Word of mouth (March/April 2015)

The politics behind Trinidad’s Good Friday bobolees, Guyana’s Rupununi Rodeo, and the wrongs and rights of Jamaica Carnival

Photograph by Edison BoodoosinghPhotograph by Nicholas LaughlinPhotograph by Dwayne Watkins

Beat it

Attillah Springer explains why Trinidad’s old tradition of the Good Friday bobolee remains more relevant than ever

The Good Friday bobolee you still find in Trinidadian communities on the Friday before Easter is an effigy of Judas Iscariot, the disciple whose betrayal of Jesus Christ leads to his crucifixion. Poor Judas had a most unfortunate but necessary job. If you subscribe to Christian belief and know the story in the Bible, then you understand that without Judas, there would have been no arrest, no condemnation, no crucifixion, and therefore no forgiveness of sins. But Judas, for his sins, gets to be the most hated disciple.

Nobody wants to be the Judas. The one who does the unpopular job. But perhaps what the bobolee-makers like the least is his deceit. He pretends to be a friend, a follower and ally, only to turn against the very man that he claims to love.

A community betrayed is a community undone. It is a neverending story of the human condition played out in Trinidad and Tobago’s own often brutal history, at endless moments when communities have made attempts to stand against injustice. In the absence of armed struggle, right to recall, effective or enforced environmental laws, and other forms of justice for communities, we laugh through our anger and frustration — and beat a bobolee instead.

Like so many other cultural forms in Trinidad and Tobago, the Good Friday bobolee — usually made of simple household materials — is a piece of performance art that goes much deeper than its ragged clothes. A bobolee is a public shaming of those who think that title, position, or social status are any protection from the wrath of the people. Like the Member of Parliament you never see. The administrator from hell who makes everyone’s life miserable. The stingy shop-owner. The company polluting a river in your village. No one is spared the wrath of a community on Good Friday when it comes to bobolee-making.  Then comes an almost primal need to take this inanimate object and focus all of your rage on it.

One time, in the height of an environmental protest, some activist friends and I made a bobolee, which we left sitting on a bench outside the prime minister’s office, with a placard saying “Stop Bobolising Us.” We felt it was important — in addition to a legal case and media campaign and public meetings — to tell our story in a way that was true to who we are culturally. Hours later, we returned to the scene to discover a badly beaten shell with a stick driven through its decapitated head. I hope the beaters got the catharsis they needed.

This is no polite licking. This is a well-entrenched kind of brutality that shouts loudly at the generations of trauma of corporal and capital punishment. It is the story of the bitter frustration of feeling that your voice only matters during an election year. But just like bobolees, governments also come and go. The betrayed becomes the betrayer, and the bobolee changes to suit.

The bobolee has one fate, serves its purpose, and is forgotten — until the next time somebody needs to beat something or somebody like a bobolee.

 

Riders of the range

The Easter Rodeo in Lethem, Guyana, has been a fixture on the Rupununi calendar for over a century. Philip Sander finds himself a paddock-side view

The social event of the year in the Rupununi happens in a desiccated field wreathed in clouds of red dust, a short drive (or thirsty, sunbaked walk) from the centre of the small town of Lethem. The Rupununi Rodeo grounds are nothing but a couple of simple fenced paddocks, overlooked by a viewing stand, but every year on Easter weekend dozens of vaqueiros (cowboys) and hundreds of spectators flock here from villages and ranches all over Guyana’s great savannalands, as they’ve done for more than a century.

The Rupununi has long been cattle country, and for decades the economy of this region of the Guyanese interior was dominated by a handful of vast ranches, drawing their labour force from the villages scattered across the rolling landscape. These rugged vaqueiros are expert horsemen, skilled at tracking, animal husbandry, the lasso, and all the needful outdoor arts. According to the standard story, the annual rodeo where the vaqueiros compete in showing off their skills was first founded by an American cowboy named Ben Hart, born in the Dakotas, who arrived in what was then British Guiana at the end of the nineteenth century, and felt at home under the Rupununi’s big sky.

Traditional events like riding bucking broncos, roping wild cows, and catching greased pigs are still the heart of the rodeo, but nowadays you’ll also find less perilous contests, like barrel races, plus an abundance of food and drink, a rickety Ferris wheel for youngsters, and after sunset a raucous party, where Brazilian ballads and Caribbean calypsos boom into the night. The bleachers are packed with spectators waiting to cheer for competitors from their home village or ranch. Sunburnt vaqueiros in black hats and leather boots cluster around the paddocks, lariats slung at their waists. Semi-wild cows and horses, rounded up specially for today, and showing more than a hint of bad temper, snort and shuffle as they wait their turn to show off their own athleticism.

Lethem’s position on the border with Brazil — at a point where the two countries are separated only by the lazy Takutu River — means the town has always had a raffish and cross-cultural frontier atmosphere. It’s easier to buy Brazilian beer than Guyanese Banks, and at the rodeo food stands you can find everything from traditional cassava bread to chow mein. And though the rodeo crowd still comes mostly from Rupununi communities, there’s always a sprinkling of Guyanese from the coast, curious about this annual spectacle, and even the odd foreign visitor. (Last year, the president of Guyana himself made an appearance.) It’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of things, and a reckless visitor who’s been on horseback once or twice might find himself half-thinking about entering one of the less dangerous-looking competitions. Luckily, my — I mean his — friends will talk him out of it, and he’ll settle for a fence-side view of wily steeds and wilier horsemen matching animal wits against human.

And maybe buy a black Stetson, like all the vaqueiros wear, on the way home.

 

Show me your worst behaviour

Kellie Magnus explains what’s wrong — and what’s surprisingly right — with Carnival in Jamaica

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Or rather, let’s address the elephant parading down Kingston’s main streets. Carnival in Jamaica is not the same as Carnival in Trinidad. OK? We know it. You know it. We know you know it. Guess what? We’re OK with it.

That’s the feeling of the diehard band of revellers who support Jamaica’s annual Carnival. Now in its third decade, Carnival in Jamaica — marketed under the Bacchanal Jamaica brand — has survived more than its fair share of ups and downs. Yes, it’s much smaller than Trinidad’s annual spectacle, but its loyal followers are passionate, and it rakes in converts each year.

Many Jamaicans don’t get it. Full confession: after playing mas in Trinidad in 2005, Jamaica’s version, to me, seems a little weaksauce. That sentiment is shared by the Triniphilic posse here, who flock to the Twin Island Republic for the “real thing.” Then there are those Jamaicans who argue that Carnival is imported culture, and seethe at the hypocrisy of media houses and self-appointed cultural critics who support public Carnival revelry while denouncing dancehall debauchery.

But somewhere in between is a happy band of Jamaican bacchanalists who live for the period between Ash Wednesday and the Sunday after Easter, when soca saturates Jamaican airwaves and Carnival parties dominate the social calendar. (This year’s official dates are Friday 20 February to Sunday 12 April.)

For some it’s an economic concern — the pilgrimage to the Mecca of soca ain’t cheap — but for others Bacchanal Jamaica is its own unique celebration of soca: a melange of music, movement, friendship, and freedom. “It’s its own thing,” says Michelle Belnavis. She’s done Trinidad Carnival three times, and has played mas in Jamaica every year since 2010. “The typical Jamaican style at parties is to pose and chit-chat,” says Belnavis. “Carnival parties are different. People go to soca parties to dance. You’re moving from start to finish. You’re going to have a damn good time.”

The season of activities includes the popular Frenchmen Wednesday lyme (Trinis spell that word with an i) and builds up to a week of fetes after Holy Week. From the Frenchmen and Sunrise breakfast parties to the I Love Soca cooler fete on Carnival Wednesday, Blocko Street Fete on Carnival Thursday to Frenchmen Bazodee party Saturday night, it’s a no-holds-barred week of feteing, leading up to a road march that is big on fun, if not in impact or numbers.

“There are uniquely Jamaican problems,” says Belnavis. “People don’t stay in sections, so we miss the visual beauty of the parade. But for the revellers on the road, the feeling is like nothing else. You get ready for weeks, getting the body right, learning the songs. And on Carnival Sunday, you let it all out. Nothing else matters but the music.”

Carnival insiders proclaim Frenchmen to be the best band. “The vibes, the service on the road — personal bartenders roving the band [make Frenchmen best],” says Ricardo Daley, a proud reveller for the last six years. “As the song says, when the music hits you, you feel no pain. Chippin’ down Hope Road and Trafalgar Road with your friends, having the time of your lives — you don’t care if you’re in the middle of a torrential downpour or broiling sun.”

Carnival 2015 promises to be so epic, organisers recommend taking a week off work. That might be enough to add me to the 2015 list of converts.

Let’s just hope I don’t look like the elephant on the road.