now dead) who regarded Carnival as low breed culture. I have decided to reproduce part of that article taken from the original document I had done. It makes some comments about Carnival, but I want to make the point that criticisms of Carnival are not new; that critics bring their own personalities and views of society to inform those criticisms. In the case of McIntosh, his attitude to Carnival reflected his views of ordinary Vincentians. In fact, in one of his articles to the newspaper, he had suggested that if ordinary Vincentians had a vote, he should be given six votes or some number like that. Pastor Clark’s focus is on Rural Carnival, although he admitted that he did not like Carnival. In fact, his criticisms went beyond Rural Carnival when he made reference to the lyrics of the calypsos, objected to the whining thing and felt that the activity should remain on the Park and not happen on the streets. Some of his criticisms are also ones made generally about Carnival. For someone who seemed to have been appalled by the ‘jig up of these half naked people on the streets’, I was surprised that he had no problem with the Queen show, where contestants parade on stage in bathing suits. This is not to dismiss some of the concerns he expressed, and the organisers of Carnival need to take note. It can perhaps be argued that some of his criticisms can be levelled at the society generally, even outside of Carnival. There is a lot that is positive about Carnival, and the answer to any perceived evil is not to call for a ban on Carnival (Rural in this case). What is needed is not a dismissal of the critics, but for Carnival organisers and lovers and the Society generally to have conversations about the organisation of Carnival, the regulations that need to be put in place, its direction and what we hope to get out of it.

My article is going to be in 2 parts, first reproducing the article about McIntosh and then commenting on Clarke’s criticisms while looking at the whole issue of Carnival and pointing to some of the positives.

“I have tried to avoid reading Cecil McIntosh’s angry pieces since his very backward and primitive views tend to force a response from me. I really could not avoid him last week after seeing the caption, “Carnival is low breed culture”. Cecil’s problem is that he does not want to see ordinary black people express and enjoy themselves. They should really be on the sugar plantations working hard. That gentleman, moreover, cannot make sense of today’s world which he tries to fit into his own convenient interpretation of the Bible. Anger seems to be bottling up in him, and he has simply got to express it before he is overcome by it. To Cecil McIntosh, Carnival is a time when people “wind and wriggle their waists and bottom in a variety of vulgar contortions in response to the jungle rhythm of the West Indian calypso, a travesty of real music”. This, he continues, “is an upsetting and soul afflicting experience.” Poor Cecil sees sex motivating every Carnival participant and the celebrations as a ten day orgy. Embarrassingly for him, the Editor of the Vincentian does not agree with him and really, unlike him, has a sense of humour. The photographs accompanying his article show a section from Beck’s “Wings” which ran away with last year’s prizes and Calypsonian, ‘Man Sackey’. In other words they focus on the creative elements in Carnival.

The Calypso is described as jungle rhythm and a travesty of real music. Surely the man needs to be inducted into the world of the 1990s. He is really reliving, or rather, still living in his mind, in a period when it was not proper to sing calypsos on Sundays or during Lent. Any kind of music which came from the North was considered respectable and so allowed, but not so the music developed by our Caribbean people. Fortunately, we have gone past that, and the rantings of a Cecil McIntosh will not turn back the hands of the clock. But he is not unique in his views, for there are others who share them but are not as vocal and perhaps not as extreme. It would be interesting to know what he regards as real music. To describe calypso as jungle music is one way of saying that we who create and enjoy that music are people fit for the jungles. This is why we cannot divorce what he says about Carnival from his view of ordinary black people and of today’s world which he does not comprehend..

Carnival, like any other festival, lends itself to extremes, and so there are, perhaps, those to whom it represents nothing more than whine, women and song. The majority of Vincentians and of Carnival lovers are, however, not sitting around waiting on Carnival to participate in a ten day orgy. Carnival has traditionally been a pre-lenten festival. It did not originate with the masses of Black people but was certainly taken over by them and shaped in their own way. The change of dates to June/July has further helped to move it away from its original moorings. It is, therefore, not unlike many other festivals which have lost touch with their original raison d’etre. To play upon the religious significance of Carnival is to fail to realise that we have captured Carnival and are shaping it to suit our own ends. Having said all of this, it must be admitted that we still need to decide what we want out of Carnival and where we are taking it. Obviously, our answers will change over time as Carnival evolves and society itself undergoes changes. But at any particular time we must provide answers to those questions.

…Carnival is, however, more than this. It is the time of year that more fully gives some expression to the creativity of Vincentians- from the Calypsonians, Steelband Men and Mas Men to the overnight entrepreneur. How can we build on this and make it a more permanent state? So there are many debates that must take place. One has to be about Carnival itself, its shape, organisation and direction, then about its contribution to the economy of the country.”

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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