Excerpt from Syncretism, Picong, and Mas: A Two-Faced Resistance an essay examining the dichotomous energies of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival.
Syncretism and Picong
Many practices and artifacts of carnival in Trinidad & Tobago and the rest of the so-called West Indies connect to African ancestral practices. Europeans were extremely suspicious of Africans’ religious and healing practices. They carried to the “West Indies” all of the offensive stereotypes of the dark continent they would subsequently ravage or claim for mineral, and agricultural wealth after kidnapping more than a million of its people. To survive and maintain a sense of groundedness, and to simply live, Africans engaged in the calculated practice of syncretism. Most of us commonly hear of this practice in the context of African traditional religions such as Santeria and orisha where Roman Catholic saints would be merged with the orishas as a means of continuing to worship in ways that The Church would sanction. Syncretism also existed for the arts. For instance, Africans martial arts such as kalenda, similar to the capoeira of Brazil in ways that emphasized the celebratory aspects, the drumming, dancing and singing, rather than the lethal art of stick fighting. Similarly Africans employed lyricism through the use of musical forms like carisos – songs with erotic themes typically sung by women, and later, when kalenda songs were banned, by men – for enjoyment, acts of bravado, or to critique and warn of brutal overseers and slave masters. These musical forms, along with the employment of whatever tone and percussive instruments could be fashioned from available materials would eventually give us the calypsos and soca of contemporary carnival. In movement, the throwing of powder in sailor mas conjures up images of the disbursal of efun in traditional African spiritual ceremonies. The dances of the fancy sailor, as with the bele dances, no longer integrated specifically into carnival, but the broader Black culture of Trinidad and Tobago, echo the complex ancestral dances to honor the orishas of the Yoruba, Mokos, Kongos, Asantes, Coromantes and other West African groups that were forcibly brought to Trinidad. The Masking traditions both ceremonial and the quotidian were integral to West African culture e.g. egungun, and the practice of adorning in mud, molasses, oil, or paint, gelede to honor women’s role in society. The songs they used were celebratory, but also applied a language of resistance, through the use of picong – a humorous, sarcastic rhetorical device to insult or ridicule their opponent or abuser in ways that might only be understood by an in-group.
Revelry served as a remembrance but also as a form of resistance. There is a belief that Trinidad carnival was simply Africans appropriating European culture as it culminates the two days before Ash Wednesday, the start of the Christian Lenten season, and many colonizers held masquerade balls in the Catholic tradition of feasting before Lent. The retention of African traditions occurred in spite of suppression, and Carnival was one such tradition – a combination of cultural and religious festivals common in their ancestral homelands. When in 1868 drumming was outlawed, Africans used various shapes, eventually finding that a systematic method of denting tins gave a distinctive sound. By the 1940s this practice evolved from paint tins and biscuit tins into the use of oil drums supplied by the American and British oil companies present in the colony. Today we have large steel orchestras with at least seven different modes of scale and the only instrument known to be invented in the twentieth century.