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Caribbean carnival arts offer all of us
— just like it did for the African peoples brought to the Caribbean —
a dynamic tool for self-expression and exploration.

This page is adapted from a slide show geared toward a middle-school level,
and can be adapted for use in lower and higher grade levels.

Stilt Dancer

What is carnival?
It is an annual celebration of life found in many countries of the world. And in fact, by learning more about carnival we can learn more about ourselves and a lot about accepting and understanding other cultures.

Where did the word “carnival” come from?
Hundred and hundreds of years ago, the followers of the Catholic religion in Italy started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent. Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival, carnevale — which means “to put away the meat.” As time passed, carnivals in Italy became quite famous; and in fact the practice spread to France, Spain, and all the Catholic countries in Europe. Then as the French, Spanish, and Portuguese began to take control of the Americas and other parts of the world, they brought with them their tradition of celebrating carnival.

The dynamic economic and political history of the Caribbean are indeed the ingredients of festival arts as we find them today throughout the African and Caribbean Diaspora. Once Columbus had steered his boat through Caribbean waters, it was only a few hundred years before the slave trade was well established. By the early 19th century, some six million slaves had been brought to the Caribbean. Between 1836 and 1917, indentured workers from Europe, west and central Africa, southern China, and India were brought to the Caribbean as laborers.

African influences on carnival traditions
Important to Caribbean festival arts are the ancient African traditions of parading and moving in circles through villages in costumes and masks. Circling villages was believed to bring good fortune, to heal problems, and chill out angry relatives who had died and passed into the next world. Carnival traditions also borrow from the African tradition of putting together natural objects (bones, grasses, beads, shells, fabric) to create a piece of sculpture, a mask, or costume — with each object or combination of objects representing a certain idea or spiritual force.

Feathers were frequently used by Africans in their motherland on masks and headdresses as a symbol of our ability as humans to rise above problems, pains, heartbreaks, illness — to travel to another world to be reborn and to grow spiritually. Today, we see feathers used in many, many forms in creating carnival costumes.

African dance and music traditions transformed the early carnival celebrations in the Americas, as African drum rhythms, large puppets, stick fighters, and stilt dancers began to make their appearances in the carnival festivities.

In many parts of the world, where Catholic Europeans set up colonies and entered into the slave trade, carnival took root. Brazil, once a Portuguese colony, is famous for its carnival, as is Mardi Gras in Louisiana (where African-Americans mixed with French settlers and Native Americans). Carnival celebrations are now found throughout the Caribbean in Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada, Dominica, Haiti, Cuba, St. Thomas, St. Marten; in Central and South America in Belize, Panama, Brazil; and in large cities in Canada and the U.S. where Caribbean people have settled, including Brooklyn, Miami, and Toronto. Even San Francisco has a carnival!

Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad's carnival is a beautiful example of how carnival can unite the world. For in this small nation, the beliefs and traditions of many cultures have come together; and for a brief five days each year, the whole country forgets their differences to celebrate life!

Like many other nations under colonial rule, the history of Native Americans and African people in Trinidad is a brutal, sad story. Spain and England at different times both claimed Trinidad as their colonies. Under British rule, the French settled in Trinidad, bringing with them their slaves, customs, and culture. By 1797, 14,000 French settlers came to live in Trinidad, consisting of about 2,000 whites and 12,000 slaves. Most of the native peoples (often called the Amerindians) who were the first people to live in Trinidad, died from forced labor and illness.

Carnival was introduced to Trinidad around 1785, as the French settlers began to arrive. The tradition caught on quickly, and fancy balls were held where the wealthy planters put on masks, wigs, and beautiful dresses and danced long into the night. The use of masks had special meaning for the slaves, because for many African peoples, masking is widely used in their rituals for the dead. Obviously banned from the masked balls of the French, the slaves would hold their own little carnivals in their backyards — using their own rituals and folklore, but also imitating their masters’ behavior at the masked balls.

For African people, carnival became a way to express their power as individuals, as well as their rich cultural traditions. After 1838 (when slavery was abolished), the freed Africans began to host their own carnival celebrations in the streets that grew more and more elaborate, and soon became more popular than the balls.

Today, carnival in Trinidad is like a mirror that reflects the faces the many immigrants who have come to this island nation from Europe, Africa, India, and China. African, Asian, and American Indian influences have been particularly strong.

Child dancer

Carnival is such an important aspect of life in Trinidad that many schools believe that sponsoring a carnival band is a way to teach young people about their roots and culture. In Trinidad’s Kiddies Carnival, hundreds of schools and community organizations participate! In this way, communities work together to develop stronger friendships and greater respect for the many cultures that make up Trinidad.

Creating a carnival production
In order to put a carnival band together, it takes many weeks of welding; sewing; gluing; applying feathers, sequins, foil papers, glitter and lots of creativity, energy, and patience. The first step is to come up with a theme or overall concept for the band and to develop costume illustrations for each section of dancers. Costumes are then sewn, decorated, and fitted to each individual dancer. All this creative activity takes place in what are referred to in the Caribbean as “mas camps,” where teamwork and organization are crucial to creating an award-winning production.

Praying Mantis Costume

The larger costumes are usually more difficult to design and build. Huge frames are created by bending wire into shapes, then covering with paper mâché, foam, and other materials. Physics play an important role, as the costume must be able to move and dance across stages and streets, and not fall apart! Many different forms of decorations and materials (natural and man-made) are used to transform the costume into a dream of the mind’s eye. The Praying Mantis pictured here was created by Ronald Blaize (from Marabella, Trinidad), who also created All Ah We’s Sun Fire King in 1992. Created primarily from wire, netting, foam, and paint, these awesome costumes mesmerize and dazzle spectators.

One of the most incredible artists working today in Trinidad is Peter Minshall. He is acclaimed internationally as the foremost artist working in the field of “dancing mobiles,” a form of performance art that combines the three-dimensional quality of large-scale sculpture with the dramatic and choreographic expressiveness of a live human performer. As Minshall has noted, “The dancing mobile is one of many forms to grow out of the masquerade tradition of Trinidad Carnival.”

The Birth of the Steelband
One of the exciting aspects of Caribbean carnival is the appearance in the early 20th century of the steel pan, which are instruments made from used oil drums that have been cut off on one end and then shaped, pounded, and tuned. Every carnival season, steelbands, composed of one to two hundred pan players, practice for months on end. Ready with their tunes, these steelbands take to the stadiums and the streets, to create some of the most beautiful music in the world.

The history of the steelband in Trinidad and Tobago is directly tied to the banning of all types of drumming in Trinidad in the 1880’s. Though this ban was not readily accepted and rioting resulted, ultimately Africans applied and readapted their tradition of the drum to create new forms and mediums of music, including the tamboo bamboo, a rhythmic ensemble made up of bamboo joints beaten together and pounded on the ground. Biscuit tins and dustbins were manipulated and crafted into instruments, becoming the first “pans.” To explore the roots of pan and understand that this phenomenal music came about through years of struggle and sacrifice, visit Steelbands of Trinidad and Tobago.

Uniting the World
Carnival arts offers all of us a dynamic tool for self-expression and exploration, a tool to seek out our roots, a tool to develop new forms of looking at the world and its cultures, and finally, a tool to unite the world, to discover what we all have in common, and to celebrate what makes us different. The power and creativity that underlies these art forms can transform lives. Join hands with All Ah We, and together we will dance the song of life!

Recommended Reading
Caribbean Festival Arts,
written by John W. Nunley and Judith Bettleheim (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988).


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