Sunday, December 29, 2013

What is Sugar Mas and St. Kitts Carnival??

I've spent some time digging through St. Kitt's webpages about Carnival and Sugar Mas 42. I know enough to pass on some information to readers but there is so much going on in the month of December during Sugar Mas that it's difficult to figure out accurately what is going on when and where.

It's fair to say that the celebration is going to be huge when the government creates a complete department to organize and run this event. The St. Kitts Department of Culture preserves Kittitian culture by promoting traditional celebrations, visual art, literary art, culinary art, performing arts, and much more. Sugar Mas happens to be a combination of all these things wrapped into one. (The Department of Culture has a facebook page too.

Previous Carnival photo. Courtesy:
The challenge of defining St. Kitt's Sugar Mas is that it, along with a lot of the culture here it is like a huge woven rug that combines threads and fabrics from many different countries and time periods. In order to understand the entire rug we have to pull out each piece of string and closely examine it.

Sugar Mas is not one event but a large conglomeration of celebrations, parties, and events that begins around the twentieth of November and doesn't end until around the 5th of January. As a historian I had to rely on my time tested approach of tackling this mammoth by trying to make historical sense of it.

So what is Sugar Mas? Good Question. The word "Mas" is the shortened form of the word Masquerade. In almost every Caribbean country they celebrate a Carnival or sometimes what's referred to as a Carnival Masquerade. Now they all don't take place in December either, but that's another topic. Anyways, Sugar Mas i'm guessing is just the specific name of St. Kitt's Carnival because of the importance of sugar in the country for so many years.


So let's back up again to Carnival. This celebration began many years ago and is celebrated around the world in different forms. The celebration coincides with the Catholic religion and Lent. Lent is the period of fasting before Easter, for 40 days before Christ's resurrection date, signifying his wandering in the wilderness for that many days.

Carnival painting by Pieter Bruegel. 1559
Traditionally all of the rich foods such as sugar, meat, dairy, and drink were disposed of or used up before Lent since no parties or consumption of these foods was allowed during those four weeks. Therefore, the consumption of all these foods and drinks is believed to be what started Carnival. Some believe it may have started as early as Roman times and was adopted into the Christian culture.

Carnival in Rome 1650 By Johannes Lingelbach 
Originally Europeans, namely the French Catholics, brought the celebration to St. Kitts and other Caribbean countries, but slaves were excluded from participating.

Therefore modern Carnival has evolved from the combination of elements but what we celebrate today has four main elements: 1. Song 2. Music 3. Costume 4. Dance,which all translate as calypso/soca, steelpan, mas or masquerade, and dance.

In order for slaves to hold onto their traditions they combined what they knew in Africa to events in the Caribbean too. For instance the modern Carnival got its idea of parading because of what was called Canboulay , an African Yoruba tradition during slavery on sugar plantations. The Canboulay was the event of organizing the slaves into large groups where they would drum, sing, and march usually at night to put out sugar cane field fires. The marchers used torches, stick fighters, and chanting to build up their confidence along the route. Canboulay later was celebrated by the slaves in parallel to Carnvial and was eventually outlawed too. Canboulay later involved beating sticks after drums were outlawed.

Canboulay performers in Trinidad and Tobago. Courtesy:
After emancipation in 1834, the former African slaves made Carnival about freedom and through satirical acting made mockery of their former taskmasters. Some say Carnival also serves as a reminder of the evils of slavery too. Since many of their traditional customs utilized similar masked celebrations with song, dance, animals, and costumes it easily became their own celebration.

Old depiction of Carnival in Trinidad.
The British did attempt to end Carnival after Emancipation because they saw it as savage and as a threat to peace and order. In Trinidad the British banned drums,(This led to the use of the bottoms of oil drums for steel pan drums), limited the number of bamboo stick fighters, and forced everyone to have restrictive permits for the celebration, but Carnival survived and is one of the largest events in St. Kitts and other Caribbean countries.

Back to those main elements of Carnival: Song is very important for the event and so far I've heard two major types of music being described on the radio or being thrown around during the holiday season. The first is Calypso. What is Calypso? My idea of it before I came here was a sort of happy joyous island music, but it's more than that. Calypso originated in medieval France and is associated with the traveling troubadours. When the French brought slaves and indentured freed blacks to Trinidad they again brought with them another cultural element that still exists in the Caribbean, Calypso music.

2013 National Senior Calypso Monarch King, Ritchie Buntin being crowned by Prime Minister Denzel Douglas. Courtesy SKN Vibes.
The slaves already had a system of singing under their slavery in Africa called Kaiso music. Once again they adapted it on the plantations because they weren't allowed to talk in the fields so they sung, originally in French Creole. The songs were led by a leader or Calypsonian and again mocked the slave owner and helped them communicate with each other.

By the late 1800s Kaiso was being called Calypso and as a side note, Kaiso music is supposed to be where the limbo dance came from. The participants were urged on under the stick. The Calypso music in more recent times held political and social themes and served as a form of news communication throughout Trinidad and other countries. By the 1970s Calypso music lost its popularity to a more upbeat music called Soca and some people believe Hip Hop arose out of Calypso music.

During St. Kitts Sugar Mas they have held many Soca competitions and Calypso competitions. I personally enjoy the Calypso music much more because of its humorous, yet truthful content. It's almost all political in nature and also "calls" out people who are greedy or not "living right." The winner of these competitions is crowned the Calypso King or Queen Monarch until the next year.

Calypso music has given way to Soca music which is much more upbeat, loud, and is mostly electronic music with repeating rhythms and lots of bass. It sounds like circus music to me, but who am I to judge.

So as we examine Carnival piece by piece we learn that it is made up of a ton of history and culture. I'm fairly certain that the majority of revelers who started partying and drinking at 3 a.m. J'ouvert the other day have no idea where this tradition started and how much importance it has had to Caribbean people.

J'ouvert morning this year.
I do know that the celebrations have been great and through some research I can now understand and appreciate the importance of Carnival for St. Kitts. I am also thankful to be able to experience this uniquely Caribbean event.

Stay tuned for my next post where I'll post more photos of Jouvert and Carnival!

During my research for this post I found a really cool, old photo of a play done in St. Kitts in 1901.

I also found a great book that I thought I'd share if anyone is interested. It's available here: