The Republic of Guyana has the unique privilege among Caribbean Caricom nations of being able to celebrate two national days each year – Republic Day which is celebrated carnival style on February 23, and Independence Day celebrated in various other ways on May 26.
It is now the season of Mashramani – the carnivalesque festival which rings in Republic Day, reaching its high point on the national holiday this Tuesday, February 23. This year, however, has a very important difference. On May 26 the country commemorates nationhood in a major and very special way – it is the 50th anniversary of Guyana’s Independence from colonial status; the Golden Jubilee of its transition from being British Guiana, a colony of Great Britain, to becoming the sovereign nation of Guyana. The entire year is devoted to that celebration, including what happens during Mashramani.
Mashramani is a national cultural festival especially designed to celebrate Republic Day in 1970. It is also a popular festival which has evolved over the decades to what it is now. It is usually Guyana’s biggest national celebration, because there is a festival, with a more resounding impact than the somewhat statelier and less flamboyant series of events at Independence, when there is no festival. But this year it has been subsumed. Mashramani is incorporated into the grand anniversary year as a part of the Jubilee celebrations.
We began by declaring that Guyana has two national days. What is the comparative situation across Caricom? Trinidad and Tobago is the first case because it has the grandest festival of them all – carnival, which came to an end only 10 days ago on Ash Wednesday. Trinidad and Tobago’s national day is Independence Day on August 31. But that is most emphatically dwarfed by carnival and relegated to a sedate stately observance; there is no flamboyant festival that celebrates it. Carnival is the dominant event of the year – it is the grand national festival, but it is not officially the national day. It is a cultural, popular, commercial, and traditional festival that earns its place on the calendar because it evolved from deep traditional roots. It is a calendar festival because these roots, which are partly religious, fix it firmly in the Christian calendar.
Like Guyana, Barbados has a Golden Jubilee this year, having become independent on November 30, 1966. It therefore has its national Independence Day on the last day in November, but it, too, has a grand national festival separate and apart from that. Crop-Over reaches its climax on the first Monday in August when the nation takes to the streets on Kadooment Day. This is a cultural, popular and commercial festival which has its oldest roots in tradition and history. It is Barbados’s equivalent of carnival but is not carnival. It is not a calendar festival – not arising from the calendar and not having the Roman Catholic historical influence such as obtained in the roots of carnival. Crop-Over descended from an old plantation end-of-crop harvest celebration.
Jamaica is an entirely different case because there is only one national day which is the same day as its carnivalesque festival. Jamaican Independence Day is August 6, the same day of the peak of celebrations which brings the Jamaica festival to a close. ‘Festival’ (as it is called) itself has no traditional or calendar roots – it was created to celebrate Jamaica’s Independence in 1962 and August 6 is both Independence Day and the culmination of a rich series of cultural events that go back throughout July. Both national day and festival day are one, even though the festival is really prolonged over a season of several days. It is cultural, popular and commercial, and is actually the Independence anniversary celebration.
There are differences between Guyana and these countries. All three have an Independence Day which we are calling their national day. All three have a national cultural festival. In the case of Trinidad and Barbados these are old traditional festivals which fall on different days away from Independence Day, while Jamaica’s was newly manufactured as the Independence celebration. Guyana is the only one with two different days to mark nationhood – Independence and Republican status. Its cultural festival was, like Jamaica, manufactured to celebrate one of these – viz, Republic Day. Like the others, this national festival – Mashramani – is the equivalent of carnival. It is not carnival, but has incorporated a number of traditions and has carnivalesque performances.
The traditions incorporated into Mashramani represent cultural practices that were known in Guyana through the 1950s and 1960s. These include the calypso, steel band, float parade, costumed bands with band of the year, king and queen of the bands, and a few additions. The soca and chutney were recently added, as were the children’s costumed bands – Children’s Mashramani, the inter-schools dramatised poetry, dance and masquerade, and the Junior Calypso competition. When the festival was created in 1970, it pulled together those traditions from the 60s and made modifications to suit what the inventors saw as more befitting republicanism and to try to move away from carnival imitation.
In order to give it an indigenous brand, the name Mashramani was adopted in the belief that it was the name of a traditional Arawak celebration. But the word does not exist in any known Amerindian language and is at best a coinage to give the festival a brand and a local Guyanese identity.
This year Mashramani is a Jubilee event and it will not upstage Independence Day. All of the children’s events have already taken place, and the calypso and chutney monarchs have been crowned. The steel band contests will follow on February 25 and 28. But the heart of the street performance, the peak and culmination up to which most of the other events would usually lead, has been removed. The Mashramani Day float parades, costumed bands and the road march tramp will not be there on Tuesday. These have been transplanted to be part of Independence Day on May 26. There will be no soca and road march for February 23.
These shifts create a major vacuum, taking the heart and life out of Mashramani Day. It is to be seen in two days’ time what effect or impact this will have. However, this kind of thing is not without some precedent. A health hazard which posed an epidemic threat in Trinidad in 1972 caused the postponement of carnival from its traditional dates until May. The calypsonians made hay. Sparrow produced the famous “Mas in May” and Kitchener responded with “Rainorama” to deride both his rival Sparrow and the carnival itself as he claimed another road march win in 1973, with “Rainorama” – how the rains came and “wash out Mas in May.”
Mashramani in May is yet to be beheld, but a great deal will be missed on February 23 this year, which cannot be the same. Many working class persons who become petit bourgeois at Mashramani time will not have their usual earnings. Both Barbados and Trinidad reap a bounty to fill the national coffers from these and other activities at carnival and Crop-Over. Guyana will miss an opportunity to do the same on Republic Day.
Traditions take years to evolve, and Mashramani has been travelling that road. Years of cultural change and the demands of the popular culture have been collaborating to develop Mashramani as a tradition. This will be suspended this year and the popular adaptability, as well as that of the nation may be tested.
Two additional features of Mashramani of late are worth ending with. There is a Literary Street Fair that this year is branded as a Jubilee event. This was introduced by the Department of Culture to add to the intellectual content of Mashramani. The Republican status is an intellectual as well as a festive phenomenon, and new features like the Literary Street Fair were created to provide that reminder. Another is the Annual Republic of Guyana Distinguished Lecture Series. In this, a scholar or a distinguished creative artist is invited to deliver a public lecture in a high-profile event to serve the same purpose as the book fair. This year the Distinguished Lecture has been wholly given over to the celebration of Guyana’s 50th Anniversary as an Independent nation.