It’s been just over three months since Eintou Springer’s annual re-enactment of the Kambule Riots at Picadilly Greens in Port of Spain, Trinidad. It’s the kind of production that leaves you questioning your true purpose in life. Even as I type this piece, I haven’t fully understood why Kambule has affected me in the way that it did. I decided to write about it to help bring about clarity.
Kambule captures a critical chapter in our history – the birth of our nation’s greatest cultural spectacle, Carnival. The hypnotic sea of colour, a blend of traditional, ingenious and often daring mas, the unique musical tapestry that is pan, calypso, extempo, soca and its Indo-Trinidadian cousin chutney-soca (and all the heated analysis about lyrics, a song’s Road March-worthiness), the beauty of J’Ouvert’s muddiness, the hundreds of fêtes (parties) that relieve us from life’s inhibitions. The perfect synonym for ‘bliss’.
Yet amid this chaotic revelry, there is the navel string that is perhaps often sidelined. In 1881 our African ancestors fought to have their own masquerade validated by the ever classist British empire. Kambule was originally a procession held during Carnivals of the time. It commemorated the harvesting of burnt canes (cannes brulées) during slavery. Kalinda. Chantwells. Drumming. Dance. All powerful expressions that must be remembered amidst the blinding glitter of the modern festival. Expressions deemed ‘barbaric’ in the eyes of the then ruling British. Captain Arthur Baker, then head of the country’s police force, embodied the Monarch’s derision. He was determined to cease this ‘threat’ to public order.
Captain Baker is the most hated man at Picadilly Greens…
Growing up in a conservative community in Central Trinidad, I never understood the origins of Carnival and why it occupied such a vast space in our nation’s consciousness. Carnival was a distant, ‘uncultured euphoria’ that wasn’t for us. You saw it, heard about it, but never indulged in it. Witnessing Kambule has not only deepened my understanding of the festival; it reiterated how ‘the system’ continued to violate the African civilization after Emancipation. However, this violation was met with unmatched resilience. There is fiercely guarded pride in one’s ancestry. There is victory against all odds.
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Published April 24, 2020