Music highlights changing culture and trends in Trinidad carnival

The Ultimate Rejects

Recession doh bother we

Promote a fete and you go see

How we go party to the full extreme

And light it up with kerosene

           Ultimate Rejects

As the Republic of Guyana winds down Mashramani celebrations, carnival races to its peak in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in another year when the two festivals overlap.  Today is Carnival Sunday and the grand traditional Dimanche Gras (‘fat Sunday’) Show illuminates the stage in the Savannah tonight.

Carnival is the most powerful cultural tradition in the Caribbean. There are carnivals in Europe, and in Rio (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), but it has special strengths and a unique identity in Trinidad where it is not only a festival, but a culture. It evolved over the centuries, accumulating traditions, masques, street theatre, satire and artistry as well as a distinctly Trinidadian way of life. It has lost several acts as many of the great masques, performances, characters and traditions have disappeared, but it has never had less than enough. Attempts have been made to revive and rescue some of them, and the stick fight is one of those that have caught on, but it is now driven primarily by music.

Like all living festivals (it is traditional, cultural, calendar, commercial and popular) it has been subject to natural forces of cultural change. These have seen the ascendancy of popular music which is a main factor in the popular culture. The calypso held sway as a firm cornerstone for ages before the soca took carnival music beyond the calypso. It now commands centre stage and helps to determine many other highlights of the festival, including the changing culture. As a spin-off of that, the last three years have also brought on the rapid ascendancy of the chutney.

Main staples of the carnival have been mas, steel pan and calypso. Panorama has already been held, as well as the Chutney Monarch finals. The festival moved into high gear last Friday with the Soca Monarch finals, and at the Dimanche Gras tonight the Calypso Monarch will be crowned. The old tradition continues very early tomorrow morning with J’ouvert as Carnival Monday the first day officially opens (jour ouvert).

There are two parts to this – the start of the revelry on the road behind the big truck, and ‘Ol Mas,’ which is one of the old foundation satirical performances on the street in downtown Port of Spain. The bands take to the road later in the day for Carnival Monday. Carnival Tuesday follows as the biggest day for the bands when they are judged and the winners decided.

That day is both the zenith and the end of the festival when the secular and the religious merge.  The secular carnival has Christian religious roots. It is Shrove Tuesday – the day before Ash Wednesday which is the first day of Lent and 40 days before Easter. Revelers prepare themselves for introspection and purging and say “farewell to meat/fat/indulgencies” (carni vale) when all of those are given up for Lent. The public revels have to cease promptly at midnight on Tuesday.

On that final day, also, the Road March is decided – the most popular song of the festival.  Years ago, this used to be a calypso, but one with special design, characteristics and fast tempo. It was a design best understood by Lord Kitchener, the most decorated of them all. Today, following the march of cultural change, it is a soca. And if we are to follow the new trend in the past four years, it could be a chutney.

Tonight the calypso finalists battle for the crown, but none of them is in contention for the Road March. The line-up includes a significant number of women among the 15 seeking to dethrone the reigning King Devon Seales. The selections are rich with social commentary, which is customary. Critic of the Sunday Guardian Yvonne Webb was not impressed by the quality or political criticism as performed at the Calypso Fiesta (semifinals) last week. Despite her judgements, however, the 2010 King Kurt Allen was strong and quite likely to be crowned tonight with very sharp political criticism – a satirical double entendre “My Corn Tree”. He appeared as a farmer with long boots and fork, quite perturbed and asking “who is forking up my corn tree?” Interestingly too, the finalists include veteran masters and multiple monarchs Cro Cro and the great Chalkdust.

Cultural change driven by popular culture, however, has determined that the soca is the music that drives the festival and will provide the Road March. The ingredients include popularity, catchy phrases and a quality of energy that reside in the rhythm. Jump, wave and party created a kind of standard requirement and a reputation. This was so to the point where Lisa Agostini of the Express many years ago commented that a song like David Rudder’s “High Mas” had too much depth to win the Road March and was beaten by something much more mindless.

One finds in the shifting trends, however, several soca hits and a few Road March winners that did have some depth. Sparrow turned to soca for a number of incisive social analyses. However slight, there are glimmers of commentary in 2010’s runaway winner “Palance” by JW & Blaze with such lines as “We don’t care bout de recession” palancing “in de blazing sun, de blazing sun”. Interestingly, the hit that is the overwhelming leading contender for the 2017 title is a faint echo of “Palance”.

 

It is “Full Xtreme” by Ultimate Rejects with lyrics like:

 

“Recession doh bother we

Promote a fete and you go see

The treasury could bun dung

The economy could fall to de grung

We jamming still”

 

It does two things. It sounds on the surface like a celebration of the unfettered abandon of carnival revelry and the party mood – a prevailing theme of carnival soca. But it has something about it which is a critical comment on the lack of concern and awareness among Trinidadians, who seem overcome by the fete mentality and would mindlessly party through anything – a remark against squandering.

Even “Single” by Orlando Octave, another Road March contender, seems to be simply chorusing popular practice. But somewhere in the number is a suggestion that the unrestrained “single” mentality is irresponsible destructive behaviour. “Girls” by Fay-Ann Lyons is also in the running.

Lyons is among the deepest with soca that has strength in tradition and identity. She goes thoroughly into the traditional roots of Caribbean folk music and ties it with her personal biography to brand her songs, identify herself and take the traditional stance of a performer in the folk arena. Her 2009 winner of both the Soca Monarchy and the Road March “Meet Super Blue” is the best example of this. Multiple champion Super Blue who conjured up “Get Something and Wave” is her father, while her mother is calypsonian Lady Gipsy and her husband is soca star Bunji Garlin. The song paid tribute to her father and marked her lineage, creating soca with the popular ingredients as well as artistically successful strategies and a comment on the musical form.

Also reflected in the leading Road March contenders is the 2017 Joint Chutney King Omardath Maraj. The fact that chutney is in the running is another testimony to cultural change and new trends. Three years ago chutney singer K I made a breakthrough with “Single Forever” that crossed over from the chutney folk tradition to the much more popular world opened by the hybrid soca-chutney. This year Maraj has come very close to a Road March title with “Ramsingh Sharma”. While it is unlikely he will upset Ultimate Rejects’ “Full Xtreme”, his tale of “Ramsingh Sharma the village ram from San Juan” is exceedingly popular.

Maraj shares the 2017 chutney crown with Ravi B whose song “Budget”, is also competing fiercely with the soca. They both join K I with songs that echo a tradition that chutney songs have been reflecting for at least the past eight years. This trend was set by “Rum Till I Die” and continued by another leader “Radika”.

This series is commentary on a folk environment in which there is a preoccupation with drink, looked at from different standpoints which include the tragic and the humorously satirical. Ravi B’s “Budget” laments the raising of the price of rum in the budget, while Ramsingh Sharma is a womaniser, a gambler and a rum drinker who is a villain, but a hero in the village, admired by women and envied by men.

This is a complex corpus of chutney music touching on family values, women, heartbreak with rum as both a sedative and a popular indulgence. Prominent among these is a breakaway from the traditional family values in a celebration of bachelorhood and a husband who defies those values.

The 2017 Trinidad carnival highlights these musical forms that are immensely popular but not all as mindless as their reputation suggests. There are soca songs that thrive merely on a popular rhythm, but there are those with the weight of commentary. At the same time, the current strength of chutney is a reminder of evolving trends and popular cultural change in the carnival.

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