The Myth of Carnival as a necessary escape valve

The Myth of Carnival as a necessary escape valve
Photo : Ramdath Jagessar

In my younger days in the fifties and sixties in Trinidad we were fed many myths and outright lies about many things. One of them was the widely publicized and accepted view that Trinis needed Carnival as an escape valve for the release of tensions built up over the previous year.

 Nobody questioned that escape valve thesis because it was so obviously true. Government ministers said so, the Carnival Development Committee said so, the media all said so, every red- blooded Trini seemed to say so. Come to think of it, I can’t recollect any newspaper article, editorial, radio or television broadcast or book to this day seriously examining this escape valve myth.

 There have been occasional brief mentions in publications affirming the safety valve idea and one 1966 Trinidad Guardian article when Beryl Mc Burnie rejected the safety valve myth, asking why was Trinidad the only country in the world that needed a safety valve. It’s left to me to have a go at it.

 The myth was that Trinidadians at home and abroad absolutely had to take part in Carnival fetes, calypso tent visits, steelband music and most importantly masquerade or jump up in the hot sun and drink hot rum, wine down to the ground and make a spectacle of themselves. All to relieve the said build-up of tension and pressure.

 Even Trinis abroad were obligated to return home to get the real Trinidad Carnival bacchanal and blow off steam, or else go to one of the spinoff carnivals like Caribana in Toronto, Notting Hill in Britain, or Labour Day Carnival in New York. Nobody said anything about other West Indians needing to get their annual Carnival fix, as it was presumed to be a particular Trinidadian addiction.

 I have to say I believed the escape valve theory like most other people, though in my early years in Trinidad I couldn’t personally feel any need to join the bacchanal myself. But I did notice that the beaches in Trinidad were packed during Carnival Monday and Tuesday. The Seventh Day Adventists did not seem to like Carnival at all or want to indulge, and neither did many of the Hindus, Muslims and Catholics.  A surprising amount of people seized the opportunity to fly out of Trinidad on the Carnival weekend to return on Ash Wednesday without their steam being vented. Very curious indeed.

 My last ten years in Trinidad were the eighties and I avoided all aspects of Carnival, the fetes, the calypso, the steelband panorama, children’s Carnival, Dimanche Gras, and the parade of the bands. I didn’t even look at any part of it on television.

 Instead I went to the beach to escape Carnival. I helped organize Hindu youth camps and discovered many young people and their parents were not the least interested in the national bacchanal festival.  One meaning of the world myth is a bold-faced lie based on no evidence at all, but repeated ad nauseam until it achieves the solidity of truth

 When I came to Canada, I moved to Sudbury in Northern Ontario for five years. Immediately I could see the old escape valve theory hadn’t travelled well. Sudbury had only a few dozen Trinidadians and not much of a Carnival at all. Trinidad Carnival came and went unnoticed in Sudbury. I remember only one person in my five years there who said he was going back to Trinidad for the Carnival. I don't remember anybody rushing down to Toronto for the famous million strong Caribana which was based on Trinidad Carnival.

 When I moved to Toronto, I discovered that there was a very large contingent of Trinis in the big city, at least 100,000 of them. I met many Trinis, admittedly mostly Indo Trinis. Few talked about about going back to Trinidad for Carnival to release their alleged tension, and it was hard to find Indo Trinis who had actually gone to the Caribana parade or any of the activities associated with it. Caribana didn’t command much attention in Toronto compared to big events like the Santa Claus parade, the Pride parade, Irish Heritage Day and such.  It’s seen as mostly a black people’s festival.

 Where does that leave the escape valve theory for Trinis? On the junk heap, I’m afraid. I myself have avoided Caribana for all but one of the last 23 years I’ve been here in Toronto. Only two of my wide-circle of (Indo) Trini friends say they go to Caribana each year.

 I went to the Caribana parade once to verify a rant that half of the Caribana spectators were Indo Trinis with the females behaving disgracefully. It turned out that less than 15 percent of the spectators seemed to be Indian and the disgracefully behaving Indo females were not to be found. Another myth shattered.

 Based on my personal observation, I have concluded that the escape valve Carnival theory is indeed a myth for many Trinis at home. There is no evidence to support it. Here in Canada I will say that the myth doesn’t appear to hold any water either for many Indo Trinis living here. I can’t speak for the Afro Trinis in Canada. I’m aware that this article is very subjective, but it’s the best I can do in the absence of any position papers, books, opinions or arguments in support of the Carnival escape valve myth.

 I would be grateful if someone who believes in the escape valve theory would forward a reasoned and logical argument why it shouldn’t be unceremoniously dumped as another embarrassing Trini myth that has hung around too long.