Joy and Rebellion

In Carnival, Editor's Pick by Akilah Walcott

Picture the sound of rebellion. Is it a man with paint on his face and a sword in his hand charging at an enemy? Is it a voice lifted in song? Is there a woman, gyrating clothed in masquerade? Rebellion does not always sound like the clash of the steel of swords. Sometimes it sounds like the clash of a steel pan. It is not always a civil war, it is also an uncivil Carnival. For me, rebellion was to hold injustice by the throat and rejoice in its cries for mercy. That was until I searched within my own understanding of celebration to reveal the power it held, and still holds for our people. Carnival has taught me that sheer power of joyous expression can be its own kind of rebellion. 

“The Jamette Carnival of the masses has now been pushed to the fringes, relegated almost to mere nuisance value, the nostalgia of traditional characters of bats, dragons and devils, and the rare appearances of steel bands. Carnival today is middle-class, largely feminine, and superficial. 

What a departure from the supreme days of the Jamette Carnival when every portrayal required intense self-preparation and self-discovery, including specific dance, stance, and speech as well as definition of space. In other words, the fullness of art…”

-Bukka Renie


Of all the critiques of Carnival, the one that stings the most, comes from within the community. This feeling (sometimes legitimate) that we have betrayed the ways of our ancestors and sold our freedom festival to the highest bidder. Carnival is critiqued to be a parade of loud music, lewd-dancing, and material garments. 

This hard dichotomy that says old Carnival was rebellion and the new Carnival is celebration is a simple and false choice. Joy and Rebellion are sisters, and they are always in conversation with each other. Values of celebration and rebellion are deeply embedded in each other. Have you ever wondered what life would have looked like had they decided to stop celebrating? What would our lives look like without Carnival? Carnival was gifted to us by our ancestors and it was revolutionary for paving a pathway to freedom. A freedom that we now inherit. This freedom also means that we can now allow Carnival to be whatever it needs to be for us. 

The power of expression.  

Surveilling, policing, and governing the joy of our Afro-Carribean ancestors was a tool used by colonial governors in the Caribbean to exert control. If they let us feel a little joy, and taste how sweet it was, then surely we would want more. Surely, we would want freedom. Governors tried to silence us, to keep us from feeling anything but what they decided for us on any given day. 

When we were banned from speaking in our native tongues, music became our source of freedom. We sang songs, and they ordered us to be silent. We played drums, and they burned them at our feet. Limiting expression is one way to stifle the human spirit, and they tried. We resisted. We continue to resist. Expression alone could evoke a response so profound it turns society upside down. Instead of surrendering to silence, we started to communicate through song. When we sang, it was about freedom. We sang with quick wit, and melodic tongues. Our songs were the birth of Calypso. A calypso song functioned as the “poor man’s newspaper.” Calypsonians were described as the mouthpiece of our people as they shared the news for the day, and every day the news was our desire for absolute freedom. 

Calypso was not only born out of rebellion, it was also born out of sheer expression. It was the collective will of our ancestors to keep singing, and creating, despite all that was ripped away. Calypso music is that feel good music, a fusion of jubilation and social consciousness. It evolved from a simple form of expression to a weapon powerful enough to influence political culture in Trinidad. Had they not created a new voice after the old one had been taken away, the pride and spirit of a resilient people would have perished in silence and censorship. Instead they demonstrated resilience in the desire to uplift their own people. This shook colonial governors to the core. 

The suppression intensified, and the riots began. 

The same suppression of expression led to the birth of steel pan music. With the arrival of Canboulay in the post emancipation era, we played in street processions of defiance and liberty, and the resonance of drums and percussion was our soundtrack. Seeking to stifle our expression, and fearing a revolution, the government banned drums and percussion. 

So we picked up scrap metal, dustbins, soap boxes and bamboo stamping ensembles to replace drums. Through trial, error and experimentation, steel pan was born and persisted as the new creative form. It spread through the Caribbean as bodies trickled down the street covered in mud and broken chains, their spirits carrying a sense of freedom. The steel pan, though a stain to the colonial eyes, was the blood that pumped through the heart of calypso music. Their joy was their rebellion. 

“Social protest and commentary still remain important ingredients of the calypso as does the praise song celebrating chosen aspects of local culture and life … There can be no Carnival without the calypso and no calypso without the Carnival” 

(Juneja, 1988:89).

Calypso was combined with soul from the Americas to produce Soca music. A sexy cascade of brass arrangements ignited an infectious chorus, one that sung of social unity, peace, and celebration. And with this fusion, the soundtrack of the modern Carnival was born. Their expression through music was so powerful that it paved the way for us to experience the feeling of freedom this music brings. But it was not just the desire for expression alone, it was the persistence that resulted in pure artistic innovation. Imagine if they had set the drums down in defeat. We would never have known the freedom of carnival. 

Expression is what brought us here. Why stop now? 

Carnival has not lost its potency, it has only evolved. And perhaps the reason we don’t associate joy and celebration with rebellion is that we have been trained to view rebellion as a sudden violent event. Rebellion is also the rose that grew on concrete. It is the flame that does not die in the storm. It is joy, that will not surrender. 

Celebration and the need for expression have always been central to the resistance that allowed for freedom. At every attempt possible, oppressive forces tried to destroy and dismantle our culture. Yet, nothing could stifle the spirit of a resilient people. A spirit that was full of joy despite all adversity. Celebration was our protest.

It is for this reason that I cannot take celebration for granted. Two hundred years after emancipation, the quest for black liberation goes on. Our shackles have only taken on a different form and we exist only partially free. And yet, though still in bondage, I am more free than my ancestors had been. Carnival was a gift our ancestors gave us to rebel with joy. So why should our expression stop?

We can only imagine who our ancestors were, let alone what it was like to live the way they did. Yet we are often asked to justify our actions before them. For them, Carnival was born out of oppression, and celebration was their protest. For us, we let Carnival be whatever it needs to be. So long as it still serves us, its significance is not lost. 

How do we honour our cultural past?

We should not be afraid of change. Instead, we must explore the ways in which we are still connected. We are all on a common journey to freedom.  Freedom may have meant many different things for our ancestors, and also for us. This same freedom means you have the option to learn about the history of the celebration. It means you have the freedom for your celebration to be an act of defiance, or to simply celebrate for personal rejuvenation. This freedom is the great gift they have given us. Celebration can be enough. It is enough.

That’s why I love Carnival. That’s why I carry hints of Carnival with me every day. I hear it in the soca tunes that I play in my house during morning chores. It is in the swing of my hips to Machel Montano’s ‘‘All Over.’’ I carry a glorious joy and a fierce rebellion in my smile. Now, when I picture the sound of rebellion, sometimes it is the clash of the steel of swords, sometimes it is the clash of steel on a pan. Sometimes it is the sound of soca on a speaker, sometimes it is the beat of a heart, and sometimes it is a joy so loud, it does not even make a sound.