Our Carnival Influences
By the Middle Ages, the whole ritual of popular street Carnival had become firmly part of European folk culture. It was a time for disguised street bands, elaborate masks, bawdy songs, performing plays, acrobats, ridicule, protest and open air drama. In fact much of the traditions of modern theatre stem from such festivals.
These events were not limited to the pre-Lent period alone but were common on special saints days or midsummer, Whitsuntide and New Year. On the English-held mainly Protestant islands of the Caribbean for instance, Carnival was and is traditionally celebrated between Christmas and New Year.
But in Europe, nowhere did Carnival flourish better than in France, it was a time of wild excesses from the harsh reality of a life filled with war, plague and feudal oppression. In February 1580 for instance, Carnival was used as the cover for a peasant revolt in the French town of Romans where the festival became a mass protest over taxes and food costs. The masked rebel leaders were butchered in the streets by the disguised merchants who had caught wind of the plot. Confusion was total in a wild mixture of blood, music and masquerade. A situation not uncommon to the history of Dominican masquerade.
Such festivities were also popular at the royal court and among the nobility whose castles and lordly power dominated the French countryside. The elegant age of the Renaissance brought with it even more spectacular celebrations, led by the powerful and flamboyant Catherine de Medici. She introduced grand masked balls to the French court setting the pattern for the rest of society.
The royal Carnivals in the chateaux and palaces up and down the kingdom were stupendous. Fireworks, fountains of wine, scores of musicians and bejewelled costumes contributed to the excesses that finally brought an end to the French monarchy during the revolution of 1789 to 1799.
By then, the French had been in the Caribbean for almost two hundred years. Starting in St. Kitts in 1626, they spread their settlements to Guadeloupe, Martinique, Dominica, St. Lucia and other islands depending on war or treaty. They brought with them their cultural traditions, including religion and festivals and these took root like the sugar cane and coffee, adapting to the heat and intensity of the tropics. The plantation houses may have been smaller and less ornate than the chateaux back home, but they were fine enough for the newfound nobility of the French Antilles to imitate the social life of the court at Versailles. Colourful masques and dances were a feature of the French plantocracy throughout the islands. Before Lent, Samedi Gras, through J'ouvert to Mardi Gras were days when the French estate families visited each other for vast Creole fetes accompanied by the usual retinue of slaves who would dance out on the coffee-drying glacis, on the lawns or mill yard under the spreading fromager or tamarind trees while indoors or out on the stone terraces others played music, served or entertained for tips. According to Thomas Atwood, Dominica's 18th century historian, such fetes organised by the free coloured people would go on non-stop:
For two or three days together, during which they dance the whole time almost; but it seldom happens that their balls conclude without broken heads, bloody noses or some piece of perfect gallantry.
The West Africans
Here we come to the other more powerful branch of our Carnival tradition: - the influence of the music, costumes, songs, dance patterns, rituals and attitudes of the West Africans who were transported across the Atlantic to work on plantations in the West Indies. We are dealing with an area of influence, which ranges in an arc from the edge of the Sahara sweeping around as far south as Angola, sinking deep into Central Africa. We tend to forget that it is an area larger than Western Europe and includes some five hundred tribal groups along with their languages, dialects and individual cultural forms. Each major group considers themselves as different from each other as Poles Danes, Germans or Irish. Looking at it this way we may get an idea of the wide variety of influences which converged on the Caribbean and are simply covered today by the term "West African".
West African religion has been compared to a pyramid, of which the top is a supreme being, the sides are gods of nature including those of water, forest and crops, while at the lowest level are magical beliefs and practices. There were countless festivals and ceremonies associated with these beliefs and the costumes worn by the participants had varied meanings.
The mixture of all these beliefs, languages and tribal customs in the Caribbean with Christianity and four main European languages: Spanish, French, English and Dutch created Creole cultures that became a colourful calalloo of everything.
In Dominica the traces of African influence in traditional masquerade were obvious if you knew what to look for. The type of songs, the instruments, the tone and tempo of music and the street performances of revellers were among the clearest links between the street bands of Roseau and Portsmouth and dusty village centres along the Guinea coast. Every year these ties are weakened as the modern Caribbean man swamps himself with what can be called the "International culture" of the consumer age. Soon the Japanese Hi-Fi and cloths made in Taiwan and Korea may be all that will be seen on the streets at Carnival time.
Two hundred years ago Dominica was a colony of Britain, but had a population strongly influenced by France. The French absorbed exchanged and influenced the ways of the West African slave more than the British. The attitude of the two colonisers was difference, the French controlled by absorbing and mixing the foreign culture with their own while the British, through laws and subtle social rules attempted to control by wiping out everything foreign and replacing it totally with their own culture. The French families in their scattered estates triumphed over the British officials huddled in Roseau as did Roman Catholicism over the Church of England.