In honor of the year that Trinidad Carnival wasn’t—the annual Caribbean festival was cancelled this year due to the pandemic—Baz Dreisinger pens a personal homage, inspired by Wallace Stevens’s poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and lyrics by soca king Machel Montano, to the most life-affirming Caribbean ritual of them all. Photographs by Brooklyn-based Trinidadian artist Colin Williams.

Gyal, wine up yuh body till you drop. And leh we do it again. –Machel Montano, “Endless Wuk” 

Carnival, you make me sick. Every time I leave you behind I end up with a round of antibiotics. At least twice this was because the blisters on my toes became infected; I was dancing too hard to take care of them, or even notice that they had caused my foot to balloon up and become hoof, not foot. Carnival, eh? came the diagnosis from the Trini nurse in the New York emergency room, as she laid eyes on my hoof. She was really saying, you dutty, dutty gyal. And also, I am jealous.

Carnival, about a decade ago you made me lose ten pounds and return home practically emaciated, a feat that still boggles my mind because even though I was dancing 12 hours a day I was regularly stuffing my face with all fried carbs within hungry hand’s reach. A few years ago, you disturbed my sleep pattern for a full month; nightly I woke with a jolt at 2 am only to start slapping disposable clothes on, thinking I had a breakfast fete to attend where I would soon be covered in sweat, paint and water. There was also that time you lured me to you even though I was still in recovery from the flu and my book launch was around the corner and of course I came home and got that flu all over again—just in time for my book launch. And remember when you allowed me sum a total of six hours of sleep in five days, then sent me on my way on Ash Wednesday? I landed, taught a class (barely any voice left, rum emanating from my pores), then fell into a coma sleep for 18 hours, which was a bit scary, really. Carnival, you make me sick. 

Everybody high. Higher than high. Higher than I and I –Machel Montano, “Higher than High”

Carnival, you are the most life-affirming ritual on this earth. You are love personified. You are living ecstasy. You are not a party; you are a religious rite and we, the Carnival Tribe, your humble devotees. You are Rastafari; you are Christ; you are the Bible; you are all truths and all rapture and yes yes yes yesyes. 

Carnival, you are the rhythm of life: There is before you, and during you, and after you, and nothing more. In you is life. In you is salvation from the humdrum of capitalism and the torture of the mundane. In you we trust.   

I met this foreign gyal when I went on a tour. She fell in love with soca music and she wanted more. –Machel Montano, “Make Yuh Rock”

This foreign gyal did not fall in love with soca music—until she did. I was a Bronx-born reggae lover, and my big sister taught me that soca and reggae were not happy bedfellows (even though I now know better: that they are in fact the ying and the yang of Caribbean life, the sacred and the profane and the profane and the sacred). So when 16-year-old me was taken to the bashment, after waiting in the January cold for an hour to see Beenie Man ask “who am I?” I was instructed to stand and hug the wall when the requisite soca set was played. I obeyed, and stilled my waist. 

Soca must be lived to be listened to. When I landed in a proper fete in St. Lucia a few years later, the epiphany I had as Shurwayne Winchester conquered the stage and the flags erupted ecstatically and I found myself waving my rag and feeling what it meant to put in the wuk—this epiphany was not of the mind but the body: My waist moved. I became, in an instant,  very, very happy. I was suddenly soca.

All who want to stop and stare: I dutty and I don’t care. –Machel Montano, “Like a Boss”

How many ways are there to be dutty during Carnival? Let me count the ways. There is the time I was in various states of wuk somewhere between the bumper and the pavement and caught a glimpse of my colleague, another respectable professor playing hookey from school. But the best dutty is the literal one. It is J’ouvert, which is the essence and the distillation of Carnival itself. We are dirty. We are disguised. We are not vain selfie takers. We are dirty and yet suffused in beauty, which is the beauty of the soca ritual and our love: for this very second and these very people. And then the sun is coming up to bake the cocoa, paint and oil into our pores and fingernails. Then, we become clean again in time for Carnival Monday—when we get to dance on the extreme vicissitudes of life and be dutty once more, even when looking so pretty. 

Push bumper. Plenty bumper. –Machel Montano, “Bumpers”

Repetition is the essence of ritual. Thus during Carnival you hear the same songs again and again and again and again. Some of them will have just a few lyrics. They will talk about bumpers and rags and bacchanal. You will hear them fete after fete, day after day. Day after day. You will recite every lyric, and so will the reveler you are wining on. You will forget other music exists. You will dance and you will sing. Day after day. Repeat.

Out of body, back to yourself now -Machel Montano, “Jumbie” 

I have never cared much for the ritual of crossing the Carnival stage, because the whole of the road is a stage to me. But there is one time I crossed the stage and literally have no memory of said crossing. This is because I threw back two shots of Puncheon rum immediately before doing so, you say. No, I say. It is because I did not walk or dance or chip down de road; I floated. I came out of myself. I transcended my body and yet at the same time I was all body. I was in Carnival; I was of Carnival; I was Carnival: Being me and yet being everyone on the road, I was lost yet completely found.

Forget the texting. Leh we get to the next thing. –Machel Montano, “Make Love”

I have lost two phones during Carnival. Both of them were Nokias, relics of that pre-selfie age (Oh, for a camera-free Carnival!). One phone fell in a ditch during a particularly delicious wine. Another—who knows? Who cares? Carnival makes a mockery of time and place. Don’t call. I will see you at the fete. 

Please don’t disappoint me, not this time. Give me one more wine, one more wine. 

–Machel Montano, “One More Wine” 

If you do not come face to face with madness, you have not been to Carnival. You must have at least one moment of crazy in its most unadulterated form. You don’t know when you last slept. You forget on whom you’re wining. You erupt into fits of hysterics and it hurts to laugh so hard. You’re suddenly famished because you don’t know when last you ate, and maybe it was two days ago—unless rum counts as food. Then you’re not hungry at all.

In this vein I offer homage to the stranger who fed me a fish sandwich at the Hyatt Regency when I was in the depths of my Carnival Crazy four years ago. Thank you. You are remembered.

Get in your team –Machel Montano, “E.P.I.C”

My team is me. I take to the road solo. In doing so I fully yield to the universe: O Great Gods of Carnival, do with me what you will! Send me heavenly wining partners both known and unknown! Allow me to bounce up on everyone I love who is here right now and let me bequeath them just one wine before moving on! 

My happiest such moment was coming off the stage and landing, literally, in the arms of my best friend Malik, who had come to the road straight from the airport and was trying to find me amid the tens of thousands. He needn’t have tried; Carnival Gods always have our back. In Carnival, as in life, I am always alone and I am never alone. 

Leh we take a wine on the corner, leh we take a drink right here –Machel Montano, “On the Avenue”

I took a wine on the corner. I took a drink right there. Then I fell in love. It was a Barbados Crop Over corner, not a Trinidad Carnival one, but they are close cousins, after all. I wore a beaded bikini and he, cargo shorts. Our wine went on just a little too long, which suggested that there might be a little something beneath that wine, so we stuck. I sent him for rum and he came back with rum and coke, which I promptly threw in his face. I don’t soil liquid gold, I told him. He says he fell in love with me at that moment, but for me love came a little later—a great love, for sure. No surprise that it was born there on the Carnival corner, where unlocked hearts, leaking love, are busy laying out beautiful welcome mats. 

Happiness is the measure of success –Machel Montano, “Happiest Man Alive”

That Corner Love died. Its carcass stunk up my soul for some time. I threw myself into justice work and landed in Uganda, teaching creative writing in a prison built for 600 but home to 6000 men, women, children and death row prisoners. To say that this all took a toll on me is a grand understatement; my spirit was bereft and only Carnival could save it.

Instead, I stayed in Uganda and went to prison. Carnival is frivolous, I told myself. I’m doing the work. 

Fool, I was. Joy is never frivolous. Carnival is life. 

The following year I was resuscitated, to the tune of “Happiest Man Alive.” I learned the hard way how to gauge my joy-o-meter, keeping my Carnival energy in full reserve. I learned the hard way, but I learned: Happiness is the measure of success. 

You’re with your man so long, they call you ‘Miss Good Reputation.’ You run a good marathon, and you nah pass from hand to hand like no baton. –Machel Montano, “Miss Good Reputation”

I have been that Miss, with a man into whom I deposit all my love. Now my love is diffuse, proudly passing from hand to hand like a baton. No, not in that way. I learned Love from Carnival. I learned that Love is sold short when reserved solely for the romantic domain. I love my chosen family. I love justice. I love soca. I love living. I don’t stop living. I am, like Carnival, grounded in love, and that love is amoeba-like, bottomless and perpetually self-generating: Endless, like the wuk.

My head in a mess—I feel I possessed –Machel Montano, “Possessed”

I moved to Cape Town because I finally found my fit: Like me, the South African city does not know how to do anything casually. When it is beautiful, the mist dances on Table Mountain as if to tickle the most stoic pillar of splendor on earth; when it is ugly, it looks like race wars, murder in the Cape Flats and Pollsmoor Prison, where 40 men are barely living in one cell. And so I missed Carnival again and again—it was just too far away. The first year this happens, I am fine. But then… 

It starts with social media. Seeing those fete pics scalds. Eviscerates. I lie in bed trying to still my waistline. Charlie, that Instagram photo of you after Jouvert, being the Happiest Man Alive—I took it personally. Are you feeling it too? Malik texts me. We groan in unison from across the world. I am possessed, first by tabanca, another beautiful Carnival paradox: sadness mixed with joy of remembrance; being haunted by good memories, not bad ones; suffering undying longing for something that is gone, gone, gone.

At the Passover Seder—perhaps the most elaborate ritual I grew up with—we say, Next year in Jerusalem! To this I say, in the face of all that the pandemic has made us long for in ways not even the greatest poet in the world can put to words: 

 Next year in Trinidad!



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