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Not Winston Soso’s Carnival

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“In the heat ah de jamming, she want to go home

She say: ‘all me family gone, we go be alone’

Just as we reach, she take off she costume and put on she robe

‘Have something to eat, have some ah this food

All de meat is yours’

Ah tell she ‘I doh mind, I don’t mind if you want to give me, ah won’t refuse it…’”

In this carnival tale of seduction, female power, and male complicity, Winston Soso captured codes of courtship that are utterly Caribbean. For whereas the woman completely orchestrates the romantic encounter, leading the man from the Carnival streets to her home to offer him “food,” he never resists and, in fact, celebrates his claim that he never refuses “food.” Perhaps in the song’s most powerful rendition of male sexual bravado, the man tells the woman, “too much is not enough; I am a greedy man.” Written in 1986,{{more}} and infused with the extraordinary musical genius of a Frankie MacIntosh arrangement and the soaring voice of Soso, this song became one of the greatest calypsos of all time. But Soso would not have been able write this song today, because today’s revellers are not wearing costumes; in large measure, they are already disrobed. And such a loss to our Carnival culture would have been immeasurable.

The disappearance of the costumed reveller from Vincy Mas is one of the most perplexing and deeply disturbing elements of modern Vincy Mas. The intricate costumes that once combined storytelling and physical art in a unified expression of beauty have now been replaced with the scantiest of fabrics that expose the human body, and all too often the female body, to a different kind of storytelling: its perfections, its limitations, its possibilities, its carnalities. In this surfeit of flesh and deficit of flash, the aesthetic imagination is stalled – no art is created. And the fixation on the body invites vulgarities, public indecency, and the moral imagination withers.

This is, in fact, a failure of historic proportions. Navigating the intersection between the freedom to imagine and create great art within the boundaries of acceptable moral conduct is the precise challenge over which our greatest band leaders have prevailed. Indeed, in 1975 Becket sang with conviction that pioneering band leaders like Austen, Scully, Fuzzy Knights, and Roy Ralph are among the world’s greatest designers, “and if you would come this Carnival day; you would see the mas they would display.” Today, Becket may wish to rescind that invitation. For although the costumes designed for the kings and queens of the bands, the princes and princesses, and the leading individuals still adhere to the legacy of beauty and glory that defined an earlier age, this is certainly not the case for the vast majority of revellers whose clothing are better suited for the sanctuary of the beach or the privacy of their homes.

As distressing as this situation is, however, it is not beyond repair. If our legendary bandleaders were responsible for the creation of the aesthetic and moral norms which have powered the Vincentian imagination, this is a time for the emergence of new legends. The preservation and reconstitution of that glorious legacy must fuel the artistic fires of modern masters, such as Blondie Bird, Pi-Ling and Ossie Constance. With the artistic and moral authority vested in them as bandleaders, bandleaders have a special place of privilege and power from which can convey to the entire Carnival culture a vision of Vincy Mas, unrestrained in its artistic freedom, but in harmony with the deepest moral sensibilities of our people.

Nor should the bandleaders be alone in this. Sitting in judgment of the Mardi Gras competition are men and women who have the capacity to signal to the bandleaders what the judges hold to be decisive elements of artistry and creativity embedded within the masquerades. The reward structure – the giving out of prizes – to the mas bands is a clear opportunity to send such a message. Furthermore, because some of the material needed to make costumes might be quite expensive, the Carnival Development Corporation must work relentlessly with the Mas Bands Association and Government to reduce the cost of this material to our mas bands. For even as the skimpy clothing has become more dominant in our mas bands, it is also true that they cost less both in terms of money, and in terms of the moral imagination. For this we know: Vincy Mas is a public expression of who we are as a people. If we cheapen our mas, we cheapen ourselves. And there will be no Winston Soso, inspired by the images of great Vincentian art, singing stories of human sensuality delightfully embraced within the rhythms of Vincy Mas.

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