What Kambule did to me

The story of Carnival's birth




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.


I type this very paragraph after reading of the four Minnesota police officers fired for killing an unarmed African male in the US). The brewing bigotry in the US (among many other parts of the world) is beyond worrisome. Here in Trinidad, I see both the subtle and overt rejection of dreadlocks/natural African-textured hair in the corporate and school environments. Commercials that still prefer lighter-toned humans and insert the odd 'darker-skinned person' for political correctness. And much, much more ...


This is why productions like Kambule are much needed in this world. Even after Emancipation in 1838, I still see the African individual continuing to battle for various forms of freedom.


Kambule brings this lesson to life in a gripping way. It reminds us of the need to learn about civilizations other than our own. It nurtures mutual respect. It helps to shred that veil of intolerance most walk around with. It teaches us to accept each human being for nothing else but their soul. Nothing else...

At least this has been my takeaway.


At school, Kambule felt like a footnote. After attending the reenactment for three years in a row, I wished it weren't. I wished that our education system valued this brave episode (and many other historical battles like the 1884 Jahaaji massacre) over the nauseating tales of Columbus or the Italian Renaissance that I was force-fed.


Being a Hindu, Kambule's rituals mirrored my own upbringing. Waking up to make the 4:00am start time reminded me of preparing for my own pujas at home. It's the sacrifice we make to nurture our minds. Very much like embarking on a pilgrimage.


At the start, there are rituals invoking the presence of the Yoruba Gods. The drums and prayers invite the divinities to descend unto this sacred space. Maybe its the early morning weariness, but the drumming at Kambule sounds different. More commanding. More memorable.


I was reminded of praying to Ganapati Baba at the beginning of puja. Hearing the sound of the shankha. Both the shankha and drums were used to stir one's warrior spirit on the battlefield.


Then there is fire. Ritual fire. Jab-jabs who brilliantly transform into human dragons. The flambeaus (torches). Fire removes mental darkness. Kambule offers yet another lesson - the spiritual role of natural elements.


I listened to the mournful songs. The men and women of the barracks lamenting their impoverished conditions. I remembered asking Kambule’s Producer Atillah Springer about a particular line in the play where a mother is told to “take a towel and band yuh belly”. There’s no space for weakness in their world. They must fight until the end. It's just that in 2020 the end seems nowhere in sight.


The final standoff between the police and the warriors placed thousands of viewers on the edge of their seats. It is intense. I remembered recording this battle on my phone. I kept on swaying to the evocative drumming and the footage clearly showed this. It speaks to Springer's genius directing.


I am grateful that Kambule is one of those experiences that will forever be etched in my memory. I am grateful that Eintou Springer had the vision and determination to pay tribute to her ancestors in this way. I am grateful that she has enriched the lives of many by reminding us all of Carnival's true purpose. To set the soul free.


I wish that every Trinbagonian, at home or abroad, of every ethnicity, will make Kambule a bucket list experience.


Keep taking your mind on adventures every day. Learn something new about someone else. That's how we build a community. (Amrita)

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© 2020 by Amrita Maharaj-Dube