Carnival has its roots in ancient Greek festivals, in triumphal parades
of Imperial Rome, in religious processions of Medieval Europe and the
carnival celebrations of Florence and Venice where the talents of famous painters, sculptors and composers were solicited to stage the event. West Indian Carnival also has its roots in Ghanaianand West African traditions; a metissage has created a truly Caribbean festival. European carnival came initially to the French-controlled territories where Catholicism was firmly established.
Traditionally, it is a pre-Lenten affair that is planned a year in advance. The songs and stage presentations portray social and cultural realities.
Carnival players ‘play’ to an audience. Playing mas or
masquerade is like playing cricket or football. The festival is often
regarded as the one occasion during the year to spend money and have a
good time even if it means going into debt.
In St. Lucia, Carnival became an organized festival after World War 2.
The first recorded celebration was in 1947 when a small group of young
people dressed in ragged clothes; beat out rhythms on bottles and
pieces of steel as they paraded through Castries on Shrove Monday
night. People joined the impromptu parade which ended at the home of
Derek and Roddy Walcott on Chaussee Road.
On Shrove Tuesday also known as Mardi Gras, people spontaneously
started assembling makeshift costumes. Parades were held during the
Plans were already underway for a better organized festival the following year. The British administrator went ahead and declared
Shrove Tuesday a public holiday.
In 1948, there were steel bands, calypsos and costumed bands. The
costumes of one of the bands were said to be so hot that they were the
real cause of the great fire that destroyed the city of Castries three
months after carnival.
The new event was controversial. Some of the calypso lyrics were
deemed offensive. The principal of the St. Mary’s College, the finest
boys’ school in St. Lucia, reacted strongly against a group of students
who participated. Their behaviour was a ‘degrading and vulgar
exhibition’. As a result, some pupils were suspended, prefects were demoted. Others were simply flogged.
In 1950, the Physical and Culture Club in Castries organized the first
King and Queen competition. Community members from Castries were asked
to submit names of candidates. Voting bulletins were printed in a
Charm and personality were the major criteria for the competition. The
winning couple was then veiled. Attended by a retinue of ladies and
gentlemen in waiting, they were paraded through the streets of the
capital to Victoria Park (now the Mindoo Phillip Park) where their
identities were finally revealed. Since 1952, only a Carnival Queen
has been elected. She must be unmarried and a St. Lucian national.
In 1957 the first costumed band was elected Band of the Year. The
Egyptians was designed by Roderick Walcott twin brother of Derek, St.
Lucia’s Nobel laureate for literature. Roderick Walcott was always a
local Carnival stalwart.
Without calypso music, there would be no Carnival. Experts are still
debating the origin of the words calypso and kaiso. The latter being a
West Indian word for the traditional music form. There are those who
argue in favour of an African origin claiming that the word comes from
the Ibo people and means ‘bravo’ or ‘sing it again’. Francophiles
state that the word comes from ‘carousseaux’ which means to carouse.
Hispanic scholars say that the word is ‘caliso’ which is a topical
song. Amerindian experts say that the word is ‘carieto’ which means a
While the debate rages, calypsonians compose songs about social
conditions, world events, love, hate, anger and despair. Their lyrics
change every year to suit current affairs.
In St. Lucia, one of the first calypsos to find favour with audiences
was entitled ‘Tell me why salt fish smelling so’. Early calypsonians
took on stage names like Lord Guitar, the Mighty Terror, the Mighty
Bass, the Mighty Rock’n’Roll and King Cobra. For the first monarch
contests, they had to submit three songs dealing with sexual, social
and political life.
Steel bands made their first appearance in St. Lucian carnival in
1948. Some anthropologists claim that steel band music is directly
related to the melodious xylophones of Africa, from tribes in
Mozambique and Guinea. The steel pan is the only new musical instrument
to be invented in the 20th century.
At first there were only two orchestras in St. Lucia: Tokyo and Casa
Blanca. Six years later that number had risen to six and this permitted the first Panorama or pan competition to be held.
Today that number has grown to sixteen and includes junior orchestras
and women’s groups.
Indeed, St. Lucian carnival has come of age. Many visitors,
particularly from around the region converge on the island’s festival.
Recently, the authorities have changed the date, moving it from the
traditional pre-Lenten period to July. This has given St. Lucian
carnival its own visibility. Prior to this decision, the event was
overshadowed by the great show in Trinidad and Tobago.
The artistic skills and imaginative talents of a number of people are
interwoven to produce a yearly event that reaches and has meaning for
more St. Lucians than any other local festival. Whatever its origins,
Carnival is now a symbol of West Indian cultural identity.