Carnival in Dominica
Street Carnival swiftly became engrained as part of the Dominica way of life, and over one hundred and fifty years any such event becomes formalised. Whether for purposes of control or for entertainment, systems for "orderly confusion" had to be established.
To begin with, the wild revelry every year had to be controlled within the boundaries of the law. From the 1850's we begin to see short official notices regarding the festival appearing in the local press. Extra police were put on patrol; times for ending street dancing were published. Carnival was not made an official bank holiday until the 1930's but by then the business community had taken it upon themselves to close their shops for, after all, they wanted to take part also. Today it may seem strange that in the early part of this century shops and offices were open while bands paraded past. Shutters were quickly closed however when the "band mauvais" were coming down as there were cases of shops being ransacked.
The volunteer Defence Force was mobilised on occasion and assisted the police in enforcing Carnival hours and quelling disturbances. The afternoon was a time for particularly heated clashes. Injuries were common as were arrests and detention after police had ripped masks off the offenders. For the rest of the week the magistrate's court was busy with petty assault cases and the like. The story goes that during one Carnival a group of revellers, jumping up on market Street were taunting Magistrate Cools-Lartigue who was viewing the bands from the steps of his family home. "Zor sa dit sa zor vlay jordi" Translation: Say what you want today
he called back "mais nou ke vwe en l'audience la demi sa dieu"Translation: But we’ll meet in court tomorrow, God willing.
During the war years, certain restrictions were imposed on Carnival. In the case of both wars, a day of street masquerade was declared when the news of victory reached Dominica although it was not in fact Carnival time. Unplanned street jump up has also been common, the most recent being on the day after General Elections 1980. Restrictions on hours and costumes have also been imposed over the years depending on the state of security. The war years have already been noted, but local states of emergency were also the cause of restrictions and each time, whether in 1893 or 1981 sections of the Carnival loving populace have grumbled. The wearing of masks was permitted only by special order; an example is a notice in the Official Gazette of 7th February 1907 granting permission to the populace to wear masks. A decrease in street fighting was helped when regulations for a "Carnival route" were established. Before the bands went any way on any street they pleased.
Many of the more violent Carnivals involving serious injury and even deaths are remembered only by the pages of the dusty archives. The most recent, however, is still painfully recalled by several persons who will be on the streets this Monday and Tuesday.
The Carnival of 1963 dawned with all the promise of a well organised 60's Carnival. A lavish float parade on Sunday was won by the float "The Death of a Pharaoh" organised by young Eddie Martin and friends. From J'ouvert Monday the old masks and sensay costumes mixed merrily with the more modern creations of sequins, feathers and wire. But that afternoon near the junction of King George Streets, disaster struck. Everyone seems to have their own story, but in short, fire broke out in the middle of the packed band. The source and type of flame remains a topic of hot debate. Three popular young men, Eddie Martin, George James and Eric Shillingford, tied into their highly inflammable sensay outfits, were burned to death School boy Rupert Lance and others received serious burns from the flames and stunned silence fell upon the town as the news spread.
The inquiry that followed was made more complicated because of the unidentified writhing masked faces which surrounded the scene. Rumour, as always, was rife. Did the burning of the lab in the Botanical Gardens have anything to do with it? Were chemicals involved? Was the fire set intentionally, and if so, were the causes jealousy or conflicting business ventures? The answers joined the other mysteries of Dominica which have remained unsolved. That year the Legislative Council enacted legislation banning the use of masks, sensay, greasepaint and fibrous materials. In one stroke a whole cultural tradition came to an end.
The organisation of bands is as old as street Carnival itself. It was natural for people of one district to 'band' together or that friends and acquaintances should organise themselves into groups for the two days.
Money was of little importance to early Masquerade. Bandsmen, if they were paid at all, would benefit from subscriptions or donations of pennies gathered along the way. Later merchants would give financial help to musicians to encourage them to be out on the road, thus giving enjoyment to all. [People] such as C.G. Phillip and "Pappy" Winston helped in this way.
Acrobats and performers made the rounds with their little shows, catching tips thrown from verandahs or collected from bystanders along the pavement. The Lloyd brothers as "Crazy Doctors" delivering strings of dolls were among the last of these amusing sideshows.
There were several "Mama Mas", [people] like Irene Peltier and Mabel "Cissie" Caudeiron who would organise bands, see about food, collect and encourage musicians, make costumes, lead songs, control "moppers" and still have the energy to enjoy themselves Among the men were Sidney Bunche and Ofarrel Richards. Bandsman, too, were in demand and the legendary "Tête Dowad", a well known port worker, drew crowds when he came out with his tambou.
In middle, 1958 Carnival Queen Carol Williams and her escort Tristleton Bertrand.
Photo: Gabriel Christian
By the late 1940s organised shows had become an established part of the Carnival weekend. Popular young and not-so-young men were casually selected as Carnival King. Stanley Fadelle and Twisleton Bertrand have played those roles escorting Carnival Queens who had been chosen as the most beautiful girl at the main Samedi Gras dance organised by Roseau "society". Soon a stage appearance became part of the dance and performances took over completely, the contestants appearing in costume as well as in evening wear.
The Romans costume band. Circa 1950
Photo: Maj. Francis Richards
Then the costumes themselves became more complex supported by wheels and in the 1970s were often not attached to the contestant at all, becoming wheeled floats rather than attire. In the streets also, costumes changed radically. Trinidad was definitely the source of inspiration with designers (another new development) getting ideas from Carnival magazines from Port-of-Spain and San Fernando. Greek myths, The Roman Empire, the Chinese Dynasties, African Tribes, Coronations and the Bible itself did not escape the imagination of the bandleaders. The whole business of judging and prizes caused designs and ideas to become more competitive each year although some years, notably 1971, 1979, 1980 there was little to see on the streets Monday morning.
The Float Parade on Sunday afternoon had its zenith in the fifties and sixties. Parading past judges in the Windsor Park and earlier in the Botanic Gardens, the parade moved into the streets. Crowds from town and country poured into see what was indeed a most colourful display. Advertising floats and a few bands were the start of big spending by the business sector. Government itself was by now deeply involved, providing its motor launch to ferry king, queen and court from Fond Cole to the Roseau Jetty on Carnival Sunday, supplying prisoners to build stands, and by the end of the sixties making financial grants to the organising committee.
At the end of the forties organisation of show, dances, and parades of costumed groups was a casual affair left to individuals who co-operated for the general benefit of the various events. A committee based on this pattern became established in the 1950's until the Jaycees were formed in 1959 and they organised the whole Carnival for many years during the 1960s and early 1970s. This period saw the construction of stages designed with elaborate backdrops and revolving sections for the presentation of costumes as well as covered stands for audiences unmatched today.
After a state of administrative depression during the mid 1970s, the Carnival Organising Committee was established. It draws on assistance and membership from all quarters and along with the staff of the Cultural Division, has contributed significantly to the revival of the type of Carnival pageantry enjoyed in the fifties and sixties.
Steel pan band, on Victoria Street, Roseau. Circa 1950
Photo: Maj. Francis Richards
The vitality of Monday and Tuesday jump up has lacked a lot in recent years as music and attitudes had changed. Steelbands took over from the La Peau Cabrit in the sixties. First pans, introduced from Trinidad, were slung over the shoulder and moved down the street at the running pace of the La Peau Cabwit. Then wheels and trailers were developed so that jumping in one spot became common and movement forward slowed down. Organisation for these musicians has been assisted by the recently formed Pan Association.
Now combos on trucks and "discos on wheels" have added a new flavour, bitter-sweet some traditionalist would say. Among these bands, one stands out because of its quality and over two decades of support for this national festival. Anyone familiar with Dominica Carnival knows this band is "The Swinging Stars". It has literally survived fire, hurricane and political pressure. Without "The Stars" the whole story of Dominican Calypso would be different and every calypsonian, every Carnival lover indeed owes a debt of gratitude to the boys who have made up that band over the years.
Carnival, Masquerade, call it what you will has lost a lot and gained a lot over the past one hundred and fifty years, like the bands thundering down the narrow street it has rocked to the rhythm of the ages, shifted, risen, fallen, but it always on the move. Those same streets which have felt the pounding of so many thousands of feet for a century and a half will feel them again this year and even if we can't see them, perhaps the ghosts of masqueraders past will be with us too, for those streets were theirs as wellonce upon a time.