CREATIVE SPACE #15 OF 2022 – THAT CARNIVAL FEELING

CREATIVE SPACE #15 OF 2022 (Uploaded July 27th 2022)

CREATIVE SPACE is an award-winning series spotlighting local (Antiguan and Barbudan/Caribbean) art and culture. As a brand, it dates back to 2009, published exclusively in LIAT’s inflight magazine. It was revamped in 2018 as a blog series and syndicated as of 2019 on Antiguanice.com. Its publishing partner, as of 2020, is the Daily Observer newspaper. It has its first print run in the paper every other Wednesday, with the online extended edition with EXTRAS running here on the blog and full interviews and extras on AntiguanWriter on YouTube. In 2021, the twopart CREATIVE SPACE mini-series on marine culture placed third in the OECS clean oceans journalists challenge. CREATIVE SPACE is created, owned, and written by Joanne C. Hillhouse – Antiguan-Barbudan/Caribbean authorjournalist, producer, and freelance writer, editor, and trainer. 

Here’s a link to the issue as it appeared in the Daily Observer newspaper on July 27th 2022:

Below is the extended online edition (not a duplicate of the edition with publishing partner Observer Media) with EXTRAS. 

CREATIVE SPACE: THAT CARNIVAL FEELING

With Xtreme Mas in 1999, 10 years after first playing mas with Dynamics in 1989, feeling that Carnival feeling.
With With Grace inspired Grace’s Merrymakers, in 2017, still feeling that Carnival feeling.

What is that Carnival feeling? If you had to bottle it, what would it look and taste like? Does it have a smell? Is it the confluence of smells we were all drenched in the year Burning Flames directed revelers to “bring yuh bucket, bring yuh water…bring a teacup ah water…let me see you wed dung, wet dung, wet dung de place”?

For me, Flames – the original line-up – will always be part of that Carnival feeling. A feeling that’s hard to explain unless you’ve bee-lined for jam pond every Saturday as a teen and stood so close to the speakers you felt the rhythm thumping in your chest, witnessed men climb flagpoles and jump in to Country Pond, and during one memorable last lap jam when a car was blocking the way, right there by Queens Park, hear the instructions change from “push dem dung” to “move de car” and witness the wave of bodies do just that. True story. Carnival is a fun mirror of life, a time when we step in to a parallel universe where, per Short Shirt, “zip up panties, half-slip, and nighties” were appropriate wear on a j’ouvert morning. That’s changed. My last few j’ouverts have been a roped off experience with security and an open bar, not quite the organic jam session I was first introduced to when Tanty would get me and my sister up and ready for when mom returned from her feting to join the jam with her two girls close – dipping our little feet in to the Carnival like a baby at his first swim class. Our first flirtation with Flames we were with her jamming “left to right” past Minute Meal for hours that could have gone on forever. Because when you’re caught up in that Carnival feeling, your stamina goes way up as long as there’s music.

First time in the Carnival parade as a majorette in the early ’80s.

My first time in the parade-parade was as a majorette. What I remember most is the weeks and weeks of drilling. The routines had to be precise. Mas was a different experience. It was a feeling you could literally lose yourself in – pre-all-inclusives, drunk on nothing but the music, especially if during my Dynamics years we’d secured the prime spot behind the Burning Flames truck. 

Grace’s Merrymakers, playing the mango tree faerie from Caribbean fairytale With Grace.

But since leaving Dynamics, I’ve played with a few different troupes over the years – Xtreme and Solid in their first years, the legendary Revelers mas troupe – and the feeling travelled with me, intensifying at certain spots like that turn from Market Street on to Newgate when you had to turn it up for the judges, and the turn toward Carnival City from Popeshead, when if you were lucky the rain came down, simultaneously, cooling down and heating up the jumping and jamming. The most epic mas jam I’ve probably experienced was with Xtreme, pioneers of the extended route which literally took us out of town through Ottos and Grays Farm to meet up with the start of the parade at Perry Bay. That might have been the year that my sneaker burnt out like I was Flash doing a 100 m dash rather than a marathon length of jamming. And with two days in that costume – because in the 90s and early aughts we were still wearing full costume on both Carnival Monday and Tuesday – I had for the first time a defined tan line, quite the feat for someone with my colouring.

But these are just memories, and everyone’s Carnival memories will be different – especially given how much has changed. T-shirt mas, minimalist costumes …and, sigh, no commitment to panorama, no Calypso show on Sunday (never thought that day would come but I get it). There were adults in my time who didn’t care for Flames compared to the earlier soca tunes and calypsonians, and there’s no denying that the pan orchestras suffered before finding their footing in the Carnival again. So the feeling isn’t my Carnival memories are better than yours – though I do feel a little sad for the kids who never got to experience Jam Pond in the 80s and early 90s.

From the Carnival archives: Burning Flames Jam Pond 1988. What was Jam Pond? A free concert that went on for hours on Saturdays just across from Country Pond just outside St. John’s City.

What is it then? Is it the way the piece ah iron and/or a “riddim box” got our blood pumping and our feet moving almost of their own volition, the way our experiences and imaginations found expression in calypso and mas, the glittery cast offs of the latter signaling that what mattered was not the money but the feeling. Maybe.

There was an essentialness to Carnival and us that made the idea of no-Carnival (the COVID-era two years of no-Carnival, no less) seem impossible, as long before 1957, the official start of Antigua’s Carnival, there was music and mas, really all the way back to plantation days – see earlier CREATIVE SPACE on Caribbean Christmas and its commentary on Carnival mas.

This picture of late 19th century-early 20th century street musician Thomas Joseph is believed to be at Christmastime. Use of foliage such as banana leaves by the jam bull and what might be pawpaw leaves on Joseph’s head was common in the masquerade. Joseph featured in CREATIVE SPACE 14.

Side note: researching the Thomas Joseph piece I found this quote from an oral interview included in a thesis: “a lot of white people, especially Scottish people used to live on Market Street. You didn’t dare go on the streets. But at Christmas time you could go there.” (p. 153, Politics as Masquerade: Multiple Ideologies in Antigua, Inga Elisabeth Treitler, 1992)

Drawing of a long ghost. They stood 12 feet tall, their heads level with the upper gallery of buildings which were the homes of the merchants, who tossed coins at the performers. (source: Museum of Antigua and Barbuda)

Pre-1957, Carnival found life at Christmas, blurring the hard colour-class lines, if only temporarily; it was the original time of the masqueraders when people dressed as long ghosts, jambulls, other forms of masquerade, musicians and singers, enjoyed a freedom to move through the city and across the country they did not always enjoy at other times of the year.

Does this mean that Carnival tastes like freedom? Maybe.

Last Sunday, I went to the 80th birthday tribute for 15-time calypso monarch King Short Shirt, a nostalgia trip. The Undefeated King Obstinate sang “Children Melee”, calling to mind the childhood vision of him prancing around in pig tails, though there was no prance left in him. When the DJ played “Party in Space” by Swallow (the third name in the storied Big Three of Antiguan calypso who died in 2020), I remembered the spaceship he brought on stage and how calypso shows then were theatre to me. Artists like Queen Thalia and her father King Zacari, and Short Shirt’s entire oeuvre, though the Monarch himself is slowed by time, were a reminder that calypso singing is its own t’ing, marked not just by singing ability, though Short Shirt’s range was one of the most impressive in any genre, but the showmanship, the emotional resonance, the je ne sais quoi that says this is ours, ah fu arwe sudden dis. So is Carnival then that in-the-body feeling that those moments evoked, that feeling of we-ness and home? Maybe.

Obsti sang “Short Shirt’s Wedding”– a song if you know it that, for the grinding alone, can’t have been Short Shirt’s favourite. It was such a Carnival moment. As was the peanut vendors moving through the crowd, the bouts of spontaneous dancing, the way the problems of real life slipped away,  the we- “out dey” feeling of it all, all under threat of rain because there is always “100% chance of rain” come Carnival time.

That “Out Dey” feeling during the 2019 J’ouvert of Antigua’s Carnival.

That Carnival feeling has been for me hard to grab this year, and is in any year, impossible to sum up in a word but, like love, you know it when you feel it.

You feeling it yet?

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EXTRAS

Antigua Carnival mas video from each decade of my life – 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, 2010s, …

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