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Wednesday 21 August 2019
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The psychology of Carnival

What function does Carnival serve? This is not a question that is seriously addressed by most commentators. On the one hand, Carnival, as the national festival, is seen by its adherents as a sacred cow which should not be critically analysed. On the other hand, it is viewed by religious and ethnic fundamentalists as a profane cow with no redeeming features at all. However, it is reasonable to assume that the festival would not have attained its cultural dominance unless it fulfilled utilitarian functions for the social order.

That is, from its 19th-century origins in a colonial society, Carnival thrived because it helped negotiate social relations between the major groups in the country: at that time, the ruling white minority and the African-descended majority.

To analyse what Carnival’s functions might have been, it is useful to separate three aspects of the national festival: mas, calypso, and steelband. It was mas — more precisely, ole mas — which was originally the dominant part of the festival. In that sense, the Trinidad Carnival is of purely European origin, because it is European culture - more specifically, French culture - which used masks and costumes as a device of role reversal. In the Trinidadian context of the 19th century, we must ask what function this ritual served. The psychological benefit for the recently freed Africans is obvious: for a brief time, they could have the satisfaction of imitating the masters, not as flattery, but as mockery. And why would the dominant class, the French Creoles, acquiesce in this? Most likely because they saw such role reversal as a trivial safety valve for the resentments they must have known simmered in the breasts of the numerically superior blacks.

But then ole mas became elaborated into a related aspect of the protean Carnival: the cariso, which became calypso. Calypso appears to have had a direct origin in the storytelling songs of certain African cultures, but it was eventually influenced by the satiric influence of British culture, which was now taking hold of the colony. Combined with ole mas, the underclass had found the only real weapon it had to fight the dominant group: humour. As evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker observes in his book, How the Mind Works, "Humour is the enemy of pomp and decorum, especially when they prop up the authority of an adversary or superior. The most inviting targets of ridicule are teachers, preachers, kings, politicians, military officers and the high and mighty." Every one of these categories has been targeted by major calypsos. Even Sparrow’s classic Jean and Dinah only mocks prostitutes because they had risen above their station through the economic accident of American soldiers coming to Trinidad in the Second World War.

Which brings me to the steelband. In her book Art and Intimacy, scholar Ellen Dissanayake, citing researcher John Nunley, writes about Trinidad: "The economic problems spawned an accelerated street life of gambling, prostitution, and crime accompanied by the proliferation of a new type of street music. Performers — largely underemployed, lower-class young men — had converted empty fifty-five gallon oil barrels into tuned percussive instruments.the steel band. Although much of the middle-class establishment viewed the musicians and their music as contributing to the disorder, a few community leaders persuaded the government in 1950 to sponsor a steel band association in order to eliminate violence, coordinate competition, provide financial assistance, and maintain a standard of excellence."

But the steelband (as distinct from the steelpan) was created in the first place as a conflict resolution device. All societies, Pinker notes, have such devices, which include rhetoric, exposes, face-saving measures, contracts, deterrence, equal opportunity, mediation, courts, enforceable laws, monogamy, limits on economic inequality, abjuring vengeance and so on. The steelband served to mediate conflict between various underclass groups, where violence amongst young males tends to be most chronic. (It is worth noting, however that up to that time the males who had the most murderous reputations in Trinidad were Indians from Central.) But, paradoxically, the steelband also served to cement Afro-Trinidadian identity. "It is not surprising that societies all over the world have developed these nodes of culture that we call ceremonies or rituals, which do for their members what mothers naturally do for their babies: engage their interest, involve them in a shared rhythmic pulse, and thereby instil feelings of closeness and communion," Dissanayake writes.

So these are some of the reasons that Carnival evolved and flourished in Trinidadian society. The key question, however, is whether it still serves its original purposes: egalitarianism, conflict resolution, identity-building. It would be hard to find evidence for this. The steelband has lost its conflict resolution role, and is now sustained by the politics of nationalism rather than popular support.

The pretty mas and all-inclusive fetes represent a complete reversal of the original Carnival ethos. Calypso began to lose its satiric and democratic functions with the advent of the Williams’ PNM to office. UWI lecturer Dr Gordon Rohlehr notes in his essay collection, My Strangled City, "The paradoxical task of the loyalist calypsonian over the next decade (1966-1976) would be to maintain the party’s ideal image, and particularly to preserve the sheen on the charisma of the maximum leader, in an atmosphere of collapse and terrible disorganisation at almost every level of social life."

E-mail: kbaldeosingh@hotmail.com



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