By Jolynna Sinanan, on 19 March 2014
I have passed the 10 month point in fieldwork where I am perhaps getting a bit too comfortable with being in Trinidad. Like hundreds of thousands of Trinidadians this month, all my responsibilities and commitments have come second to the greatest show on earth: Carnival. Although Carnival is the height of the Trinidadian calendar year, it is experienced by Trinidadians is different ways. The parades of people you see on the streets in bikinis, beads and feathers (‘pretty mas’, or ‘pretty masquerade’) that resemble Brazilian Carnival, is a transformed version of Carnival that emerged in the 1980s as part of the state strategy to attract more tourism. It’s a strategy that has worked, thousands of tourists come each year paying up to £6000 to ‘play’ mas with the biggest and most popular groups, or as they’re locally known, bands. Prior to the 1980s, playing mas was a uniquely Trinidadian event that resembled the mix of the callalloo* nation. There were elements of theatre, Amerindian ritual and African dancing and drumbeats and costumes were embodiments of political commentary that mocked upper classes or foreign influences such as American seamen who were based in Trinidad in the Second World War. Many people tend to agree that mas had political potential and social commentary. But what of it today?
February has been a rich month for fieldwork as everybody has an opinion on Carnival. Common discourse and normative values emphasise that contemporary Carnival is vulgar, it’s not really Trinidadian, all the wining (a dance where the main movement is gyrating the hips) and carrying on is indecent. A lot of women agree with this view, but it is undeniable that each year, hundreds of thousands of Trinidadian women play mas. I have been discussing this with Dr Dylan Kerrigan at the University of the West Indies, a fellow anthropologist who has expertise on gender, masculinities and Carnival. We agree that Carnival has retained fractions of its potential for political subversion, perhaps now, not along the lines of race and class, but along the lines of gender. Carnival is the month of the year when a woman of any background, age and race can be extremely scantily clad, dance with whoever she likes and you don’t hear a peep from male onlookers or spectators. Yet, purchasing the space for freedom has an explicit economic dimension, paying for the pre-Carnival parties (fetes) and to play mas with big bands with their own food, drinks, portable bathrooms and security is an investment for a fun (safe) time. The demarcation of expensive fetes and bands makes sure that people of certain levels of society remain in their respective groupings. The one big contradiction to the prestige of going to expensive fetes and playing with big bands is that at this time of year, banks give special loans just for Carnival. People save money over a year (or two) or take out loans to visibly occupy spaces they don’t the rest of the year. Which brings me back to the ongoing theme of visibility.
I thought that if so much money is being spent on parties and costumes, surely this is the time of year Facebook would be inundated with selfies and mirror shots. Carnival is the pinnacle of the year to be seen by others. With the prestige of fetes and bands, comes with being photographed. Danny Miller is currently doing an in depth study of one such photography company that takes photos in fetes and uploads them to social media and their own website, reminiscent of the society pages in newspapers and magazines. Trinidad is a small society with few print magazine publications. The biggest and most expensive bands publish their own magazines after Carnival, displaying photos of masqueraders on Carnival Monday or Tuesday. Anybody who plays mas with these bands could be potentially snapped for the magazine. The photos I have seen on Facebook of masqueraders have mostly been tagged by others. The extreme few selfies have been ‘before going out’ shots. I saw many people with camera phones on the day, but there is an etiquette of visibility that photos of you are posted by others. What is the point of being the show and being the spectacle for your own gaze, otherwise?
Contemporary society pages are now the pages of social media. Four major social photography companies regularly post photos of events they have photographed on Facebook and people can tag themselves. The brands of photographers and the brands of fetes and bands is another aspect of how Facebook is made Trinidadian, through emulating the society pages of print magazines.
*Callalloo: a local dish made of mixed vegetables and cooked together, but also a local idiom for the mixed culture of Trinidad.