April 01, 2017

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Trinidad & Tobago’s Carnival in the Twentieth Century

The first two decades of the twentieth century marked the gradual re-entry of the upper classes into the festival, after having withdrawn from the celebrations for most of the latter half of the nineteenth century. They returned after the Carnival was purged of some of its ‘coarser’ elements. However, they did not take to the streets but came in their decorated trucks and lorries. It took another forty years before they rejoined the street masquerade. Until then, they restricted their participation to house parties, club dances and fancy balls.

Once again, Carnival took on a more organized and European character. Fancy dress balls were held at the Princes Building opposite to the Queen’s Park Savannah. In 1922, the first major Carnival stage spectacle was presented by the Les Amantes de Jesus Society – a voluntary organization under the leadership of M. Joseph Scheult. The Society gave an annual charity ball on Carnival Monday night. This started in the 1920s and continued until 1948. This period saw increased participation by the various ethnic groups and classes in society. The private sector also became involved, organizing competitions and sponsoring prizes.

The Carnival Sunday night Canboulay procession of the post Emancipation was replaced by a Dimanche Gras Show. This annual masquerade ball was organized by the Society of Les Amantes De Jesus, when a new venue necessitated a change from a ball to a stage spectacle. This stage presentation attempted to weave together all the main strands of Carnival – dance, costume and characters.

The Dimanche Gras Show was inaugurated in 1948 as a vignette in the Carnival Queen Show. It was celebrated on Carnival Sunday night under the auspices of the Carnival Committee and continues to be the premier Pre-Carnival celebration. Although it has undergone several changes it is still seen as an attempt to create a ” valid theatrical experience out of the mass of Carnival material” (Hill).

In the early 1950s, with the rise in nationalism, the government

decided that Carnival was too important a national festival to be left in the hands of private enterprise. The CDC (Carnival Development Committee) was therefore set up in 1957 and given the responsibility of managing the carnival celebrations. The festival began to resemble its present day form with Jour Ouvert (later anglicized to J’Ouvert) opening Carnival Monday from 4.00 am to 12.00 noon.

By mid-century, Carnival was completely under the control of the central government. This meant more funding, more structure and increased participation by all sectors. This was the “Golden Age of Carnival”. Bandleaders and designers sought inspiration from history, films, great personalities and world events as they conceptualized their portrayals winning pieces. The economic aspect of Carnival was evident even then as businessmen responded to the opportunities created for the importation of fine fabrics and accessories for costumes. Masqueraders too, were aware of the benefits of being crowned King or Queen of Carnival.

By the mid-1950s, mas became very competitive and a “Band of the Year” award was initiated in 1955 to recognize the effort that was being put into the presentations. In 1956, participation was on the increase and more than ten bands crossed the Queen’s Park Savannah stage with over 300 masqueraders. From 1957 to 1959, the Band-of-the-Year first place winner was awarded $500. In 1957, an innovative bandleader from Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain, by the name of George Bailey, made a stunning appearance on the mas scene, at the young age of 21, and changed the face of Carnival forever. The authenticity of his presentation Back to Africa won Bailey Band-of-the-Year honours that year when he beat back other breathtaking presentations such as Irwin McWilliams’ Ten Commandments and Harold Saldenah’s The Glory That Was Greece. The extensive research that was reflected in the splendour of Bailey’s presentation compelled others to follow suit in later years.

In 1961, the first prize for the Band-of-the-Year was increased from $500 to $1,000 and, in 1963, a breakthrough was scored by steelbands when the Silver Stars Steelband of Newtown, Port-of-Spain, copped the Band-of-the-Year title with its presentation of Gulliver’s Travels. It would be the first and only time in the 20th century that this feat would be accomplished by a steelband. By the mid-1960s, bands began to move from historical to fantasy themes and by 1969, the masquerading population was on the increase.

Today, Carnival is Trinidad and Tobago’s main tourist attraction and has inspired several Carnivals in cities where citizens of Trinidad and Tobago have settled, including New York, Toronto, Miami and London. Other Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, St.Vincent and Grenada have similar festivities but Trinidad and Tobago Carnival remains the greatest show on earth.

Source – NALIS (National Library & Information System Authority)