Dr. Lamuel Stanislaus - History of Carnival

by Doris Green

Dr. Lamuel Stanislaus is an intellect, scholar and gentleman whose name is synonymous with excellence and integrity. This charismatic figure and former UN Ambassador is also one of the great historians of the Caribbean. When Steel Talks (WST) spotlights Dr. Lamuel Stanislaus in his capacity of Carnival and Steelpan historian extraordinaire as we revisit a 1985 interview with academic, journalist, historian, ethnomusicologist, choreographer, notator and cultural and music standout Doris Green.

Republished from -  Steelbands of New York with permission from the author

A When Steel Talks Exclusive Reprint

Oral History

Brooklyn's Labor Day Carnival 1983
Brooklyn's Labor Day Carnival - 1983

Lamuel Stanislaus is not only a dentist who was born in Grenada, West Indies, but he is also an oral historian with a wealth of knowledge of the Caribbean. Dr. Stanislaus was appointed Ambassador to the United Nations representing Grenada in May, 1985.

Former Grenada Ambassador to the United Nations Dr. Lamuel Stanislaus
Former Grenada Ambassador to the United Nations Dr. Lamuel Stanislaus / UN Photo-Devra Berkowitz

The interview began by my playing a Chopi xylophone selection from East Africa and asking Dr. Stanislaus to relate to it. Dr. Stanislaus responded that it reminded him of the steel pan, remarking that he heard elements of African rhythms, calypso rhythms as well as a Spanish beat called Castilian. This would be a natural response because the Chopi people are from the eastern coast of Africa, namely, Mozambique. During the decimation of Africa by the European colonizers, Portugal carved out Mozambique to rule. This could account for that tinge of Castilian or Latin flavor in the Chopi music. The Chopi selection was purposely chosen because it bears resemblance to the sound and quality of the steel pan, also to see if West Indians would relate to it in terms of the steel pan, which Dr. Stanislaus did.

Jab Jab portrayal
Jab Jab portrayal

Dr. Stanislaus stated that he essentially likes to study history and that carnival has a beautiful history which fascinates him. The word carnival is derived from ‘Latin’ - carnis = flesh, and vale = goodbye - therefore, goodbye flesh is the etymological derivation of the word carnival. Why “goodbye flesh”? There is a catholic influence in carnival which dates back to before Christ. According to Dr. Stanislaus, gatherings like carnival date back to centuries before Christ. In Catholic countries, just before Lent the penitential season, as far as catholic dogma goes, the Catholic Church wanted the people to have a little fling; to let down their hair, for two days before entering the serious penitential season of Lent. This statement prompted the interviewer to interject that functions like carnival would not have the same connotation or significance in Africa, because animism was more widespread than Catholicism. To this injection, Dr. Stanislaus responded that in Africa, there was a festival that carnival resembled taking its tradition from Egypt. In the sixth century B.C., there was an ancient festival called the “Festival of Osiris.” This festival commemorated the annual flooding of the river Nile. Whenever the Nile River flooded, it was a sign that fertility was back. The festival of Osiris represented a change of seasons. It dealt with the fertility returning to the land because of the flooding of the Nile. Carnival also represents a change - a change from fete (festival) to the seriousness of penitence. Perhaps present day carnival got the idea from the ancient festival.

In Athens before Christ, there were festivals of pageantry and street parading dedicated to the Greek god Dionysus. With the passage of time, this idea emerged in Rome. It was during the time of the Roman Empire that carnival reached its peak of licentiousness and civil disorder. The Catholic Church intervened to see if they could rid it of its obnoxious features. This is why carnival, in the western hemisphere is celebrated largely in Roman Catholic places such as Trinidad, New Orleans and Rio De Janeiro. Carnival today imitates the concept of festivities of the ancient Egyptian festival rather than the uncontrolled lack of legal and moral restraints common to festivities of the Roman Empire.

Caribbean Carnival

Trinidad is the hub of Caribbean Carnival. According to Dr. Stanislaus, the French settlers took the two days before Lent to go visiting their friends while wearing a disguise. This was in 1783, and is the first recorded instance of something resembling carnival in Trinidad. In 1833 when the emancipation bill was passed, the freed slaves decided to participate in this fete. Although the white settlers resented it, the freed slaves took to the streets singing calypsos which was derived from their African heritage. Why calypso? Dr. Stanislaus tells the story of how the displaced Africans worked hard as slaves. The slave masters did not want them to communicate among each other because communication was supposed to retard their work. Therefore, the African forefathers began to communicate in songs derived from African dialects which the slave masters could not understand. Although they would sing these mélanged verses while working, they were actually communicating to each other, the local gossip and mocking the slave masters. This is why calypso, today, takes the form of topical gossip designed to mock current incidences.

Film Footage captured of Trinidad Carnival by an American visitor in 1956-57

Moko Jumbies in New York
Moko Jumbies in New York

Jour ouvrir - taken from the French language means day, and to open, respectively. “Jouvay” is a patois pronunciation of jour ouvrir or jour ouvert meaning opening day or daybreak when the people take to the streets early in the morning. This is the first part of carnival. The characters of the masquerades of carnival are varied in number. One character is Moko Jumbie which is a masked stilted character. According to Dr. Stanislaus, the Moko Jumbie figure is not of Trinidad origin, but originated in the Virgin Islands. Dr. Stanislaus stated that the figure of Moko Jumbie comes from Africa with the idea behind it to impress or seek some favors from the gods. The height of this figure gives it an advantage of being close to the celestial gods.

Carnival in Trinidad was not without its disorder. Its disorder took the form of masked stick fights. This type of disorder probably descended from the Bacchanal. The Bacchanal is a Roman festival of Bacchus of which drunken festivities were a characteristic. Today, this type of disorder has disappeared from the Caribbean Carnival. Today Carnival is a festival of creativity and splendor of drama, music and costume. The themes of the costumes depict events in history or some natural phenomenon like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly. This was detailed in the costume through blends of color and wiring.

Brooklyn J'Ouvert 2015

The music of Carnival was supplied by different Instruments during the development or different stages of Carnival. In the writings of Errol Hill, it is stated that for years Trinidadians were looking for music and instruments more related to their culture. The Bamboo-tamboo bands and the pre 1945 steel bands supplied that need. According to Dr. Stanislaus, the steel pan as we know it today and Carnival go together like a hand and glove.

Brooklyn Carnival

J’Ouvert in Brooklyn, New York
J’Ouvert on Labor Day in Brooklyn, New York

With the migration of West Indians to United States, also came their traditions. The custom of having a fete before Lent was primarily celebrated as dances in big ballrooms like the Renaissance with personalities such as Macbeth the Great, Syd Joe, Daphne Weeks and Gerald Clark. Because of the catholic influence, Carnival was always celebrated the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. But in New York it was too cold and the people could not parade In the streets. Then came the idea of changing it to a more comfortable time of the year. They found Labor Day, the first Monday In September to be a more suitable time of the or season. Labor Day is also significant with a change signifying the end of summer festivities and vacation and the return to work and to school. This calendar change does not change the significance of the carnival pageantry. Dr. Stanislaus admitted that according to his knowledge, New York is the only place where carnival is celebrated on Labor Day.

Brooklyn's Labor Day Carnival 2015 on Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn's Labor Day Carnival 2015 on Eastern Parkway

Carnival celebrations in New York actually began in Harlem as a small street pageantry. With the migration of West Indians from Harlem to Brooklyn, also came the carnival pageantry. The first person that attempted to make carnival popular in the U.S. was Jessie Wattle.  She brought carnival to Seventh Avenue, Manhattan as a small street parade. She was the founder of Labor Day West Indian Carnival which began in 1947 and continued throughout the 1950’s and the early 196O’s. Rudy King was involved in this affair as the first person to bring steel pans from Trinidad to New York. Rufus Gorin took Labor Day carnival from Harlem to Brooklyn (around 1962) to Dean Street and to St. John’s Place, for only a distance of a few short blocks. Big Carnival, or the Eastern Parkway Carnival, was spearheaded by Carlos Lezama.

Calypso and steel band music grew with the development of Carnival. After 1945, Trinidadians began to take the discarded oil drums and experiment with them producing the steel pans that we know today. Steel pan orchestras became a regular part of the carnival festivities playing calypso music. Steel pan music is now an inseparable part of Carnival festivities.

J’Ouvert on Labor Day in Brooklyn, New York
J’Ouvert on Labor Day in Brooklyn, New York

Dr. Stanislaus refers to the steel pan orchestras as “the stone which the builder rejected that has now become the cornerstone of the foundation.” This statement depicts the plight of the steel pan and its innovators. At first, they were rejected, scorned as outcasts. Now that the craft of steel pans is the ninth wonder of the world, it has become the trademark of Trinidad, hailed by all. Indeed, one must conclude that the steel pan is definitely the builders’ rejected stone that has now become the emblem of Trinidad.

* The United States Congress has recognized former Grenada Ambassador Dr. Lamuel Stanislaus as a “true hero in our society,” as the envoy celebrated his 95th birthday.  Stanislaus celebrated that milestone on April 22, 2016 - read more

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