Whilst writing a review of the 3 Born in Britain: Caribbean Identity and Carnival in the UK Today – Louise Shah – Panpodium

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Published on November 13th, 2010 | by Louise Shah


Born in Britain: Caribbean Identity and Carnival in the UK Today – Louise Shah

Whilst writing a review of the 3rd International Conference on Steelpan for Pan Podium and simultaneously reading a book on Claudia Jones one question kept returning to me: what would Claudia think of carnival in the UK today?

Claudia – having moved from Trinidad to Harlem in the United States at the age of seven – became one of the leading figures in the American Communist Party and eventually, after several terms in prison, was exiled to Britain where she died and was laid to rest next to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. Although we are all aware of the huge inroads Lord Kitchener, TASPO (Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra) and other honourable musicians from that Windrush generation made in developing carnival in the UK, it was Claudia Jones who laid the foundations for Notting Hill Carnival, despite the fact that a road march was only to come to fruition after her death.

Having studied Politics and International Relations (BSc), Violence, Conflict and Development (MSc) where I specialised in gender, as the daughter of a Trinidadian and thus first generation British, Claudia Jones has just arrived in my life, as an inspiration, both politically and culturally, but perhaps most powerfully, as a woman of conviction. I wonder how I might have related to carnival, my culture or indeed how I might have self realised had I known of her sooner. I have always been proud of my origins but when I faced difficulties in the playground during the 1980s, what a blessing it might have been to have taken encouragement from such a woman. Formulation of our present day identities and the notion of carving out our futures with a sense of empowerment borne out of past struggles is something that is typically drawn upon when needed; when conflicts occur and identification with a group becomes vital to the success of that group. How we form our identities as first generation British born children of Caribbean parents is of great interest to me, particularly as, whilst we know popular culture can be divisive, it is clear it can also be inclusive and utilised for community cohesion…surely sentiments Claudia would approve of.

During the conference several references were made to the increased inclusion of women in all three of the carnival arts: mas, calypso and steelpan. As a woman these references struck particular chords with me. Christopher Innes noted how the balance between the sexes at carnival tipped from 100 percent male pre-1950s in Trinidad to a global trend of around 80 percent women; referring to the terms ‘bikini’ and ‘pretty’ mas, whilst making it clear he did not support that terminology, he asserted the possibility that such inclusion could undermine or objectify women. I would argue that it is the labels (most likely applied by men) that are disempowering rather than the act (performed by women themselves) which arguably makes spaces for their empowerment within a dominantly patriarchal culture, particularly as women regularly refer to themselves as being ‘freed up’ from normal social constraints by carnival. But how can this ‘freeing up’ be taken a step further to use carnival as a truly emancipatory process, as was the original intention, for women?

Alexander D Great stated that most of the UK’s calypso monarchs have been women, with voices to rival some of the great American soul singers, and those of us familiar with the steel bands participating in Notting Hill Carnival from all around the UK are only too aware of the high numbers of expert women in their ranks. There are, it seems, no shortage of talented, admirable role models for women of Caribbean descent in the UK, so why do we not know about them?

I have been associating with pan musicians since I was five years old, participated in all but a handful of Notting Hill Carnivals over my 30 years, and yet my experience has been largely male dominated from within the Caribbean community. Is this because information is only now starting to be unearthed and documented properly so that women’s involvement in the early years is only now revealing itself, or is it because there is little space for gender equity within our culture even up to the present day? Or, indeed, is it a little of both: are all of us just as those bikini masqueraders, creating spaces for empowerment, knowing what greatness there is to some degree but carving out what empowerment we think we can?

Amongst us there are many who have known the great authority and respect for matriarchs in our families. I for one had a formidable – yet extremely witty, intelligent, and loving – grandmother whom everyone simply referred to as ‘Ma.’ She was the mother of anyone who came to know her. Many grow up in female headed households where mothers are prime examples of working, living and loving hard. Considering these facts and the example of Claudia Jones I can only surmise that great women are plentiful in our communities but not publicly acknowledged as such because as lawyer and female Calypso Monarch of 2009 Akima Paul stated about calypsonians in the UK, “no one is really listening to us.” We all have evidence of female greatness within our culture but it remains within the household; a place where, whilst useful, it is not being put to the greatest social use.

Example is powerful. It was and remains after my grandmother’s death in 1997 a major force in my life, but I regret that I never had the opportunity (as we lived in different continents) to share more time to just be, for me to understand my origins more concretely, to learn from her wisdom and to love myself as a Caribbean woman – Trini shape and all – in this Anglo-Saxon world that never made sense to me when in fact my parents cultures – Irish and Trinidadian – had more in common with each other than the world we all found ourselves in. For those of us who are first generation British we are typically fiercely patriotic when it comes to our roots, smeared in our ‘national’ colours and waving our flags higher than many on carnival day, but translating this pride into our daily lives is not something that comes with a tool kit and instructions for either ourselves or our parents. We weave our history into our present in our own ways…gestures, phrases, jokes, eating, drinking, singing songs, playing instruments. It is all meaningful and helps to build up the colours of your own rainbow, but I think I am fortunate to have experienced that list, that many have not accessed their musical history, and even then, perhaps this is not enough when we consider the pressures of life for the younger generations in the UK today. Violence, depression, self harm, addictions, criminal records, school drop outs are just some of the effects of the hardships of modern day life in the UK but I believe, most critically, that these are symptoms of low self esteem and inadequate outlets for self expression and exploration.

A few years ago I was asked to carry out a study for the GLA on prevention and intervention programmes for youths (particularly young black males) at risk of or already involved in gang violence in London and beyond. What was clear was that vague identity, demanding social expectations and intangible expressions of love were at the heart of most young people’s involvement in gangs and were the crux of the most successful programmes. More worrying was the then new trend towards female gang membership and violence where attacks were often based on aesthetics. However, it was not the pejorative that struck me throughout this experience; it was the sheer brilliance of these young people’s minds. They had carried fire arms, committed in some cases heinous crimes, been kicked out of school, and yet their minds, their souls and their hearts were like jewels waiting to be unearthed. The question was: who was prepared to do the digging?

Here however is the irony:  we have all the tools we could possibly need to engage our youth in their culture, to feel pride in their origins and respect themselves and their community right at our finger tips. I defy even the most hardened young person to enter a pan yard and not be overwhelmed by the sound, the rhythm, the togetherness which no gang could compete with (neither in fact could a gang teach discipline, collaboration and the struggle for personal excellence). We have mas to help them to ‘free up their minds’ and imagine themselves as whoever they want to be when creating and performing mas, drawing from their rich cultural heritage and realising possibilities beyond their normal stimuli. We have calypso which – although there are more modern day equivalents – has much to offer in teaching socially and politically conscious lyrics composition as well as serving as more accessible history books young people can site themselves in. Freed up, confident, disciplined children who are socially conscious and engaged with the world around them; there is, in my opinion, no excuse for any child descending from the Caribbean islands to live any other way than this.

I recently had the privilege to attend the first ever ex-tempo competition held at the Tabernacle; Akima Paul delivered powerful lyrics on the ‘balance of the sexes’ which would inspire and motivate any woman in the audience and unsurprisingly won the competition. The sad fact was that you could count the audience on two hands. On the upside, my exposure to the intellectual debate at the conference, to Claudia Jones, and the impact of hearing a female calypsonian in the UK speak about socially relevant issues has inspired me for one to take on the quest of learning more about women from my cultural heritage and particularly those involved in the carnival arts.

I would like to see a real drive from within our community to cherish our culture, to preserve our rich heritage, protect it and pass on the baton to ensure that not only carnival continues, but that our children, and their children’s children know who they are, where they come from and most importantly where they are going in a world which has no time for those who don’t stand tall. If this can be accomplished I am sure that Claudia will smile down on us and rest peacefully knowing her work is done.

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