‘Art finds a way’: carnivals go off-road and online for coronavirus

A report by Erin MacLeod for London’s Guardian. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.

Notting Hill Carnival goes digital this weekend, as one of many global carnivals forced to adapt by the pandemic. But can their spirit ever be recreated on a screen?

Back in February, the streets of Trinidad and Tobago’s Port of Spain were full of carnival revellers, as is the custom for what is billed as the greatest show on earth. Photos from those days now look as if they were beamed from another world. “It seems like 10 years ago!” exclaims Solange Govia, designer of costumes for Tribe, Bliss and Harts, three of the largest carnival bands in Trinidad. “So much has happened, and is happening.”

The summer carnival season worldwide, from Antigua and Barbuda to Notting Hill in London, has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Those who live for carnival, or for whom carnival is their livelihood, are trying to figure out how to cure a kind of tabanca – a Trinidadian word for longing sadness – like no other.

This isn’t just a cancelled party: carnival’s history is rich and deep, a creole celebration of culture and freedom from colonial enslavement and oppression. It’s about taking up space, as Dr Jo-Anne Tull, coordinator of Carnival Studies at the University of the West Indies, underlines: “The contemporary Caribbean has come to own this space. Carnival allows the average person to claim the road.”

But despite the deserted roads, “no matter what, art finds a way,” says Kees Dieffenthaller, lead singer of soca group Kes the Band. With the regular schedule of jumping from one carnival to the next scrapped, he and his band have turned to recording what they call a “live” album. As his bandmate and brother Jon Dieffenthaller describes, “It proved to be a time to really clear your mind and approach creativity in a more refreshing way.” Their album was not recorded in front of an audience, but still attempts to capture the live energy of a soca-soundtracked carnival.

Masqueraders from TRIBE at Trinidad and Tobago’s 2020 carnival, with costumes by Solange Govia.

Masqueraders from Tribe at Trinidad and Tobago’s 2020 carnival, with costumes by Solange Govia. 

Kees says the band have always aimed for “timeless” tunes that transcend carnival season, including 2020’s road march-winning Stage Gone Bad, with Iwer George. Road march winners are crowned based on how many times a song is played as carnival bands cross through judging points at Trinidad and Tobago carnival – Stage Gone Bad clocked up 386 spins. The song, referencing the exhilaration of being one of a band of masqueraders “on stage” at a particular judging point – showcasing costumes and soaking up the experience – speaks of a space and time that now feels so distant. “The world has changed and we don’t know what it will change into,” Kees says.Advertisementhttps://a8c92cfd79fe55708999e0d6fda1a7a2.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Notting Hill Carnival’s solution is to move online for this weekend’s celebrations, and tens of soundsystems and costumed “mas” bands have been filmed for it, including the Elimu Paddington Arts Mas Band. Founder and artistic director Ansel Wong describes the filming as “transcribing”, taking “the kinetics of performance and movement of people online, to get as close an approximation as possible to the experience of the road”.

Being online means a focus on individuals instead of a collective presentation: you can’t recreate a crowd of thousands. Wong speaks of the difficulty of recreating the “density of movement” in this distanced setting, while Govia explains that mas costumes are not made with a video camera in mind: “You are designing to see it in a group. I’m always thinking about how it is going to look on the road and how girls are going to look next to each other in their feather backpacks – how they are going to manoeuvre through the crowd”.

The art of mas, for Wong, is the “art of presenting a theatrical presentation of the road”, moving through the architecture, transforming the space, forever adapting and changing depending on the crowd and the road itself. The shift in engagement, with a camera as opposed to an audience on the street, means these performances will lack spontaneity.

In the balance ... A performer from mas band Mahogany is filmed in a studio for the virtual Notting Hill carnival.

In the balance … a performer from mas band Mahogany is filmed in a studio for the virtual Notting Hill carnival.

He also notes how carnival challenges the control of regulatory bodies and the police. In the UK, concrete blocks and steel fencing have been introduced on the Notting Hill Carnival route in recent years: “Where the road has been the site of liberatory struggles, it becomes like a prison and encases you. It gets worse each year.”

Tull calls for a balance between safety, maintaining “a people’s socio-cultural milieu that is so important to who they are”, and ensuring resilience for “an industry that contributes a significant amount to the country’s economy in a very short time. Before Covid, we continued to talk about traditional versus contemporary. The space is big enough to engage both.”

Yes, Kes the Band and Elimu can adapt to the virus-created limitations, but, as Tull laughs, “ask them if they would rather do that”. The answer is obviously no, but it’s nevertheless an opportunity to regroup and explore. “When we reach the point that we can return, we will have gathered more along the way,” she says.

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