This week’s video feature is a series of three clips called Ole Time Carnival, 1959.
The colour footage is accompanied by the somewhat suspect ‘Ole time’ ‘authoritative’ voice of the ethnographer-journalist akin to that heard over the posthumously completed documentary footage of Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti which similarly ends with a look at Haitian carnival from 1947-1951.
Part one opens with a trio of devilish looking masks grinning out at us who give way to footage of preparations for carnival in 1950s Trinidad – we are told that participants delve into the archives to research their annual creations inspired by cultures, histories and more recent characters as disparate as the Ancient Egyptians, Ivan the Terrible of Russia and Charlie Chaplin. Contemporary political comment too is visible not least through a large group of participants dressed as a “complete naval taskforce U.S. style” pointing guns at the crowd or hobbling around in drunken groups – the commentator prefers to see this as part of a “theatre of much-happiness” rather than a biting satire on U.S. Imperialism.
Throughout the wealth of costumes and performances shown also present the endless interweaving of histories that Trinidad and the Caribbean region as a whole embodies. Characters and dress inspired by African, European, Asian and (Native) American cultures remind us of historical migrations – forced and otherwise – the cultural clashes, and commodity flows of the transatlantic slave trade and indentured eras of the Atlantic World. The at times problematic commentary reminds us of the discursive legacies of these systems, while the fluidity of their inter-mingling in the crowd anticipate the continuation of movements across the globe into our contemporary era and the proliferating scholarship of hybridity, diasporas, creolisation and relation.
The comments for each of these videos on Youtube also make for some interesting reading as many commenters respond strongly to the costume and performance presented, harking back to carnival of the 50s to 80s which resembled “street theatre” before the event “deteriorated into a ‘masquerade mockery’ of Brazil”. Whatever your opinion of contemporary Trinidadian carnival though, the beauty and creativity of costume and performance in these videos of “the greatest show on earth” is worth a watch.