Carnival/Labor Day Celebrations
My girlfriend Vanessa Richards and I have done Carnival together in three countries: Notting Hill Carnival in London, Brooklyn’s Labor Day festivities and, of course, Trinidad’s Carnival. What amazes me about Carnival, besides the freedom and lawlessness of it, is the Science of it. There’s so many elements to the Caribbean Carnival: pan, costume, soca music, fetes, J’ouvert, and in Trinidad, there are also the Calypso tents. This weekend in particular, I spent a lot of time musing about the specific elements needed for the ultimate Carnival experience.
Every season, the calypsonians and soca singers make up new songs and those songs last for the whole year. The first key to being able to attack a carnival experience with total involvement and abandon is knowledge of the songs. During the years I’ve been in Trinidad for Carnival [1996, 1997, 2000 (and soon to be 2002)], I learned the songs inside and out. This knowledge impacts the rest of my entire year. When I go to a soca club or party in any other part of the world, they play the soca hits of the year. When those familiar notes and rhythms bounce off my ear drums, I’m immediately infused with energy and remembered joy. With that familiar pleasure thrumming through me, I dance hard, harder than I would have had I no knowledge of the songs whatsoever. A family friend calls soca music trance music. For me, it’s all about muscle memory. Once you’ve cemented some sweet times around a few songs, every time you hear those songs, the fun you had flashes through your memory and your body reacts. Soca music hits you on another level: the lyrics aren’t challenging, the beats aren’t varied, it isn’t meant to be an intellectual experience. It’s meant to be interactive, experiential, physiological. The music itself reaches a whole new level of completion and fulfillment when a crowd of ecstatic dancers are riding the rhythms with aggressive abandon. [Another type of knowledge necessary is the knowledge to wine (gyrate, specifically gyrate against someone else), but we will leave that for your own investigations.]
So Friday night Vanessa and I headed to the big fete behind the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Four big bands: David Rudder & Charlie’s Roots, Blue Ventures, Square One, and Ecstatic. When we got there Charlie’s Roots were on stage. The crowd was large, but it didn’t feel like a mass of people because half the crowd was politely sitting in folding chairs and the other half of the crowd was swallowed by the huge space. We enjoyed David Rudder’s two songs, but while they were changing the stage for Blue Ventures, we talked about the lack of fete energy in the air. That’s when I began my musings on the Science of Carnival. Rather than feel tricked or cheated because I wasn’t having a rollicking good time, I was patient. I told Vanessa I was taking the opportunity to study the music. As neither she nor I had gone to Carnival in 2001, we were behind in our capacity to enjoy the evening. Our lack of familiarity with the songs and the dances limited our excitement level.
Halfway through the Blue Ventures set, the singers seemed a little uninspired by the energy level of the crowd. The singers and band members had been jumping around, singing their hearts out, but they didn’t feel much energy from the crowd. The concert organizers had cleared out a space between the crowd and the stage and blocked it off with barricades. Frustrated, the singers on stage screamed, “If you paid your money to get in here, come front, come front.” That was all the young folks in the crowd needed to hear. They pushed the barricades aside and surged up to the foot of the stage. Once the desired connection/energy level was established, Blue Ventures ripped through the rest of their set. The third band Square One came on and sang some really nice songs and even did a reggae set (it’s always nice to give your muscles another rhythm to dance to when you’ve been squatting and gyrating for hours), but they weren’t at the top of their game. I was ready to chalk the evening up to homework for the later days of carnival, when we bumped into the next important element of enjoying carnival.
You know, it’s fun to enjoy carnival alone or with one other person, but the fun goes up a couple of notches when you have crew. Vanessa and I were standing by the corn soup vendor and I saw a familiar face. “Were you at Carnival 2000 at the InsomniaBreakfast Fete?” I asked this guy who looked familiar. He looked at me like, ummmm. “I was there,” he said, but I could tell he wasn’t convinced he knew me. I told him what crew we were with, and he was like “yeah, yeah, I know them, but I was really drunk that night. So I don’t really remember you.” We laughed and said our good-byes and he wandered off. Vanessa and I moved closer to the stage and this time, someone tapped Vanessa on the shoulder. “Didn’t I meet you in Trinidad four years ago?” he asked her. And they got into a conversation. And who walks up while they’re talking? The guy I remembered from Trinidad. “You know this guy?” he asked me. “No, he knows my friend Vanessa…” “And you know me,” he finished for me. “Well, that’s my partner, this is who I’m here with tonight. And next thing we know, we’re surrounded by a group of about ten men and women, and they’re passing the rum and inviting us to play J’ouvert with them.
So by the time the last band, Ecstatic reached the stage, we had crew. Crew is like a microcosm of the entire fete. The fete is this huge group of wild folks, laughing, dancing, and drinking and having fun. When it’s just you and your girlfriend, you can roam through the fete, but there’s no space you can dominate, because you just don’t have the numbers. But when you join a crew, you have space. All the bodies in that crew are markers for the parameters of your free space. You can run around and jump and be free without worrying about who you’re running into. You have more people to dance with and laugh with and laugh at. The entertainment goes up a few levels. Also, Ecstatic played so many songs from last year (when I was actually at Carnival), that in addition to having crew, my familiarity with the music multiplied by the end of the evening. By the time Ecstatic broke into their rendition of “Get Your Freak On,” Vanessa and I were pretty much out of control.
Carnival is a lot of fun, but it’s also a serious pursuit. If you’re not fit or you’re unprepared to push yourself physically, you’ll spend a lot of time on the sidelines. The fete we went to on Friday night went from 9:00 till about 3:00 a.m. The next night we went dancing till about 5:00 a.m. and then it was time for J’ouvert. Sunday night, we went to a low-key Carnival party. Danced, talked, fraternized. My friends drank and as the hour neared 2:00 a.m., I started to get sleepy. Why? I hadn’t spent the day relaxing, I pride myself this year on attending all the parties I wanted to attend AND getting my work done. I spent the entire day writing and editing. So I found a corner, laid on some pillows, and took a nap. They woke me up around 3:00, we traveled back to my house and changed into J’ouvert clothes.
Vanessa can give a more historical view on what J’ouvert is. I heard her this weekend explaining something about cane cutters and field workers. Looking at the style of J’ouvert, I can see what the connection would be, but I don’t have any facts regarding J’ouvert’s history. What I do know is that J’ouvert means “the opening”. It is officially the opening of Carnival, J’ouvert leads to Carnival day. J’ouvert takes place in the wee hours of the morning. It’s considered “dirty mas” because people traditionally coat their bodies in “mud” (an earth-colored body paint) and take to the streets in ratty clothing. Today, there’s yellow body paint, black oil, mud, blue paint, whatever color takes your fancy. On top of the mud, people in the band throw flour and baby powder. Spectators for J’ouvert know they may get splattered if they stand too close. And don’t let a mud man catch one of his friends standing on the sidelines. No matter what they’re wearing, they’re getting painted.
Our J’ouvert clothes were clothes we didn’t mind getting destroyed, clothes we expected would be destroyed. We got to the house where the J’ouvert band was leaving from at 4:00 a.m. We knew it was the right house because we saw people covered in red paint hanging out in front of the house. We went to the back where about 25 or 30 people were dancing, all covered in red “mud”. The guys hugged us and sent us over to pay our $5 and get mud. This group is an informal group, there are no costumes, just alcohol, friends, and percussive instruments. The $5 is just to keep them from going into the hole. With costumes and an actual steel pan band, inclusion in a J’ouvert band can run up to about $30.
Because it’s on the street and (traditionally) unregulated [Friends tell me the police presence at J’ouvert this year was too confining. They felt controlled and J’ouvert is all about freedom. I didn’t experience the police control b/c I was in a band], J’ouvert is everybody’s time. The haves and the have-nots. It’s also a time for creative costuming: lots of men dress like women, people make political or social commentary with signs and costumes. It’s also a time of bizarreness and nudity. We saw a man laying in a coffin with a large snake. He was sticking out his tongue and getting freaky with the poor reptile. At one point he even bit the snakes skin as it slithered over his face. A few men walked around bare-legged and bare chested sporting only a pair of briefs. We were surprised to see three young round-the-way guys playing with gender in a surprising way: they wore thongs under their low-slung jeans, turning expectations over for one crazy morning. And of course the women have cut off shorts, shirt with holes cut out of them, ripped jeans displaying thighs and buttocks. Sometime toward dawn, we saw a woman dressed only in a wide-netted, silver mesh top saunter by. Her skin was covered in black body oil, she had on a V-stringed something that could not count as clothing as EVERYTHING was exposed. There was a thick silver-chain wrapped around her torso and she was being walked by a huge-stomached big man who was also covered in black oil. “Maybe she’s making a statement about the subjugation and commodification of women,” Vanessa joked. Ummm, yeah.
J’ouvert is traditionally a time of percussive instruments, no electronic music. So pan rules the road: groups of steel pan drummers or percussive groups with drums and the metal center of wheels to beat out rhythms. We left the house around 4:45 and joined the parade. We had a steel band in front of us and a huge black-paint Guyanese group behind us. So we drifted between our group, the steel pan, and the fast drumming of the Guyanese group.
Patience is a virtue, but it’s also a necessity when seeking Carnival fun. There’s always those moments between when you arrive and when the activity gels into whatever kind of lawlessness it’s going to be. For me, I didn’t really start to have fun, until the sun rose. At that point, my favorite dancer finally put down his drum and we danced together. My crew inside the crew had relaxed into the rhythms and no one was worried that someone wasn’t having a good time. The street crowds seemed to finally have been freed to mix in with the band. I got to dance with a few strangers, run back to other bands and generally feel free.
We got back to the house around 8:30 a.m. The d.j. cranked the music back up and we danced hard, danced like we didn’t just come off of the road. Later, we drove to Manhattan Beach in Sheepshead Bay. Four black men and two black women covered in red paint entered the realm of quiet white families enjoying their Labor Day the best they knew how. It was a funny intersection. In Flatbush, it seems like Carnival is the only thing happening, but outside the Carnival zone, people are living their regular lives. We washed off the paint, took in a little sun, and headed back home. We got in at noon, showered, ate, napped, then dressed. We were on Eastern Parkway for the parade by 3:00 p.m. By then, though, our bodies were pretty much satiated. We watched the trucks come by and danced on my friend’s porch till the trucks stopped flowing. I went to bed around 8:00 p.m. Vanessa went out to meet some friends, she didn’t want Carnival to end.
Which brings me to the final element of having a great Carnival: Beyond having posse, it’s essential to have the right running buddy. Vanessa and I have done so many Carnivals together because we’re a good match. If there’s a good time to be found, Vanessa is going to find it; and if there’s a good time to be had, Kiini’s going to have it. Together we’ve got the stamina, the energy, the freedom, and the love of dancing. The only difference between us is she wants to go till she drops, I want to go till I’m about to drop, then I want to go home. I’m about to buy my ticket for Trinidad Carnival 2002 and I’m trying to convince her that she needs to be there too. We have so many more memories to create.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
==KIINI’S REJECTION/ACCEPTANCE O’METER==
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
==KIINI’S REJECTION/ACCEPTANCE O’METER==
This week I received this email:
We’ve been given permission by ________ at _____ magazine to reprint your essay, “No,” in our Nov./Dec. issue. I’m attaching the essay for your perusal, though it is the same version as that which appeared in _____ magazine. (Your editor requested I send this to you.)
I am of course thrilled to add an acceptance to balance out my rejection from a couple of weeks ago, but it was also a bizarre feeling… like, the deed is done, we just wanted to let you know where your words will appear next. So I looked at my contract and the magazine that originally published the article does indeed have syndication rights. In return for the right to syndicate, they’ll pay me 50% of whatever they sold it for. Funny to have something you created making moves beyond your control.