Our annual Saturnalia, in this the season of the flesh. And what else is
there to talk about other than flesh? Rolls of it, folds of it,
juggling, jiggling flesh, spreading lean taut flesh, roly-poly flesh, a
quivering semi-autonomous backside, a shivering eager receptacle to a
man’s loins. I thought I had seen everything in Trini Carnival, women
grinding on the road, wrapping themselves around poles, couples
swivelling on one leg, as if posing for a doggie-style porn poster, men
on men, women on women.
I began my love affair with calypso music not knowing anything about
Trinidad. It was Christmas in the nineties. We climbed the precarious
stairs to a tiny restaurant, an establishment called the Moon Over
Bourbon Street at West Mall, where you could watch silvery scales on the
sea at night, smoke (it was all right then), have a rum and Coke and
feel all right after being pushed about all week at work.
That first Christmas, a tall taut slim man with a broad smile, and the
kindest, smartest, rudest, sweetest eyes, in tight tight pants (he
turned his one longer leg into a kind of edgy trademark), a tight shirt
and long hair, and in long locks, sang calypsoes all Christmas night.
David Rudder was there with the moon, singing calypso music, rallying us
around the West Indies, giving us a High Mas, telling us bout the Man
with the Hammer, and Bahia Girl and Panama, and everything we lived with
around us, with a rhythm that made you moan in an obscene way and lyrics
that were like rubberband shots in the middle of your eye.
Yes, he got it: the love, the brutality, the sexiness, the warmth, the
wounds of this country. He was our mirror. They say a language is the
“in” into a culture. The calypso was my “in” into this world. They never
made another like him but I see flashes of him in others. It takes one
man, one man to open up a world to you, so I could see the nuance in
Sparrow, Calypso Rose, the Roaring Lion, in Kitchener, in Black Stalin.
This year I got complimentary tickets to a big-people fete. At US$500 or
$275, Carnival is no longer bacchanal, no longer the greatest show on
earth, but a burlesque, machiavellian version of “art”—it’s the ugly
little hand of greed and commerce playing on vanity—the exact opposite
of what David Rudder taught me about calypso.
Still, when Kes was on the stage, and even when Bunji with his very raw
male power sang, I felt the surge of the crowd, flesh on flesh, and
nobody could deny that it was a raw sexual feeling. That the mind and
reason empties and the crowd, the strangers touch is an Aladdin’s cave
of exploding desire.
But minutes later, when the alcohol wore off, the “music” morphed into
yelping, ugly orders, hoots, “raise yuh han’,” “putawineputawine” by
“artistes” (how I loathe that term), the women who are supposed to have
more self-esteem because they are dancing to Rolly Polly are actually
being made to bend over like dogs in a circus, while a man tames them
with his loins: it gets nasty. Then sobriety hits you like a rocking
hangover. Self-esteem is one thing, but I wonder if it’s good to
aggrandise obesity; the eat-all-you-can; the masturbate all-you-can on
strangers; the drink-all-you-can. It doesn’t make people happy. It makes
them ill inside and out.
I met a Frenchman last week that said the concept of “eating all you
can” is so alien in France. It’s about the aesthetic, the quality of
the light, the slant of sun on a table; the play of wine, conversation,
people and humour; the sudden insight. It’s about engaging all the
senses, and the intellect. The sacred and profane, the visceral and
ethereal, the tension of holding back a bit, and letting go a bit, is
what it takes to savour and celebrate.
If you remove everything, and fete all you can, it becomes about money
and sex only, gets ugly and it reflects ugliness within us. There will
be magic this Carnival as there always is, but the yelping that drowns
out thought makes me think it will be less.
On Ash Wednesday when the murders begin, and the car crashes take more
young lives, we will wonder about where we went wrong again, wonder why
our humanity is being shredded raw and wounded.