Carnival in Dominica
The songs and music were the backbone of masquerade. The mimicry and ridicule of the costumes were matched by the satire of the songs. The words were full of double meaning and innuendo.
Among the Fon people of West Africa there is a type of public justice based on ridicule. A person who has performed some misdeed or who behaves in an unsocial manner is made the subject of a song. The musicians and singers who have composed it, parade pas the house of their chosen victim and around the marked place until they feel he has suffered enough or has mended his ways.
This pattern is reflected in the Old Street ballads of Dominican masquerade. As in such West African instances, it was the woman who led the song while the other dancers and onlookers gave lavway the refrain
. In French Creole Dominica she was the chantuelle lead singer
, and the "chante mas" Carnival song
songs she led were composed during the two or three weeks before Carnival. People from different districts or sections of the towns, be it Newtown, Lod Bor, or Lagon in Roseau would gather for practices and chip around the street at streets at night.
In this way the song evolved. Everyone put in their own piece, added an extra beat or chose a new figure of fund so that by J'ourvert, the song was ripe. As other songsters came in from Pointe Michel, Loubiere, Giraudel and Massacre on Monday morning new songs filled the streets, part of the excitement of that Monday was to learn what the new songs were and who was being ridiculed.
The lyrics were short, spicy and repetitive. No long involved verses like the modern calypsoes. Almost all of them were in Creole and the music reflected the definite beat of the drum as key instrument as in the Bélé dance.
The other instruments were those found at any country dance in those days. The Boom-Boom, Shack-Shack grater, tambou lay-lay and tambou tambourine. The accordion and the horn, later the trumpet and other brass accompaniment were added when available. Unlike today, the spirit relied heavily on the voice of the people. Band and voices had to work together. The power of the modern loudspeaker has, in the last couple of years, led to a decline in "singing along". They now let the music do it all.
Most of the events highlighted in song at masquerade time are important parts of Dominican history. Most of the old songs that are still popular date only from the 1920s and after. There were now forgotten ballads about La Guerra Negre, the census riots of 1844; about the Italian and Breton squabble in the Catholic Church in 1870; about John Jarvis the bailiff involved in the La Plaine Riot of 1893 and songs about H.M.S. Mohawk, the war ship which went to quell it.
In this century, the Carib disturbance in 1930 and the killing of Doree, the ringleader, resulted in a song of that name. There have been several "Defay" songs. The two best know today are the Cherry Lodge fire of 1945 and the "Zanstrad Bwilay" Translation: Zanadese Burning
, fire of Zanadese factory a few years later.
"Adieu William Oh" was born on the evening of Carnival Tuesday 1927 when an Englishman William Leighton was Chief of police. Sitting upon his horse with a posse of policemen and Defence Force volunteers on the top of Constitution Hill, he faced the "band mauvay" in their sensay costumes coming towards him from what was then Grandby Street now Queen Mary Street. As they climbed the hill, the band opened up with their now famous song. Bobby Isaac's house nearby, now occupied by his grandchildren, was wrecked by the band mauvay that same evening and Leighton suffered severe injuries in the mêlée.
"Solomon Woulay" Ttranslation: Solomon rolling
was brought to Roseau by the villagers of Pointe Michele the year after Magistrate Solomon was killed in a car accident beneath the landslide which bears his name.
The scandal over the waste of funds on the construction of the Transinsular Road in 1946 and the collapse of the project resulted in two songs the following year: "Sa ki twavay Norway" Translation: Who works at Norway
and "Si ou tay Norway" Translation: If you were in Norway
, Norway was the campsite for the workers on the road.
A few songs in English were also very popular such as "Policeman in your heavy uniform", and "Sofia gal is a nasty gal" about Matron Sophia Barton who was attempting to enforce strict discipline at the Roseau Hospital.
Besides major historical events, love affairs and social scandal were popular themes less easy to trace, "Hosai Lamp La" Translation: Raise the lamp.
exposed the activities of the cinq malpwop en da kai laTranslation: five nasties under the house.
, "Dow, Dow, Dowad" and "C'est Mal Cabwit qui di"Translation: What the male goat said.
came from Newtown. Even the Governor or Administrator did not escape. When middle aged Administrator Elliot married the very young Marion Shand, the age difference was noted in song.
Up to the late 1950's, the chantuelle and the chantay mas was queen of the road, dancing along backwards, facing the band, which called back the lavway.
Each song had its story and the list is long and colourful with lyrics and beat which remain unmatched. The masquerade song was indeed the voice of the people while the modern calypso tends to be the views and music of one man or his ghost-writers dependent on the approval of judges and the mass media.
The calypso has become, since the 1950's, the source of street music at Carnival time. It is part of the Caribbean Creole mix with its home base being Trinidad. Although it has much the same roots as the folksongs of the Windward and Leeward Islands it owes a lot more to the Spanish influence of Venezuela. Like the Samba of Brazil and the Rhumba of Cuba, the Calypso beat is much more that of Afro-Latin America than are the folksongs of the eastern island. The length of the lyrics and the cadence rhythm makes it part of the Afro-Latin family.
Granville Smith, a researcher of music and songs in the Caribbean during the 1930's noted the gradual influence that the calypso was having on the traditional folksongs of these islands as it crept up from Trinidad. It moved on the trading schooners and the oil field workers and miners migrating to and from work in Trinidad, Venezuela, Aruba and Curacao. The gramophone records and increase of West Indian radio stations in the 1940's quickened the pace of its influence.
In Dominica local calypsonians were appearing, on stage at variety shows by 1946. By the end of the 1950's calypso shows were firmly part of Carnival Celebrations. In the following decade the calypsonian and his "road march" became the strongest force in Carnival so that today the success of each year depends heavily on their contributions.
During the 1960's songs such as "Pointe Michel Girls", "Tennis Shoe Tongue" and "When the cock crow Ash Wednesday" dominated the road. Calypsonians such as Breaker, Bingo, The Saint, Idol Tokyo, Spider and Spark held the stage at the Carib Cinema and Windsor Park. In the seventies calypsonians formed an Association with an executive body which ran their own shows and tents.
The required system of preliminaries, judging, carefully thought out and in-depth composition, prize money, music sheets and need for radio for radio publicity or circulation of recorded tapes and later, CDs, to promote the songs beforehand have radically changed the whole nature of Carnival Calypso.
Over the last twenty-five years improved communication techniques in the form of radio, records, tapes and CDs have made calypsoes from other islands, notable Trinidad and Antigua available to everyone. Some years these off island songs dominate the streets rather than local road march tunes " Discos on Wheels", simply blasting out taped music, are an even more recent feature of street Carnival, part of the "international culture" mentioned earlier.