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Sunday, January 9, 2011



"The decision by the Catholic Church, or at least some of the braver outreach elements of that religious body, to participate in Carnival 2011 has sparked nationwide debate. On the surface of it, the notion of the deeply religious descending into the hedonism of Carnival Monday and Tuesday, seems, at best, to be wrong headed.

That notion, however, sets aside the Catholic roots of the festival itself. Originally carne vale, the farewell to the flesh, the celebration is a key event in the religious calendar of several faiths and is a ceremonial pre-Lenten embrace of the passions and indulgences to be set aside during Lent. The event has come to be expressed in subtly different ways throughout the world, and while Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival is well known for its colour, energy and creativity, it is hardly the only one.

Still, this is the Carnival we have, and it is one that the Catholic Church seems intent on staking a fresh claim on this year. The band, Genesis 1-Creation is hardly some rebellious engagement. The effort has been blessed by Archbishop Edward Gilbert and enjoys the personal attention of Monsignor Jason Gordon, who has long been committed to strengthening the ties between the Catholic Church and the community it serves.

The band is being directly guided by Fr Joe Harris, the priest of Petit Valley’s St Anthony’s Church, who initiated the idea. There have been rich opportunities for humour, some of it cruel, arising from this initiative, but there have also been questions which the band’s leadership will have to answer on the short road from the preliminary announcement last week to the band’s appearance on the road. While the band will have its own Church sanctioned playlist, one that will, undoubtedly emphasise music deemed appropriate to the goals of the project, what will happen when the band encounters roadside speakers blaring music that is wildly inappropriate?

Will the band be competing on the traditional route or will it be a “fun” band, making its own way on the road as well as in concept? Will the band be all-inclusive? The cost of the costumes certainly seems to suggest that it might be, and if so, what will be served? How will ideas like “evangelising the culture” be expressed during the hard practicalities of the road, where the realities of presenting a band on the street has led to the roped or “gated communities” described by Monsignor Gordon? It’s also worth noting that virtually everything that the Catholic Church hopes to set an alternative example to in our local Carnival are developments of fairly recent vintage.

While the idea of artful vulgarity in calypso has been part of the festival’s traditions from its very beginnings, the trimming of once elaborate costumes only began a few decades ago, when the late designer Lil Hart began to produce more youthful costumes for teenage and young adult members of the band.

For years, the shorter skirts and pruned costumes of the Hart’s fun band were viewed as an aberration in Carnival before becoming first the norm and now the standard. The more outrageous dances offered by many of today’s masqueraders as well were the result of a loss of craft in presentation, as the elaborate moves of blue devils, bats and firemen were lost to a new generation of masqueraders and the entire point of portraying a costume was harnessed to the imperatives of commerce.

These new traditions may be new to the long history of Carnival, but they are deeply entrenched and any alternative presented by the Catholic Church must aspire to being more than simply “holier than thou.” The creative traditions of Carnival are rich and remarkable. The presence of Genesis 1-Creation, promoted by Monsignor Gordon as way of returning some of the “true essence” of the festival, should engage some of those dormant creative possibilities as a path back to the heart of the masquerade."

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