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A Carnival in transition


In 1977, Black Messenger sang:

“Carnival is here again;

I know man go jump whether sun or rain

Carnival is here again; dis time in July is a new thing

It’s a festival here for one and all, so come play your part whether big or small

Please come along, join in dis party under the sun.”

At the time, Black Messenger could not have known that he had constructed a song for the ages. But year after year, decade after decade, Vincentian radio stations would announce the beginning of the Carnival season with the hypnotic beat of Black Messenger’s “Carnival is here again.” {{more}}And in the process, July Mas, which was once the “new ting,” became not so new. Instead, it transformed itself into a Vincentian Carnival tradition, best captured by Becket’s “July in the sun, July getting down; Vincie Mas, ah tell yo; Vincie Mas, ah warn yo!

The central dilemma facing Vincentian Carnival in 1977, however, is the same one that it faces today. How does a Carnival culture that reveres the history and chronology of its calendar, its rhythms and dances, its melodies and revelries, its masquerades and mythologies, how does it respond to the new urgencies, sensibilities, and cultural trajectories driven by unstoppable generational shifts? Because we need be reminded that in 1977, the shift to July Mas was more than simply a change in the date of Carnival. It heralded instead an unprecedented cultural explosion across the entire spectrum of Vincentian Carnival, bringing new music, new mas, and new revellers into Vincentian Carnival, while still paying homage to the haunting memories of Vibrating Scakes’ 1976 epic: “I want to revive Carnival, bring back the old bacchanal, except for the fighting cancelled, the dance was real traditional.”

Grafting the new onto the foundation of the old was the central achievement of the 1977 Carnival revolution. And it catapulted Vincie Mas into a major Caribbean experience providing the launching pad for the scintillating careers of Vincentian legends such as Becket, Winston Soso, and Frankie McIntosh. But as strange as this must surely seem for some, the revolutionaries of 1977 are now the traditionalists of 2016. The baby boy born in 1977 is now 39 years old today. The 11-year-old girl dancing in 1977 to Becket’s “We go wine down Kingstown bad,” she is now 50 years old today.

The conclusion here is clear: the demographic demise of the 1977 revolutionaries is guaranteed. After all, today there are far more Vincentians under fifty years of age than above fifty. But what of their cultural legacy; is oblivion their ultimate fate? Here the answer is less clear, because although less precise chronologically, the changes taking place in Vincentian carnival over the last 10 years have the capacity to be as consequential as those triggered by the revolutionaries of 1977.

Three such changes face us today. The first and most immediate is the music itself. The music preferred by our young people today is the music of Skinny Fabulous, Fireman Hooper and younger singers who have been deeply influenced by Jamaican Dance Hall music and the music of Trinidadian giant, Machel Montano. The speed of its rhythms, the complete absence of social commentary, the melodic and vocal arrangements, these stand outside of the boundaries of the soca rhythms of the late 1970’s and early 80’s. But some of these younger singers have also become regional giants, with others such as Skinny Fabulous successfully constructing international careers. Second, the dances called into existence by this new music are undeniably more sexually suggestive than the dances of earlier generations. Some commentators have seen these dances as offensive to public morality standards. And third, these new music and new dances have been accompanied by the privatization of carnival shows, which had once been a monopoly of the publicly funded Carnival Development Committee, now the Carnival Development Corporation.

Yet perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this culture in tumult is the deliberate efforts by some of the younger artistes to acknowledge the legacies of their forerunners. Becket’s appearance at last week’s “White on the Dock” provides a case in point. The younger singers celebrated his career and he sang some of his old songs in tandem with the younger voices. And what this suggests is the possibility that as in 1977, Vincentian artistes retain the capacity to graft new elements onto the foundations of the old. For while it is absolutely true that change is an unavoidable element of the human condition, it is equally true that our lives derive meanings from our terms of remembrance, the traditions we share, the values we protect.

It is our hope that as our carnival traditions change, they remain anchored to the culture of reverence to the forerunners who built the cultural platforms upon which our younger generations now stand and thereby remain of value to Vincentians across multiple generations.