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  • Trinidad Carnival Today:Local Culture in a Global Context
  • Colleen Ballerino Cohen
Garth L. Green and Philip W. Scher (eds.), Trinidad Carnival: The Cultural Politics of a Transnational Festival. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2007. 254 pp.

When I first started looking at Festival on the Eastern Caribbean island of Tortola almost two decades ago, there were a few articles that treated Trinidad's Carnival and Caribbean festivals in general and two books dealing specifically with Trinidad Carnival—Errol Hill's classic Carnival: Mandate for a National Theater (1972), and a magnificent collection of illustrated essays—now out of print—Caribbean Festival Arts (Nunley and Bettelheim 1988). Even today it is difficult to find a single work that deals with Caribbean festivals in terms of their varied histories and events and their intersections with nationalisms, transnationalisms, and global mobilities. This collection changes this. While focused specifically on Trinidad Carnival, the essays in this collection have broad relevance, not just to the Caribbean and other festivals in the region but to the imbrication of local performances of nation, culture, history, and identity within wider-ranging networks of people, politics, and powers. Festivals in the Caribbean celebrate a variety of events, ranging from the emancipation commemorations of the British Virgin Islands and Antigua (Cohen 1998; Manning 1977, 1978) to the Easter celebrations of St. Thomas in the USVI (de Albuquerque 1990) to the pre-Lenten celebrations [End Page 897] of Trinidad. But while Caribbean countries may put on festivals for different occasions and may even try to distinguish their celebrations by referring to them as Festival rather than Carnival, it is from Trinidad's Carnival that they take their inspiration, form, and structure.

Those of us who study Caribbean festivals are frequently as moved as their participants by the vibrancy and power of festival events; festival colors, costumes, contests, politics, musics, road marches, and parades often draw us in at a visceral as much as an intellectual level. And so one of the major challenges in writing about Trinidad's Carnival is how adequately to represent something that is so sensorily rich, so polysemic, so layered. One of the things that I love about this collection is that it conveys so well the sensibilities, sensations, and delights of Carnival, what Abrahams in his Afterword characterizes as "the protean capacities of those who play every year, and if they are not able to do so, feel the lack in their very bone" (226). In some measure, the ability of this volume to convey the sense of Carnival is accomplished by the authors' straightforward use of Carnival terminology. If the reader is uncertain about what a fancy sailor is or what it means to wine in the road on J'ouvert morning, the glossary of terms at the end of the collection provides detailed explanations. But the essays themselves are so comprehensive and provide such rich accounts that one seldom needs the glossary to understand—and in many cases get a profound feeling for—the activity or situation at hand.

Trinidad Carnival grew out of a 1996 Caribbean Quarterly issue celebrating the 1956 Caribbean Quarterly special issue on Trinidad Carnival that many see as the "foundational document in Trinidad Carnival discussions" (Abrahams 217). Several of the contributors to this volume are noted scholars of Caribbean cultural forms, and they bring to the collection an institutional memory of Carnival as well as of the development of Caribbean scholarship. Roger Abrahams and Donald Hill, for example, were doing work in the Caribbean well before the region's centrality to postcolonial, globalization, and diasporic studies was recognized and, as Abrahams points out, "the generation of the mid-twentieth century writing on the subject, whether of not they were West Indians, had the advantage of drawing on the vernacular knowledge and memories of local savants who had been publishing in newspapers and journals for some time, and gathering together at reunions to remember the past pleasures of playing" (217). Together with the work of scholars newer to the subject, the contributions by Hill and Abrahams—Hill in an essay co-authored [End Page 898] with Ray Funk and Abrahams in the Afterword—provide a rich sense of the...


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