In Carnival Messiah, I use the aesthetic modes of the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and Europe to explore and evoke cultural parallels, transformations and abrogations through various and often converse genres of artistic practice and expression. I do this by investigating, employing, playing with and shifting perspectives of historic, environmental and sociological worldviews to suit the needs and location of my discourse. I am recovering and exhaulting in the history of my people, using my own language, and presenting these on my own terms. By superimposing traditional Western-European musical and theatrical devices on those of traditional Trinidad Carnival practice, Carnival Messiah combines the visual, live and performing arts in new, unique and exciting ways.

As a result of the interlaced patterns of migration, mission activity and the resilience of the African, Islam and Hindu religious practices, 21st-century Trinidad and Tobago exhibits a constellation of religions as well as a kaleidoscope of cultures, the influence of which, I have been privy to all my life. Carnival Messiah suggests by its very name and nature, the employment of subversive strategies,  which often use religion as a site of oppositional meaning. Artistically, the production has evolved on three levels: one that is sacred and spiritual, one that makes cultural commentary and one that is purely aesthetic. I explore spiritual consciousness by examining the parallels that exist between worship in all the religious practices. Parallels such as those within Christian theology, specifically the Roman Catholic religion and the Oresha traditional Yoruba cult/religion/ritual. Middle Eastern and Asian theology and aspects of Trinidadian cultural and Carnival practices.

With the exception of the addition of a libation or blessing at the beginning of the show, the production’s structure is based on a Western operatic format, which consists of: a libation or blessing, an Overture, Act I, Act II,  Act III and an Epilogue. Act I is characterised by a Traditional and Folk aesthetic, Act II is characterised by what I refer to as 'Carnival Fantastique' which, as the description suggests, is where my Carnival imagination is allowed to express itself completely. Act III is characterised by Contemporary rendition and aesthetic expression. The Epilogue concludes the artistic proceedings.

The foundational framework of Carnival Messiah is built around the ‘Three Mysteries of Devotion’ as ascribed to the life of Jesus Christ in the Roman Catholic liturgy, these being, ‘The Joyful’ (Act I), The Sorrowful’ (Act II), and ‘The Glorious’  (Act III) mysteries.   They are aligned in parallel with the Yoruba  (and Christian) cycle of life, ‘Birth’, ‘Death’ and ‘Rebirth’, which in turn reflect the three key stages (acts) of Trinidad Carnival,  ‘Dimanche Gras’,(Big Sunday) ‘Lundi Gras’(Carnival Monday) and ‘Mardi Gras’ (Carnival Tuesday) with ‘J’ouvert’ being utilized appropriately in my opinion, as the ‘Overture’ within the Prologue.  Finally, the !HalleluliaH! is the Epilogue, which fulfills the role of ‘Las Lap’ or the finale.

I have employed a musical technique, that of polyphony - an interlacing of strands or solo ‘voices’ of music, each having independent melodic lines, which, when they come together create harmony – to deliver and develop the overall theatrical concept of Carnival Messiah.  These dramatic ‘voices’ or dimensions are represented variously in and by song, dance, masquerade and narrative.  Thus, as the story unfolds in these four dimensions, they are able to operate singularly as well as in varying combinations. 

These dramatic ‘voices’ include the dimension and interpretation of the masses, through song and dance.  These are ‘the people of the world’, a vast chorus-cast of poly-ethnic assemblage. These ‘people of the world’ theatrically present the litanic African derived call and response genre through their enactment of the story in their response to, and support of, the various characters and incidents that take place within the narrative - a Caribbean as opposed to a Greek chorus. Their commentary oversees all action of the show and their vehicle conveys by all the major choruses of the show -  the J’ouvert/Overture, the Downtown Bethlehem Market scene – For Unto us a Child is Born, Palm Sunday and the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem – Hosanna, Eshu’s underworld – the Crucifixion Adagio, taking the gospel to the world – How Beautiful are the Feet of Them that Preach the Gospel of Jesus, the Whoopi Band and !HalleluliaH! - as well as all the dramatic ensembles such as the last Supper, Mama God and her alter egos etc.

The second polyphonic ‘voice’ or dimension are the renditions and interpretations of the’ Minstrels’ or ‘Urban Griots’ who are charged with the responsibility of actually ‘telling’ the story through the use of narrative and physical theatre techniques. The third polyphonic ‘voice’ or dimension is the actual voice of several characters within the story - ‘ Mother Earth, Mama God and her alter egos, Mary, Joseph, Joseph’s brother, the Ragga storytellers, the twelve disciples, the Lone Disciple, the Dark Angel, Pontius Pilate, Jesus, the two thieves, the Apostles,  the Evangelist, the Dove of Peace, the Dove’s attandant, the Voice of Truth and the Carnival Messiah. And finally the fourth polyphonic ‘voice’ or dimension includes all the Steelbands as well as all the musical accompaniment, and instrumental work used throughout the show.

Some of the performative juxtapositions I have employed in Carnival Messiah include unusual cultural and aesthetic combinations for example, in ‘How beautiful are the feet’, the style and rhetoric of the black American evangelical church preacher character is super-imposed on a Caribbean calypso folk style three part vocal chorus, this, as a vehicle to broadcast the ‘gospel’ to the world. I have combined the syncretism of the Shango (traditional Yoruba religion) ritual with the Roman Catholic liturgy relating to the Nativity.  In Shango Aye, Mother Earth leads the devotional chanting to Shango - Oreisha deity of Thunder and Lightening - while also singing in tandem, Handel’s aria, ’but who may abide the day of his coming’ underpinned by a simple repetitive two part  choral Oresha chant response. Here I have theatrically and musically, allied the concept of the Immaculate Conception of the Christian liturgy with that of the African ritual of Possession, in a bid to understand and explore that phenomenon myself. In RedeemeR, using mostly Handel’s original melody, I combine vocally the Christian liturgy of “I know my Redeemer liveth” with the drum rhythms of West Africa and the kora string sound of 12th century Islam.

The dance forms that have emerged from the negative forces of Caribbean History have created a rich and thematic significance for dance in Carnival Messiah. This is characterised by a diverse vocabulary featuring very obvious influences of African, Asian and European cultural elements that are then contained and underpinned by an overall African sensibility. These diversified dance registers which are more than just a revitalisation of an African past became part of a process of a continual translation and accommodation of African and other cultural legacies creating new features and genres which were indigenised, then expanded metaphorically into the artistic masquerade forms of Trinidad and Tobago. Carnival Messiah in fact highlights how important dance is as an indicator and retainer of the diversity of cultures, particularly those available in Trinidad and Tobago, e.g. the Shango – a Yoruba derived religious syncretic enactment and the Phagwa (Hosanna) – based on the Hindu festival of Holi and especially in the J’ouvert Overture. Dance here, is not peripheral, it is the central vehicle of all the traditional and contemporary enactments of Carnival Messiah.

© Geraldine Connor (2006)

This essay was taken from the Harewood Community, Education and Outreach Programme, an initiative of David Lascelles and The Harewood House Trust, in collaboration with Geraldine Connor. It was created for the Harewood Festival 2007  in commemoration of the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery parliamentary act 1807.