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Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso: Traditions in the Making.

In the last decade scholarship on Trinidadian creole popular culture has been greatly enriched by a number of significant monographs, dealing variously with calypso (Rohlehr 1990, Hill 1993), steelband (Stuempfle 1995, Blake 1995), and general ethnography.(1) John Cowley's Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso supplements these works by documenting aspects of the early evolution of the island's celebrated pre-Lenten festival. Cowley's research was primarily archival, involving the culling of clippings relevant to Carnival and calypso from nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century newspapers and other sources available in British libraries.

Essentially, Cowley's book consists of the ordered presentation of many dozens of such accounts, strung together by prose commentaries. As the author recognizes, such accounts present only a partial and biased perspective, comprising a discourse of the colonial elite rather than that of the actual subaltern creators of creole culture. Many of the excerpts consist of editorials and letters to editors denouncing the perceived crudity and barbarity of Afro-Trinidadian festivities. Pejorative as they may be, such accounts, taken collectively and with a discerning perspective, nevertheless provide a substantial amount of data on canboulay and the emergent Carnival culture. Of particular interest is their documentation of the process by which this culture evolved as a site of complex negotiation among lower-class Afro-Trinidadian celebrants, British administrators charged with maintaining order, and, lastly, French creole planters and merchants who had their own reasons for supporting Carnival festivities. Cowley's sources illustrate how a grand compromise was achieved around 1900, as Carnival came to be patronized and selectively supported by administrative and commercial interests, while being largely purged of objectionable practices like stickfighting, collective brawling, neo-African drumming, and lewd calinda ditties sung in French creole. In the process, calypso emerged as a topical song form, syncretizing elements from diverse and distinct predecessors - primarily, French creole folksongs, Venezuelan string band music, and rowdy responsorial calinda songs accompanying stick fights. Cowley's sources thus cover much of calypso's prehistory and early development up to roughly 1920, at which point the reader may turn to other sources (especially Rohlehr and Hill) for resumption of the narrative.

While Cowley's subject matter and the documentation provided will be of considerable interest to students of Caribbean popular culture, his text leaves much to be desired. Cowley's prose, especially in the first chapters, is at best artless, and is often marred by ungrammatical, unidiomatic, and ambiguous constructions. The handful of typos and misspellings (e.g., "San Domingo") seems particularly inappropriate in such an expensive and otherwise elegantly packaged volume. More substantial a shortcoming is the absence of an interpretive or conceptual framework, which could have articulated the complex social dynamics schematized in the clippings. As it is, many of the clippings are repetitive and redundant, and could well have been replaced by more insightful commentary.

Such a commentary, for example, could have explored the peculiar dialectic in which Carnival provided an opportunity for both whites and blacks to find merriment and a sort of vicarious liberation by imitating each other. Thus, nineteenth-century Afro-Trinidadians danced lewdly in elaborately sewn gowns, suits, and lingerie, or paraded pompously in false military regalia, while French planters in blackface playfully imitated canboulay festivals in the safety of their own compounds. By the turn of the century, blacks with white masks and whites in blackface could be seen jostling each other merrily in Carnival street processions. Cowley has little to say about this social dynamic, which is at once curious and quite widespread, being better explored in the literature on American minstrelsy and Cuban Carnaval.(2) Also unexplored is the distinctive combination of parody and emulation which animated the Afro-Trinidadian formation of mock military regiments and street flotillas. Ranger's classic study(3) of East African ngoma provides an exemplary interpretation of this remarkable and once prevalent colonial phenomenon, but a proper discussion of its Trinidadian manifestation is still needed. Cowley has provided a rich compilation of raw data for the reconstruction of Trinidadian social history, although its interpretation and contextualization still remain to be conducted.

Peter Manuel John Jay College, CUNY Graduate Center


1. Gordon Rohlehr, Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad (Port of Spain, 1990); Donald Hill, Calypso Calaloo: Early Carnival Music in Trinidad (Gainesville, 1993); Stephen Stuempfle, Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago (Philadelphia, 1995); F. I. R. Blake, The Trinidad and Tobago Steel Plan: History and Evolution (Spain, 1995); Daniel Miller, Modernity: An Ethnographic Approach: Dualism and Mass Consumption in Trinidad (Providence, 1994).

2. Robin Moore, Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana, 1920-1935 (Pittsburgh, 1997).

3. T.O. Ranger, Dance and Society in Eastern Africa: 1890-1970: The Beni Ngoma (Berkeley, 1975).
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Author:Manuel, Peter
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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