It's Carnival Time Again in Trinidad
Politicians -- and U.S. immigration policy -- can expect a good tongue-lashing in the calypsos, but the 225-year-old celebration is mostly about fun.
Back home for Carnival this year is the legendary calypso icon the Mighty Sparrow (née Slinger Francisco), who now lives in New York. Sparrow shot to fame in the 1950s with the popular composition "Jean and Dinah," a calypso celebrating the departure of American soldiers from their World War II base in Trinidad, and Sparrow's determination to make sexual hay with the local prostitutes now deprived of their American clientele: "The Yankees gone and Sparrow take over now." Today's calypsonians no longer rely on sobriquets, preferring to use their own names, like Machel Montano, Patrice Roberts, Bunji Garlin and his wife, Faye-Ann Lyons.
When Carnival 2011 takes to the streets at 5 a.m. Monday, at the beginning of jouvay (or jour ouvert, the opening of the day), it will be doing so under Trinidad and Tobago's second Indian government since independence in 1962 and its first female Indian prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar. She formed a disparate grouping of opposition parties under the People's Partnership to defeat the 55-year-old People's National Movement government of Prime Minister Patrick Manning in the May 2010 general election.
Traditional antagonisms between Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians, who make up the bulk of the population of 1.3 million, have waxed and waned over the years and are still evident in some of the calypsos being sung in the 2011 Carnival season. But generally this traditional hostility has largely dissipated, never mind its occasional flare-ups.
Calypsos are still popular forms of double entendre, usually aiming brickbats at whichever government is in power, and this year is no exception. Not even the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Port of Spain, escaped that critical scorn, with several calypsos taking aim this year at the U.S. government's unpopular nonimmigrant-visa policy. In fact, at the National Women's Action Committee calypso-queen competition this year, the winner, Heather McIntosh, took the first prize with a song titled "Keep It," which was highly critical of that policy. The calypso began with a few recognizable strains of the U.S. national anthem.
By late February 2011, all of the major hotels in Trinidad and Tobago were reporting that they were booked solid for Carnival. These included the three leading hotels: the Hilton Trinidad, Hyatt Regency and Carlton Savannah. Carnival, of course, is a major tourist attraction, but many nationals of Trinidad and Tobago who live abroad return home every year to take part in the festival.
Despite the popularity of Carnival, the two official days of the national festival are not public holidays. Employers, however, have long grown accustomed to giving their employees time off for the street fete, and by Carnival Tuesday -- when all the masquerade bands hit the streets in full costume until midnight and the festival is officially declared over -- the country is virtually in lockdown mode.
The effervescent Port of Spain, and Trinidad's other towns and streets, take on a ghostly atmosphere come Ash Wednesday morning, when many of the faithful go to the churches to receive ashes on their foreheads and begin 40 days of Lenten fasting. But have no doubt that, even during Lent, Carnival enthusiasts are already beginning to plan for the next year's street fete.
Raoul Pantin is a renowned Trinidadian journalist and social commentator.