On Being Caribbean

Peter Minshall is in town.

For those of us who don’t know who Peter Minshall is, or who may imagine that his contributions may have very little to do with our lives, being so plugged into the energy of our northern neighbours, it’s time to think again.

Think, for instance, Trinidad. Think Carnival. Think big themes, social commentary, giant puppets, super-costume; and then think Junkanoo.

Minshall is the foremost designer in Trinidad’s Carnival, where his work has revolutionized the way in which people regard and think about their festival. His creations are not simply pretty, you understand; sometimes they are frightening, shocking, or horrifying — but they always make you think. And his contribution is not limited to Trinidad. He’s been invited to design the opening ceremonies for not one, but three Olympic Games: Barcelona Summer Olympics in 1992, Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996, and part of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies in 2002.

His influence on Bahamian Junkanoo has been profound, but it isn’t what people may expect. While we often think that the brass lines and the tricks and the feathers are all “Trinidad” or “Carnival” imports, they’re not where Minshall’s made the most impact. No; Bahamian Junkanoo leaders were in Trinidad in 1983 when Minshall’s shocking presentation, “The River”, which provided a commentary on the rape and murder of purity, harmony and nature by technological man, appeared, and were there again, with Committee members, in 1986, when “Rat Race”, a meditation on modern urban Caribbean life, appeared. No; where Minshall’s influence on our Junkanoo has been greatest has been in the area of theme.

There’s a category in the judging process for Junkanoo that’s called Execution of Theme, and it’s here that Minshall’s influence can be seen. Of all the groups who rush, it’s the Valley Boys who have mastered this best. While other great groups like the Saxons and One Family and Roots have long been executing their themes in purely artistic fashions, using — often brilliantly — the designs of their dancers and their bellers and their back lines to illustrate their theme, starting in the second half of the 1980s the Valley Boys took a leaf from Minshall’s book and began to perform their themes. Who can forget the moment when the Valley Boys’ free dancers, all costumed in Defence Force camouflage, threw themselves onto their bellies at Charlotte Street and began to crawl? Or when, for their Wedding, the Valley Boys released balloons at the rollover, and danced down Bay Street, to cut the wedding cake in Rawson Square?

For Minshall, you see, whose background is theatre, Carnival — and by extension Junkanoo — is the theatre of the street. Caribbean people, like Africans and Asians and unlike northerners, perform in the outdoors, in the open. The great Caribbean performance spaces are not the grand theatres and opera houses of New York or London; rather, they are the fields and parks and streets of cities.

What are we doing with ours?

I ask because it seems to me that we have been given the task of caretaking a special gift — the gift of performance, the gift of communicating with our whole bodies, of turning our selves into instruments for the expression of the human soul — but that we seem to be far more interested in who gets to administer the arena for this gift, or in who wins the competition that accompanies it. And that winning is everything. It doesn’t matter whether what wins has lifted us out of ourselves, or has simply rerun what was done last year and the year before; it doesn’t matter whether the whole thing, the art of Junkanoo is moving forward, taking us with it, or whether it’s sliding into irrelevancy. We’ve been given a gift to look after, and we’re wasting it on politics and competition.

What Peter Minshall has to teach us isn’t how to build costumes or even how to put themes out on the street, though we’d certainly do well to learn both from him. No. The message he comes bringing is that we are Caribbean people. We can quibble all we like about the veracity of that fact — we can argue that if the Caribbean Sea stops at the southern shores of Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico it means we’re outside the Caribbean, or we can claim that because Columbus, God bless the man, first set foot on one of our islands, it knits us up inextricably with the Caribbean — but the truth of the matter is that Junkanoo says it all.

For Minshall, you see, the essence of the Caribbean being is hybridity — that glorious mixing that happens with cross-fertilization and jumbled-up genealogies. Like Caliban in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, we are strangers in our own lands, speaking with words that are foreign to us. Our fullest expressions happen beyond words — in the language created by music, by art, by our bodies in the dance. Junkanoo is the ultimate site of these expressions — or at least, it’s supposed to be, and it can be. It’s for us the most sacred work that any of us can perform. But Junkanoo, weather or no weather, is not invincible; if we play with it too much, we can lose its truth and be left with an empty shell.

And so let us celebrate our Caribbeanness by recognizing the sacred trust that draws us all together: the trust that has us all, from Nassau straight down to Port of Spain, engaged in the creating of that wonderful theatre that is Junkanoo and Carnival. And let us respect that trust so much that we forget our differences and our competitions and our postponements, and concentrate on the work itself.

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