Early each Carnival Friday morning, before dawn breaks, crowds assemble at Piccadilly Greens in east Port of Spain for a re-enactment of a key event in the history of Trinidad — and of Carnival itself. Attillah Springer gives an intimate account of Kambule, when the spirits of the ancestors are invoked in a ritual of memory, story, song, and resistance
Carnival Friday morning, moments before Kambule starts, I am looking for a dog. It is not an active search, rather a hope in the back of my mind that a dog will turn up again, like one has been turning up the past few years.
Sometimes I’m busy running back and forth between the tents that form the makeshift backstage area, stopping maybe to talk to a photographer, a member of the public, a friend who has come there straight from whatever fete they have been wining at since early Thursday night. Sometimes I am up in the stands talking with the sound engineer, warning them to get the music cues right.
And then I see it. The dog is always unbothered by the crowds, running about, sniffing the drums, the flambeaux set in the corners. The dog runs up and down Piccadilly, the staging area for the play Kambule that my family company Idakeda has been staging every Carnival Friday for more than a decade.
You could say that Trinidad has lots of stray dogs, and it’s simply a coincidence that this dog has sauntered this way.
I prefer to believe that the dog, being one of the symbols of the Orisa Ogun — the hunter, father of metal and the steel pan, remover of obstacles — is an unscripted part of the ritual re-enactment of the 1881 Canboulay Riots. It fits a narrative we are trying to reconstruct: that this community at the foot of Laventille, once known as Yoruba Village, is the spiritual source of another version of Carnival. Not the one we know to be valuable and marketable and moneymaking, not the one that is shininess and feathers, package-deal mas and rope security, that is all-inclusive and weewee trucks and the fodder for slick American reality TV.
Instead, this Behind the Bridge Carnival sees Trinidad as a place of magical coincidences, a nonlinear understanding of time, unintended rituals, jumbies that are both moko and micro, the ability to move between sacred and scandalous with ease.
The journey to Carnival Friday morning is long and sweaty and challenging. It starts sometimes on a Saturday in January in the Hall of St George’s, where my mother Eintou once rehearsed plays with her theatre mentor Slade Hopkinson. It starts with women turning up from some far place with a ten-year-old child, asking please if the child can be part of the play. The child is always beautiful, always black enough to be teased at school. The child does not know the date of Emancipation. When you see that child dance kalinda on Carnival Friday morning, you will see no trace of the shyness and the self-doubt that once made his or her shoulders droop.
There are always more women than men. The women are strong in ways they do not know, and at least one or two have lived the life of or know one of these jammette women they play — formidable women from beyond the diamètre, the East Dry River that historically divides Port of Spain geographically and socially — terrified of being vulnerable, searching for acceptance and visibility.
Yes, we know the idea that Canboulay is a French Creole version of cannes brulées — the burning of the canes. But we also know that the scholarship of historian Maureen Warner-Lewis cites kambule as a Kikongo word meaning “procession.” We reflect on the conflation of the two terms: the idea of the burned cane as a symbol of plantation life and death, and the idea of the early morning procession that became J’Ouvert, in which the ex-enslaved would recount the horrors of that time, while protesting against current injustices. And still in the midst of all that shrieking pain and profanity, they would find time for ritual.
There is always the moment when the cast knows this is not just a play. It is usually when the drums are fast and loud. When the chantwell is singing a stickfight lavway that segues into a chant for the Orishas. In that moment, the power will take hold of someone and ride them to tears, and when they come back to themselves, not remembering the way they danced, it is time to remind the cast again that this is really a ritual for the Carnival to not get totally lost to the shininess.
The Babalawo, the Yoruba priest, says this is ancestral work: you are talking about them, re-living their lives, they will come to remind you that they are real.
Carnival Friday morning comes faster than we expect. We arrive around 2 am to find that the stands are already full of bleary-eyed audience members, the ones who are operating solely on bad-mind, their faces crumpled by a few weeks’ worth of long nights in panyards and mas camps and kaiso tents. They guard their seats in the bleachers jealously — the space can hold no more than three thousand people. It is full long before we begin.
Things get lost and found again on Carnival Friday morning: a cast member, a conch shell, a piece of costume.
The air is cool and still, and I imagine that the late, great John Cupid, who first had the idea to do a Canboulay Riots re-enactment, is watching us from up in a tree, like the boy whose eyewitness account of the fight on a morning cool like this in February 1881 was documented by J.D. Elder.
The people Behind the Bridge are gracious, accommodating, gentle with us in these darkest hours before dawn. The drummers and the drinkers and the mas players and the pan men are there at the snackette, drinking rum and sweet coffee, recalling their glory days.
If you come to Kambule on Carnival Friday morning, know that you are part of a community ritual that makes way for the Carnival to happen. If you are there in the audience, sing the songs with us, lend your voice so that it will echo in those old wooden houses long after we have all left this plane.
And if you see the dog, let it pass: it is part of the magic of the morning.