At the Leeds Carnival Conference in May 2017, like at so many any other carnival discussions, the commercial/traditional carnival debate was one of the major themes across various panels. It was very disheartening to hear practitioners and academics lament about the loss of traditional elements in the mas and calypso to the commercial bikini and beads as well as to the formulaic soca.
However, Dr Suzanne Burke from the UWI reminded us in her presentation on the governance of carnival that the business sector always had a valid interest in the success of carnival products. This business interest can be traced to the independence period in Trinidad which saw the “sanitization” of many aspects of the carnival. The need to make it less African, less vulgar, or less jamette changed the ecology of the pan, calypso, mas, and j’ouvert to make the carnival more appealing to the middle classes and thus, the basis for a viable national cultural product.
Another standout feature at the Leeds Carnival Conference was the inclusion of several workshops such as the one dedicated to the Kambule (Canboulay) led by Pearl Eintou Springer. Springer is the director of the Canboulay re-enactment which takes place on the Friday before the culmination of the carnival on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. In this session, she introduced a group of mostly academics to some of its main themes and performances of the gayelle. Although the Canboulay has been the focus of much scholarship, the experience of actually holding a bois, tying heads, or singing the chants gave a new dimension to its understanding.
The Canboulay is a significant aspect in the history of the Trinidad Carnival, which is characterized by its celebratory and resistive elements. Originally, the activities of the cannes brûlée marked the end of the sugar cane harvest. After full emancipation in 1838, the festival became even more important to the former slaves as a way to retain and create their own traditions. The canboulay incorporated African traditions such as the combative form of stickfighting (kalinda), the call and response chants, drumming, and the caiso. The musical elements of the canboulay later influenced the calypso (and eventually soca), a musical genre that mocked authoritative figures and brought attention to social and political discords. In due course, these elements invaded carnival spaces in the post-emancipation period. The result was an assimilation of the European Catholic traditions and the celebratory and oppositional features of the carnival of the Black population leading to the formation of the modern Trinidad Carnival.
This background now takes me to Machel Montano and Bunji Garlin’s 2017 collaboration, Buss Head (written by Keegan Taylor, Kit Israel, Machel Montano, and Bunji Garlin). The song symbolized the reuniting of two long-time rival soca artistes. Montano and Garlin expressed that the song was a perfect way to end their feud. But the song also spoke to the merging of commercial and traditional aspects of carnival.
There is no doubt that Machel and his team know more than most how to make money from soca and build a brand. In fact, Machel is an embodiment of Jay Z’s claim I’m not a businessman… I’m a business… man. Therefore, the collaboration with Bunji also had a clear business motive. The hype leading up to the release, the logo, and teasers made fans of both artistes eager for the song. Once revealed, it gave a new dimension to their 2017 offerings as fans wanted to see the two soca greats perform on the same stage (without Fay Ann of course) resulting in increased bookings and airplay. The music video which was later released on July 7, 2017 (directed by Jerome Guiot) also helped to promote the song outside of the Trinidad Carnival season. The recently announced Buss Head tour and the accompanying merchandise also demonstrate the economic benefits of the partnership.
Besides the economic benefits, the song educated its listeners about the stickfighting tradition. Soca has always been condemned for not having as much lyrical depth as calypso. It is seen as a feel good dance music with repetitive lyrics focused on themes related to jump, wave, drink, and wine (not whine). But it cannot be ignored that soca embraces many of the literary elements of calypso such as double speak or double entendre. It also incorporates social commentary, spiritualism, nationalism, and can be a form of protest and resistance.
In Buss Head, however, the listener was reminded of the chantwells who sang call and response songs to encourage the fighters or as Trinis would say, build ah vibe. These lavways set the tone and rhythm for the fights. Like Keegan Taylor, Rondell Benjamin, and Pearl Eintou Springer, who are committed to teaching the form to a new generation of Joe Talmanas, Machel and Bunji are reminding their audience of a tradition that defined what we know as the carnival today. It is a tradition grounded in resistance through masking and celebration. Even in a world where there is a loss of a sense of self and cultural traditions, there are spaces for celebration and liberation (a good example here would be Ultimate Rejects’ We Jammin’ Still). And as artistes like Machel and Bunji aim to build a viable creative industry, the reference to traditions like stickfighting and the rituals of rebellion it represents is significant. These practices cannot be erased from the psyche of Afro-Trinidadians; it just needs to be awakened. Machel put it well when he said: “We are really building this to share who we are with the world. And if we have to share who we are, we have to first know who we are…”
In the same discussion, Machel raised a significant question: “How to improve and build the industry we are building?” Buss Head in this regard, is also a cry on behalf of soca to be taken more seriously. Soca has been transformed into a commercial product based on a popular music model where economics trump culture. In a quest for the music to become mainstream or reach international audiences, a lot of what made the music Trinidadian is being lost and even Machel and Bunji have played their own parts in this demise. Can the composition be an attempt to make it right?
The gayelle is the sacred ground where the stickfighting battle takes place, and is defined by a sense of community. In this gayelle, the fight is not only between Machel and Bunji as two soca greats, but between the commercial and the traditional. It symbolizes the fight each of these artistes faces as they negotiate international and local success or incorporation and resistance. The gayelle then, represents a complex space where these issues along with other socio-cultural tensions are played out as they seek to contribute to the development of soca. To conquer the gayelle, however, they first need to conquer their personal tensions by figuring out the role they intend to play in building something that is uniquely Trinbagonian. Ultimately, they need to decide what stories their lavways will tell.