Carnival Fever, Soca, Calypso, J'ouvert, Mas, Costume, Fete, TnT

Your only destination to all things CARNIVAL


Carnival, or 'The Real Mas', is a pre-Lenten festival, and usually falls in February or March each year. It is unquestionably the most festive season in Dominica. It is hard to miss the fervour of the people's loyalty to their favourite calypsonian or pageant during the preceding months of the Calypso Final and the National Queen Show.

The statement that Carnival emerged in Dominica after 1838 needs some qualification, for as we shall discover the whole festival branches out far back into hundreds of years of our Afro-European cultural background.

In fact we have to go back over two thousand years to the primitive European tribes living before the rise of the Roman Empire to find the earliest roots of the festival. It was linked to the pagan feasts for the coming of spring, a time to celebrate the end of the harsh starving period of winter and the beginning of the fruitful spring and summer months. The Romans adopted and developed the whole thing as one of the imperial cults, which was part of an elaborate calendar of beliefs officially published in 304 BC. It became the Lupercalia festival administered by the Luperci and celebrated on 15th February each year. Four hundred years later, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth spread out through Asia Minor and along the Mediterranean coast preaching their Gospel and persuading a wide variety of persons with differing beliefs to join their faith. There then began a natural mixture of beliefs and customs. Soon their simple message of brotherhood became entangled with a whole range of confusing dogma and doctrine picked up and adapted from the traditional sects and cults found throughout Asia Minor, Greece and Rome.

After years of Christian persecution by successive Roman emperors, Constantine agreed to tolerate all religions and finally Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire by Edict of Theodosius I in the year 380. It was obvious that as a state religion much of the traditional Roman beliefs entwined with the increasingly complex Christian teachings. And things got even more confusing as power struggles and arguments over the nature of Christ split the Church into factions with conflicting creeds, doctrines, dogmas and edicts which really had very little to do with the message of brotherhood at all. For these reasons we find that Christianity today, like all other surviving religions is interspersed with a lot of folk beliefs and, or, national traditions gathered over hundreds of years. 

As a result, the observance of most of the important dates of the Christian calendar (a Roman influence in itself) has far flung roots. In the case of Carnival we get the Roman Luperclia feast linked to the Christian observance of Lent. The word itself originates from the Latin phrase "carnem levare" meaning " to put away meat." It also stems from the Italian word "carnevale" which was the original name for Shrove Tuesday. The part of the word relates to "carnis" the Latin for "flesh" which implies not just the meat of animals but the sensual sexual ways of the flesh as well. This too was part of the Bacchanalia or Festival of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine.

The strict observance of Lent comes to us from the Dark Ages, after the fall of Rome, when Christianity went through what was perhaps its most horrific phase. Fear, self-debasement, penance through torture and self-mortification were seen as being the demands of salvation. Processions in iron chains and pilgrimages for miles on shuffling bended knees were part of the forty days of sacrifice. It was no wonder therefore that those early Europeans went wild for two days before Ash Wednesday.

The French

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 bejeweled 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 lager 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.

Onto The Streets

The plantocracy of both nations however, were wary of revolt, and would not allow the free movement of slaves or the gathering of large groups in any one place or at any one time.

Only on the Sunday market days in Roseau and Portsmouth were such crowds to be found and, as the old paintings show, red-coated soldiers wandered prominently among them. On feast days it was alright for the slaves of two or three estates in one district to gather in the estate yards, but with active maroon gangs roaming the hills, particularly at the end of the 18th century, a wary eye was kept on such gatherings by the authorities. Street Carnival was out of the question and although the use of the drum was tolerated, the use of masks was strictly limited, often in some cases by proclamation.

These restrictions and the punishments involved are all too clearly stated in a notice appearing in - "The Dominica Chronicle" (no relative to this newspaper) in several issues in early 1825:

Whereas it hath been represented to us that Slaves are frequently parading in the streets of Roseau, to the annoyance of the inhabitants of the said Town. We do hereby give notice, that in future any Slave who may be found dancing in the Town of Roseau without written permission from his or her Owner for such purpose, or who may form in, or whom may form in any riotous or noisy procession in the Streets thereof, shall be punished for such offence by public whipping agreeable to the 19th Clause of the Town Warden Act.

Signed - Town Wardens - Edward Dowdy, A. Patterson, Henry Nisbet, Ralph Ashton, Justin McSwiney.

While such notices were being published in Dominica, the humanitarian movement in Britain was actively working towards the total abolition of slavery. They campaigned in Parliament and in churches, meeting halls and newspapers throughout the country.

In spite of protests by the Dominica House of Assembly that "such a fatal project" would sweep the island "into a Vortex of indiscriminate Ruin" the British Parliament past the Abolition of Slavery Act, which received Royal Assent on 29th August 1833 and became law. It would take effect on the 1st August the following year.

When the sun set on 31st July 1834, there were 14,175 slaves in Dominica and at midnight they were free. As in other islands the liberated people came out onto the streets. The proclamation was read with the customary roll of drums from the steps of the Court House on Victoria Street, where the House of assembly is located. Dressed in their best turbans and starched white cotton petticoats and jackets of "chambray" and brightly patterned calico, madras and taffeta they streamed in from the estates along the coast. Boatmen from Soufriere. Mahaut, St. Joseph and Barroui heaved on their oars with canoe-loads of passengers. Mass was celebrated in churches islandwide and by midday the various forms of tambou drums, the long boom-booms and rattling shack-shacks were echoing down the streets. No "written permission" was needed now, no "papier liberte" had to be carried around for identification of freedom. Street masquerade had come to stay.

The Mask

The relationship between man and the mask goes way back into prehistory even before our rough hairy ancestors knew how to build a shelter for themselves or scratch the earth to plant crops. The mystery of this relationship is tied up in the complex nature of the human mind. The yearning to become something other than what we are, to be part of the spirit world, to express a particular feeling, to represent someone else, to convey fear or joy or to escape identity and gain a certain freedom from the real world. All of these are reason for mankind using masks from age to age.

We get the name from the Arabic "maschara". The Greeks, Romans and Europeans used masks for centuries, as did the people of the Far East and the island of the Pacific. In West Africa, the mask was an important part of religious festival. In most cases the mask was used to represent the deities of the spirit world as did the costumes for these ceremonies.

In Dominica the mask lost almost all of its spiritual meaning and became simply a form of disguise. By the end of the 19th century they were so popular that merchants imported wire masks from Europe especially for use at masquerade time. These pink masks with blue eyes and bright red lips had been described in numerous books about Dominica. With a piece mosquito netting behind the wire face the disguise was perfect - or almost. Such masks were used up to 1963 when they were banned by law, but they were reintroduced, with certain regulations, in 1993.

The Costumes

A separate booklet could be written to describe the changes and roots of the Masquerade costumes alone, masks apart, the oldest form of costume are the vartous types of sensay. The name itself has origin in Ghana. It is a costume of West African origin. It is made of frayed rope and other fibrous material such as pounded leaves of the agave, 'langue beff' (Furcraea tuberosa) that grows mainly on the west coast. The material is tied around the body in layers so that it cascades from the head to the feet. A mask is usually worn on the face and cow horns form the headpiece. Sensay costumes are also made of strips of paper, cloth, frayed plastic sacks and dry banana leaves 'pai fig'. They are similar to costumes used in West African tribal ceremonies. The word comes from the Twi language, senseh, which is a type of fowl with curled or ruffled feathers. The costume is named after its resemblance to the fowl, which also has special spiritual properties among the Twi people.Sensay it the name for sisal, which when shreded is made into tribal costumes. The Asensay discover witchcraft. Costumes which imitate the feathers of this prized bird and those which simply look like it, but are used to portray other spirits are all sensay. In Africa as here, they were made of leaves, cloth and sisal, known locally as "langue beff". More recently frayed rope and paper became used as well. A brief survey of West African spiritualism and costume gives us many examples of sensay complete with the wooden masks that are now prized by the leading museums in the world.

A costume character we see occasionally is bwa-bwa dancing down the street on high stilts. For his origin we look to Nigeria and the deity called Agere who loved to manipulate sticks for the purpose of walking but eventually because deformed on account of this practice. One can still see amazing dances done by stiltmen called Agere Lookman in Nigeria today. In Dominica they were as high as the verandahs on King George V Street and collected tips from the onlookers sitting there. 
The Darkies and Red Ochre bands were similar to the Jab Molasi or Molasses Devils found in some other islands such as Grenada and Trinidad. A hundred years ago these gangs covered in soot, boot-black, ochre or molasses from the estates would gather in regiments on the Newtown Savannah to engage in stick battles or bwa battaille, similar to the Kalinda of Haiti and early Trinidad. At the beginning of this century the custom died, but the bands ready to dirty the other cleaner revelers, remained a feature of street bands for many years.


Of course any weird costumes made up of old clothes and forgotten hats and gloves were popular. Many gave themselves names to go with their outrageous body defects. Misyay Gros Coco, Madame Gross Taytay, Madame Gros Bonda and Misyay Gros Gwen are just a few, Black dress and corset were poplar about ninety years ago to make fun of the "bustle" fashion of the time. "Tourist" bands mimicked the visitors who arrived those days with parasols, large hats and strange clothes from northern climes. Night gowns or robe de chambre were very popular.

Such mimic-drama is universal to mankind and could be seen in similar forms at villages festivals the world over. Animal imitation is also universal and often has long spiritual religious roots, Cow horns, as used in the sensay outfits are seen in West African costume also.


Bats with their sweeping black wings were popular in the form of Souswell Souris bands. These traditional bat costumes are usually made of satin and divided into two colours and are often decorated with small mirrors. The costume is hooded over the head, sometimes with bat ears and a large cape is sewn into the full-length trouser suit. Masks were originally worn with the costume and whistles were used. Dancing in long winding lines or simply in groups, the reverellers sway with the music to simulate the flight of bats. From the Creole word for the bat: solsouwi. Cowboy movies early this century led to elaborate imitations with large frilled sombreros, long red capes and twinkling mirrors. Devils were everywhere. Red and black were the most popular colours with sometimes cowhorns and wings and Dracular-like capes.

The traditional costume of Dominica, the Robe Douillette and the Jupe were widely worn. Thanks to Daniel Green. I have found a perfect old photograph of a masked band of "matadores" dressed in their madras outfits, posing in the Old Roseau Market in 1912. It was usual that after a wild session on the streets in the morning, women and often men as well, would change into their Douilletes for the afternoon round.

Costumes for the house parties a Carnival time were also colourful but recalled the French masqued balls rather than the ribald street parades.

Samedi Gras was of course the main night for such parties. At some costume dances, a ludicrous nobility of Dukes and Duchesses, knights and Counts were presented. Usually the national costume was worn and men sported red cumabands. Thirty to forty years ago such places as the Albert Hall above the Phoenix Store and the Union Club were centres for the local " society" on Samedi Gras night. Private parties and village gatherings were also in progress with places like Chim-Chim in Newtown rolling with Jing-Ping music and charging six pence entrance fee.


On Sunday evenings, the Pappy Show Weddings were out, another ridicule of social decorum, the more outrageous the costumes, the better the wedding. Roving from house to house the various weddings performed little skits and were rewarded with drinks and food. In those days more people lived in Roseau, particularly in the town centre and the movement of these families to the new residential area of Goodwill in the 1950s coincided with the demise of the Pappy Show Wedding. On Dimache Gras night "ghosts" in the white sheets roamed the town.

Songs and Music

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 the refrain or lavway. In French creole Dominica she was the chantuelle, and the "chante mas" 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 Jourvert, 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 Bele 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 bailif 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", 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 mele.

"Solomon Woulay" 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" and "Si ou tay 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, "Hosal Lamp La "exposed the activities of the cinq malpwop en da kai la, "Dow, Dow, Dowad" and "C'est Mal Cabwit qui di" 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 ghostwriters dependent on the approval of judges and the mass media.

The Calypso

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 Venazuela. 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 indepth 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.

Organization by Law

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 afteroon 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 magistrates 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" he called back "Mais Nou Ke vwe en L'audience la demi sa dieu.l"

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 infact 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 7 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 sixties Carnival. A lavish float parade on Sunday was won by the float "The Death of a Pharoah" 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.

Organization of Bands and Shows

The organization of bans is as old as street Carnival itself. It was natural for people of one district to 'band' together or that friends and acquaintances should organize 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. Persons 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", person 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 "Tete Dowad", a well known port worker, drew crowds when he came out with his tambou.

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 organized 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.

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 Organizing 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.

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. Organization 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, better-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 Starts". 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 alot and gained alot 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 street 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 well - once upon a time.

Views: 966


You need to be a member of Carnival Fever, Soca, Calypso, J'ouvert, Mas, Costume, Fete, TnT to add comments!

Join Carnival Fever, Soca, Calypso, J'ouvert, Mas, Costume, Fete, TnT

© 2023   Created by omar.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service