Carnival culture or commodity:
Dr Hillary Brown of the CARICOM secretariat on the evolutions of carnival.

In Uncategorized by Gabriela Roberts

Dr. Hilary Brown is the Program Manager for Culture and Community Development at the CARICOM[1] Secretariat. She is a steel pan player and enthusiast, a Carnival Queen, a mother of two and a specialist in regional development, communications and popular culture. We speak to her about the role carnival plays in her life, at CARICOM, and it’s role in the development of Caribbean and African peoples and regions.

How has Carnival culture shaped your life, beliefs, and your politics?

My very first Trinidad and Tobago carnival was in 1988, and since then over the past 32 years, I’ve played mas’ in 22 of them and only missed 8 carnivals. Even before my first carnival, I joined the UWI Panoridim Steel Orchestra as an undergraduate student at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. Because I was immersed in carnival culture and steel pan music, I followed the carnival season in Trinidad and Tobago every year, since that was the epicentre of carnival culture. I really wanted to visit [Trinidad] to connect with what I had been learning through my experience in the steel band on the University campus.

I played with Pan Masters of Washington DC for the 3 years while I lived and worked there and on my return to Jamaica, my sister and I started a steel band at church where I was a player and musical director for many years, until I moved to Guyana. I’ve also played mas’ in Jamaica Carnival and in Washington DC’s Carnival; I’ve been to Caribana, to Labour Day Carnival in New York several times, and I’ve passed through Miami Carnival – so I am a serious carnivalist!

Carnival is an integral part of my life, one of the areas I call “non-negotiable.” I feel like I’m missing something major if I’m not in Trinidad for carnival. And I think that’s how you experience the carnival culture when you are really immersed in it: it really captivates you.

Carnival is a lived reality, an important celebration of our culture, life and who we are. It is an art form that we produce well as a people. Caribbean people are masterful when it comes to putting on a carnival. I see it as an important tradition to pass on to my children and to my nieces and nephews and have been doing so actively.

Beyond creativity, carnival is about honoring a deeply rooted ancestral tradition. The roots of carnival go back over 300 years to the period of African enslavement in the Caribbean. Enslaved Africans fought to preserve their right to celebrate carnival. Many attempts were made by the governing class to ban the festival. The Catholic church tried to ban it since this sort of celebration was not viewed as acceptable when carnival used to begin on a Sunday. The Africans fought back to preserve it as their space, where they could express their freedom.

We need to do a lot more to ensure that young people understand the rich history of this important tradition. Most young people enjoy the partying but are not aware where is came from or why we celebrate in this way. For example, with J’ouvert which means “day break”, everyone thinks it’s only about putting on mud and paint and coming out by 2 am to start the festivities. But J’ouvert came out of an important tradition. When carnival was banned from beginning on a Sunday, the enslaved people who couldn’t wait for Monday to come to start the festival, came out at midnight on Monday morning and performed the “cannes brulees” ceremony, which re-enacts the scene during slavery when they would go to neighbouring plantations to help put out fires.  They performed a ritual with torches, symbolizing the burning canes and then the festivities began, which evolved into J’ouvert which goes until morning. It heralds the official start of the masquerading and revelry in the streets which are so integral to carnival. J’ouvert represents resistance, a tradition that our ancestors held very dear. So when I’m in the streets playing mas,’ I feel that connection with the roots of a time honored tradition through carnival.

A lot of historians have been writing and challenging the eurocentric view of where carnival originated and debunking the myth that it was introduced by the French planters in the Caribbean. Several writers have demonstrated very clearly and convincingly that carnival dates back 6,700 years ago to Kemet in the Nile valley, where there were carnival traditions very similar to what happens in Trinidad and Tobago today. Caribbean historians feel that those traditions were exported from Kemet to Europe. Africans therefore didn’t ‘learn’ carnivalesque traditions from Europe; they brought those traditions with them to the Caribbean. Understanding and correcting the history is very important so we can honor our past and our traditions and better appreciate why we come out at carnival time to celebrate.

Carnival embodies resistance, and this is alive in my personal politics. It is such an outpouring of creativity and excellence in every way. The kind of creativity that comes out in the music, pan, and masquerading is phenomenal. It affirms for me, the importance of this Caribbean space and bolsters our cultural confidence. It says to me that this is a space worth preserving and is important to preserve for future generations. We are a great civilization that has given so much to world culture through this festival and through our many other excellent cultural expressions in music, literature and dance.

What are the elements that embody Carnival to you?

Mas’, calypso and soca, and steel pan. Those are the main artforms that make carnival unique. There are also a lot of traditional carnival characters – the Midnight Robber, red and blue devils, Indian, Pierrot Grenade and Dame Lorraine – among others, which we should learn more about and try to preserve. It isn’t carnival without large crowds and loud music – so if you don’t like large crowds you’re in the wrong place!

That feeling of freedom in carnival is especially important. I understand why it would have been important to enslaved peoples and why it continues to be so celebrated today. At most they were given a few days off at Christmas time, and so these moments were big opportunities to express that freedom. And after emancipation, it continued to be an important way of expression and the commemoration of their liberation.

Carnival as it is now, has evolved. The high level of art, the high level of competition, and all the major parties have developed over time. An important part of the experience is learning the new soca and calypso each year. It’s completely different to hear the music after carnival is over, as opposed to being part of the process of learning the music and helping to decide who the winners are along with other carnival goers. I may not like a particular song at the beginning of the festival, and then it grows on you, as you draw on the vibes and energy of everyone else. It’s an unbeatable experience.

What is it about Carnival and Caribbean people that explains the evolution and spread of carnival throughout history and around the world ?

Why carnival has been exported to the diaspora and taken root  is for a number of reasons. For one, we are a very migrant people, and we take our traditions with us wherever we go. We insist that carnival happens in our adopted homes. Caribbean people are also very welcoming and willing to share, so carnival is a space that welcomes everyone to participate. And of course there is the music, the fabulous music.

But we can’t forget that carnival is also a big industry; it makes a lot of money.  Toronto’s Caribana and Nottinghill Carnival are the largest street festivals in Canada and the UK respectively. Millions of people attend these festivities and spend a lot of money in the economy during carnival. There is spending on flights, car rentals, hotel accommodation, restaurants, costumes and tickets to events, vendors and the like. Festivals and carnivals generate a lot of business.

Has carnival changed from place to place and how do you see that change?

Carnival has been changing since it started as we can’t contain culture; it constantly evolves and shares influences with other cultures. How carnival is presented in Trinidad is not how it’s presented in Jamaica or Toronto. Carnival has to merge with its host country by connecting with those cultural expressions and traditions that the people there know and appreciate. In Jamaica for example, carnival has more reggae. And it’s nice to see how carnival has adapted to it’s host country or community wherever it has taken root.

However, all the diasporic carnivals recognize Trinidad and Tobago as being the mother of all carnivals. The artist who wins the Road March or Soca Monarch competition in Trinidad and Tobago has a great year of touring, earning, and performing in Miami, Jamaica, Nottinghill, New York and all the other diasporic carnivals. They all look to the root of carnival in Trinidad and Tobago to take their cues on what is popular and successful.

Can there be a harmonious exchange between cultural preservation and commodification?

This is the crux of many a discussion on culture and carnival. There is the view of the cultural purists who want to see the tradition stay the same, where the meaning and connection to the origin are preserved. Then there are the entrepreneurs who say ‘yes, but it’s also business’. There is always this tension between the instrumental value and economic value of culture and the arts.

Economics is a natural driver, but what needs to be understood is that the economic value can only be sustained if the creative core is preserved and nurtured. It is through the commodification of culture that entrepreneurs make money and how cultural expressions and products are shared widely. However, this needs to be managed properly through progressive public policy making to ensure that culture policy preserves and nourishes cultural traditions and supports new and emerging artists. Through policy interventions, traditions and expressions are put on display so that all people have access.

On the matter of masquerading, the more commercially driven mas’ bands characterized by bikinis, beads and feathers, are very organized, focused on customer service and selling an experience, keep in touch with their masqueraders and attract a lot of sponsorship. In comparison, the mas bands that focus more on storytelling and street theatre, spend more time, effort and resources on costumes and produce a wonderful expression of art, but they often lack the customer service and sponsorship that the other commercial bands have. I still prefer to play with the bands that emphasize art and storytelling as I feel strongly about what they are doing and what they bring to carnival.

When it comes to balancing Carnival’s cultural importance with its economic benefits, do you believe there is a Carnival that is going in the right direction with policy making?

Based on what I have seen, I would say it’s still carnival in Trinidad and Tobago especially because of the significant engagement of schools in activities during the carnival season and the involvement of young people in carnival competitions, kiddies mas’ and steel bands.

However, I know there is an awareness in many countries in the Caribbean region of the importance of keeping cultural traditions alive in carnival and other festivals, such as Crop Over in Barbados and Culturama in Nevis. Several countries have also developed or are in the process of developing or updating their national cultural policies, in which they commit at least at a policy level, to give more support to the cultural dimension.

We have to recognize that the arts represent multi-billion dollar creative industries, and we have to always try to strike that balance between creativity and commercialization. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that culture is replicated, known, understood, and appreciated for generations to come. Policy can also mandate the private sector give their support through incentives such as tax write-offs. Such policy initiatives are crucial to striking that balance.

Carnival has become the world’s largest celebration, with months of preparation and organization. From a CARICOM Secretariat perspective, what does this mean to you? And how has this changed your Carnival experience ?

Carnival is deeply important to the CARICOM region. We are not a region that produces technology, but we create cultural expressions that are renowned worldwide. In order to develop our region, we have to capitalize on something that the region does well. We have to leverage our creative and cultural products and services.  Artists and other advocates have been advocating for governments to see and understand that carnival is more than a party, especially given all the benefits it brings to the region. I see carnival as part of a wider cultural enterprise and ecosystem, that should be an important part of the overall strategy to advance the region.

Another festival that is very important to the region that I am responsible for managing is CARIFESTA[2], which is a roving Caribbean mega festival of arts and culture that attracts artists from over 25 countries in the region. CARIFESTA features a multiplicity of art forms on the  program over 10 days.  These include a music, dance, drama, fashion, film and animation, visual arts, carnival arts, a youth and children’s village and a Grand market where all the countries represented have a booth and also participate in the culinary component. It is something we need to invest in [Carnival and culture], something we do well that needs much more than the current level of support.

Jamaica and Ghana have taken steps in supporting an easier connection between the Caribbean and Africa, with the waiver of a visa requirement from both countries. Are there other ways you believe this connection can be strengthened?

The African Union has declared the African diaspora the 6th region of Africa. I’ve been involved in my capacity at CARICOM, in working towards strengthening collaboration between Africa and the diaspora in a number of initiatives, such as the African Diaspora Summit of Heads of Government held in 2012 South Africa. We need direct air travel routes across the Atlantic to West Africa from the Caribbean, instead of having to go through Europe, and there have been several initiatives to try to make this a reality. There is an organic link between Africa and the diaspora through history and culture. The collaboration needs to happen at all levels – people to people contact and between governments.

Do you see Carnival and initiatives like The Year of Return playing an important role in cultural exchange between continental and diasporic African peoples?

The Year of Return in Ghana, the Gate of Return in Benin and other such initiatives are very important to rebuilding the relationship lost between Africa and her diaspora because of the enslavement of African people. Encouraging trade and commerce will also help to drive business and related services, more cohesion and interaction between these regions. The Caribbean has been well known for its strong Pan-African philosophy and proponents like the late Ambassador Dudley Thompson. The Caribbean Pan-African Network is an organization based in Trinidad and Tobago that actively promotes increased collaboration between Africa and the Caribbean diaspora.

The Hon. Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, has proposed the establishment of the ABCD Commission – Africa, Brazil, Caribbean and Diaspora Commission. Such an organization would seek to build stronger connections between the diaspora and Africa. Cultural exchange is a great way to initiate dialogue and cooperation.

CARICOM and the African Union have been exploring ways to strengthen their links, and there should be a meeting of Heads of Government from the two regions when the COVID-19 pandemic permits. The ACP[3]Secretariat is based in Brussels and is foc used on bringing together these three regions. There are a number of ways proposed for collaboration, in which cultural initiatives and festivals feature significantly.

It can be said that history and culture is the foundation of the Caribbean regional movement. We can attribute why we came together as a group of nations and why we see each other as part of a regional family, to our common historical experiences, cultural expressions and aspirations.  Carnival is a central part of that shared experience. Carnival like most popular cultural forms, also allows the voice of the dispossessed and the marginalized in our societies to be heard in the wider development process. We have superstars of carnival now in calypso, soca, mas’ and pan, but the majority of our stars started from humble beginnings. Music and art carry their message to the highest levels of power in our countries. Those who govern hear their songs on the radio or see their masquerade band loaded with a message, going down the street. Carnival is a space where the people dictate the rules of the space. It provides a space for the ordinary people to express themselves. Carnival has and will continue to play an important role in the lived experiences of Caribbean people and those who share this important tradition with us.

Dr Hilary Brown, is also active in the reparations movement and is an avid writer. You can find her work published in Globalization, Diaspora and Caribbean Popular Culture edited by Christine Ho and Keith Nurse (2005). Ian Randle Publishers.

She raises this point in her article

[Looking at Jamaica Carnival] The presentation of carnival in Jamaica feels like a transplanted version of the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. Jamaica can make carnival more of its own by incorporating more Jonkonnu into carnival, as the only indigenous masquerading tradition known to the people. When that link is made, there will be a stronger connection for the people to carnival in Jamaica. One doesn’t necessarily have to wear a Jonkonnu costume; but conceptually, it should be framed and understood that to play mas’ in Jamaica is to play Jonkonnu.

[1] CARICOM is the Caribbean Community of 15 Member States and 5 Associate Members with headquarters in Georgetown, Guyana. CARICOM seeks to realise a better standard of living for Caribbean people through cooperation in human and social development, trade, security, foreign and community relations.

[2] CARIFESTA – the Caribbean Festival of Arts was launched in 1972 by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and has been held 14 times in eight countries in the region, the most recent edition held in Trinidad and Tobago in August 2019.  CARIFESTA is held every 2 years.

[3] ACP – African Caribbean and Pacific States Secretariat