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Post 324.

IT WAS a brief, breath-held moment of unexpected confidence. As a mother, I felt as if I had managed to do something right. This rare feeling wasn’t dependent on her marks or good behaviour. It came as I watched her be brave as if that’s what she was born to do.

Ziya’s typically a little shy and hesitant, but Friday was her fourth calypso monarch competition at her primary school. We never understood how she agreed to go up on stage in the first place. The last thing she wanted was the awkwardness of public performance and attention, what she described as “too many people watching.”

We figured that, somehow, being the daughter of a DJ and a poet maybe had genetic influence. We thought that maybe growing up in a production studio made her edge a little closer to familiarity with music. There isn’t a clear answer, but she was up there when she was five years old expressing a self that seemed unusual for a girl who would still hide behind me when she met strangers. She stood on the school’s auditorium stage then; small, focused and fixed to the spot, remembering her lyrics.

We sent her up twice more, finding topics that filled a space for children in Carnival and focused on the little ups and downs of their lives. So, her first song, Mosquito, complete with a dance and drawing the interest of the Ministry of Health in their fight against dengue, was followed by a composition about losing her pot hound, Shak Shak, when she ran away one day.

True story: Shak Shak was found a week later far away in Las Cuevas, inexplicably distant from Santa Cruz, and well looked-after. She had, somehow, hopped a drop to the beach and the song found the humour in searching high and low, almost from Tobago to Toco, calling and calling. The chorus, “Where’s Shak Shak?,” got the whole audience to participate in solving this mystery.

Last year, we decided to start experimenting with soca, bringing calypso story-telling to pace and production which children could dance to. Have you ever noticed that there’s no music just for children at Carnival, their own soca genre that draws from the best of call-and-response refrains, and exuberant happiness? We began to aim to create that content.

Though Zi would alternately agree and refuse to compete, as shyness recalibrated with the push of coming second place, in the end she was there singing, Pencil Cases in the Air, a tune about packing your school bag. “Before the school bell rings, every morning check your things: erasers, sharpeners, rulers too, scissors, pencils and your glue,” she listed. Now in her third year, she was bouncing a bit more, tapping her foot on the stage’s wooden floor, but still contained like a child successfully performing what she had rehearsed, not yet able to leap into connecting with an audience.

This year, it’s like she grew up, as children so quickly do, one day more capable at a particular skill than they were before, as if the cumulative effort of years of parenting suddenly met with the right age for another step in life to be conquered.

Singing about the tribulations of having to learn times tables, we wrote lyrics for eight-year-olds, about the pressure of having to know the answer to two times eight, about revising for tests and being up late, and about it being true for every child that, “times tables coming for you.”

It isn’t often that you get to tell a story of Carnival as a space for growing up, whether for children singing, stilt-walking, playing pan or playing mas. On stage this year, she moved like an experienced performer, channelling the humour of Rose and Sparrow, the populism of Iwer and Machel, and the sweetness of Shadow’s horns.

I had never seen her this confident. One day, children grow into a lesson and get it perfect, maybe in English, math, music or sports. Then, if you are a mother who often doubts if she’s making the best decisions or one who quietly regrets her many mistakes, you exhale because such bravery was all you had hoped for, and you give thanks with wonder, rather than pride.

Although this is a story of Carnival, calypso and growing up, and of finally winning through many tries, such momentary magic of together getting it right is one with which parents anywhere in sweet T and T can perhaps identify.

 

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Post 236.

Over the last three decades, the rise of bikini mas has been considered a sign of Carnival’s loss of politics.  In this view, gone was the costuming skill and performance that defined mas itself, to be replaced by wining skill and body display, with the heyday of top male bandleaders replaced by bottom and ‘Carnival is woman’.

The feminization of Carnival was an unrepentant fall from high mas, and women’s ‘vulgarity’ was obsessively interlocked with the downfall of decency and order in the wider society. This easily fit the misbegotten myth that all the world’s troubles would be solved if only women never misbehave.

Women disagreed by the tens of thousands.

The past thirty or so years of bikini mas, which is now typical for an entire generation of young women, could therefore instead be thought of as a massive women’s movement taking cultural form, indeed ‘taking over’ Carnival, to continue traditions of self-affirmation, resistance to subordination, and renegotiation of the rules of public space.

Observers of the ‘jamette’ tradition point to the fact that women in Carnival always combined the folk politics of ‘playing mas’ with the gender and sexual politics of ‘playing yuhself’ in ways that were typically disallowed to women, and that women took both these politics into their challenges to the state.

What’s evident over the last decades is that such ‘jamette’ performance has crossed racial, religious and class differences amongst women, becoming national, and therefore even more disturbing for men as diverse as Sat Maharaj, Tim Kee, Keith Rowley and Father Harvey, with their patriarchal passion for women’s responsibility, decency, dignity and prayer.

Women’s annual occupation of the nation’s streets over Carnival, to experience sexual control, bodily pleasure and freedom from respectability, predates anti-‘slut shaming’ or ‘slut walk’ marches in the North by decades. Unexpectedly, bikini mas helped powerfully cultivate contemporary women’s opposition to rape culture, or a society where sexual domination of women and their vulnerability to sexual violence is seen as natural and normal. Though globalized, this creative expression of women’s rights is homegrown.

We saw the force of such opposition when Asami Nagakiya was murdered and the groups Womantra and Say Something called for the resignation of the PoS Mayor. We have seen it in continued ‘not asking for it’ campaigns across the region, in a younger generation of women publicly refusing old men’s bad habits of victim-blaming, and in diverse support for #lifeinleggings’ call to break silences about sexual harassment. It’s part of Say Something’s current ‘Leave me alone’, ‘Leave she alone’ campaign, in collaboration with Calypso Rose, which encourages women to share “experiences of street harassment and violence during Carnival and also of positive moments when you felt defended or protected by your Carnival community…whether as revellers or frontline workers and service providers”.

The rise of bikini mas is complex. Women’s increasing income and economic independence are major factors. Desires to be affirmed as beautiful as black and brown women, not just as ascendant students and workers, is another. Expansion of women’s spaces for friendly sexual ribaldry, such as the maticoor, into the public domain is a third, bringing with it challenges to the hypocrisy of male privilege, which allowed men all kinds of license while keeping women in check.

There are also contradictions. Costs of bikini mas participation mean that class shapes access to these moments of freedom. Many women continue to play within ropes, reproducing historical ways that upper classes cut themselves off from others, while signaling the reality of sexual harassment which all classes of women continue to fear. Additionally, the marketing of hypersexuality over these very decades has reinforced hierarchies of beauty and the policing of women’s bodies in ways that complicate the radical potential of bikini mas to throw off pressures women face, embrace self-pleasure without judgment or justification, and defy nation-state commodification.

Against nostalgic anxieties, bikini mas has enabled serious woman politics of all kinds to take up space in Carnival. It is the largest movement of women to take to the streets in the country, bringing diverse aspirations for an equal place as gendered and sexual beings. And, it has cultural capital, empowering anti-violence activists’ demands that both men and the state better behave.