Riotous island fun and social commentary

Sunday, January 20, 2002

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- A riotous cacophony is exploding across the Caribbean -- cowbells and conch shell calls, enticing rhythms from steel and goatskin drums, calypsos with lewd lyrics and derisive jabs at politicians.

It's carnival time in the islands, time to don costumes and masks, to escape the world of order and wallow in chaos, time to expurgate the past year's sins and frustrations in an ancient rite of spiritual renewal and social invigoration.

Haitians say farewell to the old year with a spray of fireworks in the sky and a sputter of firecrackers on the ground.

Pre-carnival rituals began Jan. 1 with radio stations broadcasting the first songs sent by groups bidding for popularity and a coveted place on one of a half-dozen floats in the grand parade that wraps up festivities Feb. 10.

Every Sunday, rah-rah bands hit the streets with tubas and trombones, maracas and drums, kazoos and whistles that draw a following of hundreds and sometimes thousands of hip-swiveling, foot-stomping revelers. As many as a quarter-million people could turn out for the finale.

True to tradition, carnival also is an opportunity to criticize and poke fun at the leaders, in this case President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But that criticism appears set to reach unprecedented heights in Haiti this year, led by biting lyrics from the country's best known "roots" music group, Boukman Experyans.

Brings out controversy

It announces with no subtlety people's disbelief in an alleged Dec. 17 coup attempt that many think was staged to divert attention from Aristide's failure to halt the political turmoil and lift people from grinding poverty.

"They supposedly attacked you, but it's a lie," says the song. "Settle your own affairs, but don't think we're stupid. Endless negotiations to satisfy greed," it says of growing corruption and talks with opposition parties who charge last year's elections were rigged.

Carnival often brings out controversy, as in Guyana this year, where the country's small Muslim population is lobbying the government to change the date of the festivities because it coincides with Eid.

"The gyrating, liquor-drinking, wining and that kind of un-Islamic behavior should not be allowed to occur on the faith's most holy day," says one Muslim leader, Haseeb Yusuf.

There's concern because the carnival route would pass by two of Georgetown's main mosques.

Many Christian leaders also lecture their flocks against the evils of carnival, a bacchanal that can sometimes lead revelers hypnotized by the moment to public displays of sex.

Carnival, according to one aficionado, is a primeval force that historical accidents led to find fertile soil in the New World.

"Carnival is really the progenitor of all the art forms however you trace it -- through the holy festivals in India, the Dionysian influence in Greece -- but most cultures have their spring festival and it's primeval that way," says Todd Gulick, manager and producer of Peter Minshall's carnival Calalloo Company in Trinidad.

After the Catholic Church tried to co-opt the harvest festival as a pre-Lenten celebration, refugees from the French Revolution brought it to Trinidad in the 1700s. Before the abstinence of Lent, sugar plantation owners doused themselves in molasses and dressed up as slaves. The slaves, with their ancestral memory of masking and ritual, understood the language and in turn celebrated the end of the harvest by dressing up in pantaloons and many-petticoated skirts to parody their masters.

Today's Trini carnival is "driven by a predominantly African energy," Gulick says, but "shamelessly begs, steals and borrows" from the many cultures that make up what Trinidadians call their "rainbow nation." It includes migrants from India, China, Asia, England, Spain, Syria and Lebanon.

Trinidad has clung to the traditions of carnival or Mas (for masquerade) while many have been undermined by commercial interests, some critics say.

Parade of revelers

Carnival celebrations begin Monday, Feb. 11, with Jouvert (pronounced joo-vay), when revelers rise before dawn to don costumes of historic characters such as the Midnight Robber, Moko Jumbies or impish devils who prod at the crowd, not gently, with forks. Other characters wield whips of flagellation. Many people put on old cloths in anticipation of the mud and engine grease that will be flung from floats whose arrival is heralded from afar by calypsos blasted at chest-pounding volume.

There's a calypso contest and the panorama, the competition for the best pan, or steel drum, band.

The rum-fueled party culminates Dimanche Gras, or Fat Tuesday, with a grand parade at night across the Queen's Park Savannah, where judges give points for best costume, creativity and musical themes.

Across the Caribbean, islands celebrate carnival in special ways, with some festivities falling on the anniversaries of emancipation from slavery and, in the case of the Bahamas, what's called Junkanoo on New Year's Day.

In Martinique, carnival Monday is a burlesque, with men dressing as women and vice versa for mock marriage ceremonies.

Mardi Gras, carnival Tuesday, brings the sortie of the famed red devils and Wednesday a massive parade of revelers in black-and-white costumes ending at the seashore, where a representation of the carnival king, called Vaval, is set ablaze.

One of the more interesting traditions is practiced on the Grenadian island of Carriacou, where masqueraders declaim works of the British bard at "Shakespeare Sweet Mas."

One person will begin reciting a monologue, at a roadside or on a stage, while an opponent, with gay banter, attempts to put him off his stroke and outdo him. Whoever wins gets to whip the loser and strip him of a cardboard crown embellished with glitter and shiny fabric.

This being a masquerade, the most popular play is Julius Caesar and the famed monologue "To be, or not to be."

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