By Simone Delochan
Every year during and after Carnival, the local print and online platforms are inundated with all that is Carnival: Panorama, fete patrons, young, old, well put-together millennial masqueraders, traditional mas…coverage runs the gamut of the carnival experience.
On social media, the images and videos are particularly virulent: people caught in the worst of behaviours or dress and these go viral with the expected gleeful cries of condemnation.
Given the excesses that are highlighted during the Carnival season, it’s no wonder that there is no lukewarm reception to Carnival: either you are all in and caught up in the vibe even if your own behaviour is moderate, or you distance yourself from it completely.
Given the mish-mash of Carnival, and the platform it provides for hitherto (apparently) suppressed sexual and exhibitionist proclivities, a question emerged on whether Carnival can be any other way.
The Catholic News sought out two of the early contributors, Felix ‘Pierrot Grenade’ Edinborough and Deacon Derek Walcott, to the formation of what became known as the ‘Catholic Band’, to discern what would have prompted the involvement in what is perceived as a secular occasion.
Launched in 2011, the intent behind the band was not denominational; the press had applied the label, ‘Catholic Band’ and the name stuck. The concept was actually, says Edinborough, the brainchild of Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Harris.
There was very vocal censure from within the Church and the wider community. In a letter to the Newsday, dated Saturday, February 26, 2011, the author penned: “…it was downright imprudent, to say the least! After all, if as a Church you want to bring about some degree of moral and spiritual conversion in the manner in which people play mas’ in this society, one would have thought that the most prudent way to go about it would have been to embark on a serious well-conceived pastoral programme of prayer and preaching at the level of the Catholic parishes, the Catholic Schools, Youth Groups, Ecclesial Communities, and the Catholic Media of Mass Communications, all of this together with some effort at collaborating with other Christian denominations, the Inter-Religious Organisation, and other like-minded bodies in civil society, many of whom have been publicly calling for some measure of reform in regard to the flagrant vulgarity undermining the social and moral tone of our Carnival.”
Rationale behind ‘The Catholic Band’
Both Edinborough and Deacon Walcott, and the Vicar for Communications, Fr Robert Christo, essentialised the impetus to engagement with Carnival in this way, in Incarnation Theology.
Says Fr Christo: “The key thing is to get involved. That’s where the division is and that’s where the split is. Incarnational theology teaches us that the worse it becomes, the more you get involved. That’s the only way to redeem it. Christ was born into the mess, to revolutionise and redeem the mess. There is a very sacred way of getting involved.”
Deacon Walcott reiterated this by drawing the analogy of an open, infected wound: healing of the wound occurs when the doctor touches it, and cleans it.
The focus was on providing an alternative to the experience of debauchery and excess that has come to mark Carnival. Good costuming, selected music and non-alcohol usage were the pillars of the ‘Catholic’ band experience, antithetical to what prevails.
Edinborough commented, “If we want to save people, we had to be among the sinners. We were strict about our values…we were making a point…We were attempting to evangelise Carnival, not by preaching. ‘Preach all the time, and only if necessary use words’.”
The Scriptures provide a basis, according to Fr Christo. “Scriptures say you lay burdens on people; you moralise them, and you don’t lift a finger to help them. I tell you this is wrong, but I don’t tell you how to process it, where to get help.”
Redemption in Carnival he sees as twofold: looking at the talent and creativity that is inherent in Carnival, and providing an alternative “…good costuming, well-clothed, very creative, good movement and no negativity, no debauchery. Something which maintains the sacredness of the body and sex and sexuality. Something rooted in the theology of the body.” The answer, as all three men saw, was in not divorcing oneself from the experience.
Can Carnival be evangelised?
Deacon Walcott believes that there is room. He points to two calypsonians whose approach to calypso does not participate in the typical ‘wine and jam’: Aaron St Louis aka Voice and Orlando Octave.
Last year, with Octave’s ‘Single’, he used it in his homily to highlight that a person does not belong to him/herself, extrapolating that people belonged to God. He also pointed to Trinidadians’ receptivity to Voice’s calypsoes. Deacon Walcott, says that Christians are called to be salt and light: “You don’t have to use plenty salt to change and improve the flavour of food.”
When asked the question if people even wanted their Carnival experience to be evangelised, Edinborough responded, “It’s a funny thing, if you understand the nature of people, it’s difficult to say what they want. If you give them enough of…well, in almost anything, they develop a taste. Give people something enough, that’s how you evangelise, you know. It’s not pushing something down their throats.”
He remembers two occurrences in particular which indicated to him the potential for change. In the first, a band of young men was running through Carnival bands and ‘tiefing a wine’ where they could. One of the group had held on to a young woman in the band and his friend grabbed him and said, “Nah, not this band” and they left. “They were recognising us as a different band.” On another occasion as they exited the Savannah, a bystander exclaimed, “I want to play in this band!”
Edinborough maintains that had the band continued, as risky a venture as it was, it would have had impact. Sponsorship for a small, and as yet unpopular, band and a declining economy, ultimately caused its demise.
“Some in the Catholic faith will say, don’t get involved. Catholic theology however, says, get involved. We can do a rumshop redemption. There are nuns who go to prostitutes to talk to them…I used to bless the bands on the street, so the ‘mas’ has turned into ‘Mass’ and vice versa. The connection has to be made or else there is a dichotomy and duality in what you believe sacred and how you behave,” commented Fr Christo.