Column: Do Carnivals Have A Place In Bermuda?

July 8, 2015

[Opinion column written by Davida Morris]

When I learned that Bermuda would be hosting its first carnival in June of this year I was very, very excited. Having travelled around the world to participate in carnival festivities I have many dear memories of great times spent with friends. I was not disappointed over Bermuda Heroes Weekend. I enjoyed myself immensely. However after the weekend was over I was troubled by some of the discourse that occurred in relation to Carnival and the so called importing of another culture to Bermuda.

I was extremely disappointed and slightly offended at some of these remarks. To me they showed a lack of understanding of what culture is and a lack of respect to the thousands of Bermudians like myself who have Caribbean roots. The fact that Bermudians share heritage with many Caribbean islands indicates that carnival most certainly has a place in Bermuda’s culture.

The Culture Question

I have heard far too many times Bermuda does not have any culture. It is troubling because we most certainly do have culture but our lack of understanding of our own cultural identity has lead us to deny its’ existence.

According to www.yourdictionary.com culture is: the ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc. of a people or group, that are transferred, communicated, or passed along, as in or to succeeding generations. Livescience.com defines it as the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.

These definitions imply that culture is based on people; who is present, what they do, how they do it, and how they pass it on. Culture is shared, experienced and lived through people. As people are ever changing and evolving culture changes and evolves. It is not rigid. Tradition is rigid. Culture is not.

Bermudian culture is expressed in how we treat people; when we say good morning to people we pass on the street, whether we know them or not. Our culture is expressed in our architecture; our stepped whitewashed roofs, coloured houses and the balconies that exist on every building along Front Street. Our culture is expressed through how we come together to clean up our island after a storm. Our culture is how we celebrate ourselves and live our lives.

Bermudian culture can and has changed over the years. It is changing now. St David’s islanders have cultural ties to Native Americans. Twenty years ago there was no grand Pow Wow to acknowledge and honour their culture but there is now. The culture has evolved. Bermudian culture includes the culture of American Indians just as it includes the British, Portuguese and the Caribbean islands. Why shouldn’t we acknowledge our Caribbean connection?

Bermuda has had people of Caribbean descent from the beginning of our formal existence under British rule. This fact alone indicates that carnival has a place in Bermuda’s cultural expression. Unfortunately there seems to be a disconnect for some between Bermuda and the Caribbean. There are some who distance their selves from their heritage for reasons known only to them. I encourage everyone to look into their histories, discover your cultural ties and embrace all of who you are. It is an enriching, empowering experience.

It was said that we should be celebrating our traditions and people on Bermuda Heroes Weekend. Our very first Bermuda Hero, Dame Lois Brown-Evans was of Caribbean descent and a lover of calypso and soca music. I doubt she would have had a problem with a carnival in Bermuda.

While some may complain of “imported” culture it is important to understand that even the highly celebrated aspects of Bermuda culture originate from other countries. Gombeys, our most iconic example of Bermuda culture and tradition is an “import” from the island of St. Kitt’s. Majorettes another cited example originates from the US. As a former majorette and one who likes to follow the gombeys, I know these great traditions that are a well-loved part of our culture that will undoubtedly continue and while these beloved traditions are imported we have made them our own by adding our own style in them. It is this action of embracing and putting one’s own stamp on things that culture is shared and enhanced.

Bermuda culture is changing, while carnival is a good change I have seen things that worry me. I have noticed young people don’t speak to adults with respect like they once did nor do they give up their seat automatically for an adult on the bus. This is not of course all young people but these small and gradual erosions are the means in which our culture changes and not for the better. We must do what we can to protect the very best of what makes us who we are.

Ultimately I am glad that Bermudians are claiming all of their heritage and sharing their culture. We are all enriched by the experience in tangible and intangible ways. In the second part of my opinion piece on culture I will address carnival specifically, what it is and is not as well as its potential impact on Bermuda.

Carnival

In the final part of this article on culture I want to specifically shed some light on the origins of carnival and its’ real and potential impact on culture in Bermuda.

Carnival’s roots did not actually begin in the Caribbean. It was an Ancient Egyptian spring festival adopted by the Roman Catholic Church to be held before the first day of Lent. Carnevale translates into “to put away the meat”. Through slavery it was brought to the Caribbean and over time it evolved to include the dance and drums of the African people. On emancipation, the freed African Caribbean slaves transformed the European festival into a celebration of the end of slavery. Caribbean slaves took an aspect of a foreign religious culture and made it a part of their own culture. Carnival transcends slavery.

Carnival in its present form is a celebration of life. It is a time to let go of stresses, appreciate what you have and revel in your friendships. In these very hard economic times I think it healthy and necessary to switch focus for a bit and just have fun. As I heard one person say “it nice to go to an event and be yourself without people watching and judging you. It lets you let go”. I was happy to see Bermudians and foreigners of all races and backgrounds dancing, smiling and socialising together without pretence at J’ouvert and Parade of Bands. It’s good to put down our social masks and be ourselves. Carnival is about the freedom to be yourself.

If one listens to the lyrics of soca and calypso music the topics are mainly of unity, love, friendship, partying, and rum alongside political commentary and education delivered in a humorous and up beat manner. That is the true spirit or vibe of calypso/ soca music. To wholly imply that an entire genre of music and the events around it are only to exploit the female form is to be uninformed and intellectually disingenuous. I do not deny that there are songs that mention the female form, namely the bumper but when compared to other genres of music like pop or hip hop, soca is tame.

I can appreciate how to some more conservative people the masquerade can be seen as exploitation. The sight of skin unnerves people in many ways. While I understand that some people can’t see past the flesh it does not mean that is all there is. Mas costumes tell a story, they symbolise something. This year’s costume reflected Bermuda’s beautiful waters. I’ve participated in carnivals that have had fairy tales, the animal kingdom and ancient cultures as their themes. I personally love mas for the bright colours, jewels and all the feathers. The feathers on the headdresses I have come to learn, pulls from African culture. They represent our ability to rise above problems and travel to another world to be reborn and grow spiritually. This is the true spirit that moves through the carnival.

The carnival weekend provided fun for all ages. While the masquerade is the highlight of a carnival garnering the most attention through it’s pageantry; it is not the only event of a carnival. It was amazing to see the hundreds of people of all ages enjoy the free soca concert on Front Street. Pan in the Park provided some sweet sweet rhythms for people to sing and sway to. Knowing that Bermudians can be a bit conservative I can appreciate parent’s concerns about seeing people dancing to soca beats. However children participate in the revelry of carnival all over the world in age appropriate costumes and dance. The Sunday of London’s Notting Hill Carnival, the largest carnival in Europe is known as Children’s Day. It does no damage to their sense of self but rather gives children an opportunity from a young age to participate in their culture. For me personally I’d be more concerned if my child was twerking.

The Bigger Picture

Whether people agree or not that carnival should be a part of Bermudian culture, the fact is it is here now and will likely be around for years to come. The Bermuda Heroes Weekend Carnival is a well thought out event that is of great benefit to Bermuda. Not only does it bring tourists to the island but it boosts sales in specific retail sectors. It gives people a reason to come to the island to learn more about us, who we are and our culture. While a minority may think we have sold out our people with another culture I think we sold Bermuda with the latest evolution of Bermudian culture.

The last event of the Bermuda Heroes Weekend was a Bermuda style raft up off the waters of Deep Bay and Admiralty House. This was an event none of the international Djs or artists had seen as part of a carnival before and it was an event they enjoyed so much some tweeted and made Instagram posts about it. That is an example of how culture transforms. This is how we made a Caribbean carnival uniquely Bermudian.

In doing my research I came across the following description of carnival which I think truly captures the essence of what carnival truly is: Carnival arts offers all of us a dynamic tool for self-expression and exploration, a tool to seek out our roots, a tool to develop new forms of looking at the world and its cultures, and finally, a tool to unite the world, to discover what we all have in common, and to celebrate what makes us different.

Let us embrace the true spirit of carnival Bermuda.

- Davida Morris is a former Senator and Substance Misuse Counsellor, who has spent the last six years in England studying Social Psychology and creating personal development programme for teenagers and young adults.

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  1. smh says:

    Well Written and thought out. Thanks for the numerous pieces of info I didnt know about our Bermudian Culture. Hopefully Someone tags Shekinah Church Pastor in this post do she can learn something.

    • Not exactly says:

      I really liked the line “Tradition is rigid. Culture is not.”

      Another piece of import from the south is the Bermuda kite which originated from St. Kitt’s which we adopted adding hummers (and the headstick).

  2. navin johnson says:

    why look at it as a “Cultural Event” and not just a party? New Orleans has Mardi Gras..Spain has the running of the Bulls,etc…Bermuda already has its own Cultural event and its called Cup Match…does any other location has anything similar? we are unique in that respect…Carnival is a party

    • Fowl says:

      So no other countries in the entire world play a game of cricket over a couple days and party and drink at the same time? I believe you will find quite a few ‘similar’ events at other ‘locations’.

      • Cricket is the primary event,the Principle event is a two day Holiday because Africans refused to work to celebrate Emancipation.

        • mj says:

          what africans refused to work? what emancipation?(to free from oppression, bondage or restraint)

      • navin johnson says:

        its a 4 day event including emancipation day…can you name a few of the other places that have a similar event? Cup Match also has a Carnival like atmosphere..

    • Real talk (original) says:

      It’s a cultural event because of the Caribbean ties that are shared by a large (60%) segment of our population…

      Why can’t it be both cultural and a party!?

    • Build a Better Bermuda says:

      By your own attempt to apply rigid categorization, Cup Match can be equally considered a party. Simply, whether it is Cup Match, May 24th, Good Friday… all can easily be defined as cultural events and parties, but to limit them as such would be to not fully embrace what they are, celebrations, and Carnival is just that too. I can think of no logical reason why we can’t embrace and evolve this into our own cultural celebration too. After all, every other cultural celebration we have now, had their own start point some time in the past.

      Culture, after all, isn’t something to be held in stasis; it should be an adaption and evolution of a community as it welcomes new contacts and context into itself to improve upon and grow. if we did not do this, eventually we would whither and fade with stagnation.

      To Jason and the rest of the NHW team, well done, while I did not join any of the festivities, I understand the history and environ of Carnival and what it is about, and say thank you for bring it home here.

    • Charlly X says:

      Hence why we party socialize on week ends ! We are definitely adaptive by nature . Look at the money made since the beginning of time off celebrations .

  3. Ombudsman says:

    hogwash

  4. biggadon says:

    I love it ….Love it…. love it,every Bermudian needs to read this article…it was a great read Ms Morris !

  5. I was disappointed that there was not enough G-string costumes, if your going to do it do it right.

    • ENOUGHISENOUGH says:

      mahhhh boy! i agree.. there shouldnt be a restriction on costumes.children shouldnt be allowed!

  6. Staffernee says:

    Many places celebrate Carnival despite it not being “native” to their area. Look at New York – it is a very culturally diverse place so they celebrate many different cultural holidays that aren’t strictly American. What fun!

    My problem with our Carnival celebration is that we moved it to June – why? Carnival is at the beginning of Lent. If we wanted to just have a “Carribbean-style” party that’s one thing but why take something and mash it up and move it so it doesn’t retain any of the history or meaning of the original?

    • Build a Better Bermuda says:

      There are many place that do celebrate a Carnival, Toronto is also another, however, I can see several reason why they move it to June, rather than keep it to the Carribean tradition for around Lent.
      Climate, we are not in the Carribean and our weather around that time can be questionable and cold, so it would make sense to do it when it would be warmer.
      Competition, as this is also being driven as a tourist event it would make sense not to do it when all the other islands are doing it, putting us in competition with them for the same talent and tourist demographic
      Making it ours, if we are trying to make it ours, then we should have it when it would be most significant to us, and one of the few remaining holidays that it could coincide with would the former Queens Birthday, now National Heroes Day weekend

  7. nomoremoney says:

    Yes, we need our own culture, and it will be made up of many parts,without the exclusion of some which has been the history of this country. Well done to the event and its supporters. It was time. And yes, St Davids can now be proud of their roots, thankfully.

    • Rosie Marangiello says:

      SDI were always proud of their roots and rightly so, wonderful community. :)

  8. N. Wade says:

    Well articulated article. I agree with this article completely. Too often we feel as though we do not have any culture. In many ways we deny our own culture. This is one aspect of our culture and it very well has a place. I’m confident that in time it will show its major benefits to the island, both culturally and in other ways. No need to defend it…culture has a way of standing firm on its own

  9. Double M Quad Twos says:

    Although the Heroes Weekend cannot compare to my favourite event Non Mariners it was great fun. I will be out bright and early and even though I will be bringing sand to the beach, I will be wearing dark shades to sneak a few peeks at the sights.

  10. john silvester says:

    Our most culturally significant event is Cup Match. A celebration of emancipation etc… Why not incorporate this event during that time? That would merit cultural significance. Not the Queens Birthday Weekend. Or is it, “when can we fit the party in.” Maybe I am missing it, but what exactly is being celebrated. Carnival in Trinidad and Crop Over in Barbados have cultural/historical significance as to when they take place. BHW does not. Its ok to have a party, but please stop attempting to grasp strings and justify with this weak culture argument. Lastly, since this was a BTA event, didn’t the powers that be say even once to themselves once, “This might be a great event for our tourists.” Forget the 5, 000 plus cruise ship passengers. Lets have the party when there are no ships in Dockyard. All makes perfect sense, not!

    With that said, BHW had a successful event and a good turnout. All the best as they move forward. However, their party doesnt need to be validated with a heavily thought out argument on culture.

    • nomoremoney says:

      Whats your problem?

    • Do the Math says:

      Let’s not forget that the initial concept was for this to be held in conjuction with Bermuda Day. However, the only way to have executed this without taking from Bermuda day was to move the holiday to Friday which would allow these festivities to not only be apart of the parade but also to be enjoyed over a long weekend. The last time I checked this caused a big stir which resulted in the date of the Carnival being moved… Now, we’re complaining because it is being done during a time that has no symbolic meaning to Bermuda!! Give me a break! Baker’s should bake, people with a sweet tooth should eat. You can’t have your cake and eat it too!

  11. Serious Though says:

    The people behind the Carnival (BHW) designed a Horse event,and NOW here comes Camel designers

  12. Glad says:

    I’m glad this was finally publicly addressed! But with everything new that comes to Bermuda there is lots of backlash because the older generations cannot accept change. Get over it.
    Gombeys and majorettes may be our culture but are not enjoyed by all, including myself. Change it inevitable in this world.

    Another congratulations to D’General and the entire BHW team who have bought such a wonderful event on our shores.

  13. Really? says:

    Not opposed to Carnival… just do not think Heroes Day weekend is the correct weekend. If it is truly about culture, then have it during the Bermuda Day weekend, when we are supposed to be celebrating Bermuda and its culture!

    • Ladybug says:

      Yea, why not flip the two – May 24 and BHW?

      It does kind of make sense… during the parade we can honor the heroes that have been selected. A parade seems like a perfectly great way to honor them and fuse the two concepts where the parade already recognizes Bermudians. It wouldn’t be losing any traditions other than the dates. The parade woudl still go on with an added celebration/recognition.

      Then during May 24th long weekend, we can party in the Bermudian way we want to make our Carnival which fits better for that holiday.

      • Watcher says:

        For the record, there is no such thing as “Bermuda Day weekend”. Bermuda Day is May 24th, and is celebrated on that day UNLESS it happens to fall on a Saturday or Sunday. Remember there were those that didn’t want it moved to a Friday (or even a Monday), so no long weekend for us.

        On the other hand, Bermuda Heroes Day is on a Monday EVERY year, thus providing the long weekend.

        I’m not overly concerned about what is celebrated when. I was just happy to see so many people from all walks of life, getting along and having a good time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was like that all year round?

      • Zen says:

        By spreading the events it will assist tourist when making choices vacationing here especially the new breed of tourist us Young open minded folk understand this, those against because of personal beliefs come up with your own concepts and ideas and those stuck in the ages retire get out of the way .
        Innovation and change that is the new order.

    • PBanks says:

      You can celebrate Bermuda and its culture on both holidays, there’s no reason to pigeon-hole the festivities to one date.

  14. Darryl says:

    Well put, thanks so much for educating some of us who did not know a bit of the information you provided. I am looking forward to the carnival again next year. Some people are stuck in plastic bubbles. I consider myself a Christian, and love the carnival, which is NOT a sin.

  15. No suh says:

    When there are carnival parties in the U.S. Or in the countries who have ALWAYS celebrated the Flags of those countries are flown as a sign of respect. What makes this carnival and the thought of adopting it wrong is that it’s straight up STOLEN from other cultures. For you to completely take an idea (clothes, music, floats, jouvet, etc), implementing it during a holiday that was created for you to celebrate your own culture, flying YOUR flags and paying no homage to the countries whose culture you “borrowed” is STEALING! I understand that there’s not too much to do in Bermy etcetera, etc, and it must have been new and exciting and fun but man there’s no honor in stealing. Everybody will dismiss cupmatch like “yea we know whatever” but if any of those islands had the 3/4 celebration with the cricket match, soca vs reggae, etc etc bemrudians would be up in arms! There’s a big difference between having a themed party and high jacking someone else’s culture. Multicultural society means you have a mesh of many, not that you can take from whomever and adopt it as your countries own!

    • PettyBDAthinking says:

      No suhhh ya grasping at straws!! Even at these carnivals you claim the fly these flags in respect of borrowing their culture, how many African flags you see flying? Which is untimately where we(the people of color that celebrate carnival) were originally STOLEN from. Come guy…stop picking fights because yiur ignorant and understand something. They fly flags to represent the countries the revellers represent. Usually carribean people are proud and represent their flags. Being that we (Bermuda) have been so confused as to our heritage and background is through colonialism, we tend to not be as nationally proud. But through event like Cupmatch, 24th of May and now NHW(carnival and all) maybe itll strengthen our pride. Its been a long time coming that we damn git rid of Queens Birthday holiday, I mean like really?! The important women in my life are my Queens and I could care less of a damn QE2!! Let us dig deeper and educate ourselves with knowledgeable enlightenment so we may fly all the flags that we represent and be proud people!! Well done NHW organisers and everyone who participated and supported. May it get bigger and popular each year. And P.S. Haters goin Hate!

      • No suh says:

        Theres nothing ignorant in what i said. You cant condone taking something like that and saying its cool because the culture here is murky. Carnival in maimi what flags do you see besides the american? Trini, jamaican, etc. Exactly. Its respect, have whatever party you want to but dont try and pass it off as yours if its not. Make it a seperate weekend, dont have a carribbean celebration during a national holiday. It aint right.

        • Scott says:

          Technically it’s an Egyptian/Roman/European/Caribbean celebration, so almost everybody’s included :
          Problem Solved!!!

    • AFurbert says:

      Hijacking? Really? Get some green tea into you and calm down!

  16. biggadon says:

    the weekend thats it being held on is the perfect weekend to have as far as carnivals go…. the May 24th holiday is also memorial weekend in the USA with Caribbean carnivals in Atlanta and Orlando the same weekend so the competition for carnival travelers and artist will be great…..heroes weekend we have no other Carnivals to compete with we can potentially corner the carnival market going forward ….trust me Bermuda has a bright future with this event is concerned.

  17. Rhonnie aka BlueFamiliar says:

    I’m one of those whose gut reaction is to say that a Carnival has no place in Bermuda.

    But I was raised during a time when people didn’t want to have a connection to the Islands in the Caribbean.

    There were those who didn’t want that connection because they came from there and they left with good reason. There was no desire to ‘celebrate’ anything from their past.

    And yes, there were also those who didn’t want the connection for completely different, and fully unacceptable reasons.

    For me, now, because I don’t have the cultural reference, Carnival is nothing more than some over the top party with quite inappropriate for public costumes and behaviour.

    It’s also another sign that other parts of our culture are dying, or being replaced because of a desire to wipe, for different cultural reasons, away part of the Island’s past and, yes, culture.

    That’s my gut reaction.

    My intellectual reaction is that Bermuda has changed and continues to change. And that there is nothing wrong with this. There is nothing wrong with having a Carnival for the pure celebration of fun and life, and there’s nothing wrong with having a Carnival as celebration of the Island’s culture.

    My sensibilities will get used to this annual event and I hope one day in the future I’ll be saying that I remember when the first Carnival was had, in response to a pride for how this event has grown and flourished a pleasure for both locals and tourists as a celebration of my country’s culture.

    Change is not as easily embrace by some as it is by others, but for a lot of us we’ll get there in time.

    I do, though, think maybe it’s better suited for Bermuda Day celebrations. And I do miss the Queen’s Birthday, and enjoy the ties we continue to have with our British heritage.

    Bermuda is not one thing, it is many. Caribbean, English, Portuguese and a smattering of others. The good and the bad, they all make up who we are and what we are becoming. We should celebrate the good, remember and learn from the bad, and embrace it all. All of us.

  18. watchmen says:

    Yes while Rome was burning Nero fiddled…traditions culture parties indeed – all distractions, all moving goal posts, all designed to keep ones eyes off of the deception and the ultimate demise of all that is old Bermuda.

    • AFurbert says:

      Hope you’ve got your tinfoil hat ready, you paranoid individual!!

  19. Cow Polly says:

    Traditions are rigid, culture is not. We do have our rigid traditions and they are not threatened by our ever changing culture. We will still have our Bermuda shorts and our “Good Mornings” and our Cup Match. However, as we celebrate many more cultures than ever before including our Filipino and Srilankan communities, it seems its been a long time overdue to enjoy the sights and sounds of Carnival and celebrate the heritage of a vast amount of Bermudians, so bring it on! It does seem a pity though that we have lost the pomp and ceremony of the Queen’s Birthday parade – it would be nice to think they could coexist on the same weekend, that really would indicative of Bermuda’s cultural mix. I remember seeing a picture in the newspaper of the first Nottinghill Carnival in London of a London Bobby with carnival beads round the neck of his uniform!

  20. Huh says:

    Very, very well said Ms. Morris. “Bermuda” is finally beginning to realise that it needs “so much more” than “being stodgy British” with high tea, cricket, Beating of the Retreat, etc.. I hope things like Mardi Gras, Oktoberfest etc. are next. Would love to see the Philippinos introduce Dragon Boat Racing.

  21. Just me says:

    Very well said. I also believe Carnival has a place in Bermuda, for many of the same reasons you identified. To all those saying otherwise, I say ” get a life”. Was very proud of the way it brought all of my island together. Made me proud to be a Bermudian. Thank you to all who worked so hard to bring it to us..

  22. Smart Gal says:

    I have no real dislike of having Carnival. However I do wonder why it has to be over Heroes Day? Shouldn’t be held early Spring?
    And please don’t promote it as a family event, because it definitely is not.

    • PBanks says:

      There aren’t any fixed-date holidays in early spring that you could arrange a Carnival-like event around. Heroes’ Day is appropriate because it’s a relatively new holiday and thus ripe for new concepts.

      I think many people are too caught up in the traditional timing and reasonings of ‘Carnival’ as shown in T&T, Brazil and the US’s Mardi Gras. Crop Over in Barbados is at the end of July. Vincy Mas in St. Vincent is at the end of June.

    • Scott says:

      You’re only referencing Carnival as being as in the “Early Spring” because that is what season it is in Bermuda..
      For Carnival in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, and Crop Over in Barbados, they are held in the middle of their SUMMER, the end of their rainy season. ..the most sunny days for them…that’s the other reason that it makes sense to hold it midway between May 24th and Cup Match.
      Also, if you have ever been to any of the aforementioned countries you would see that the MAIN drives for Carnival are release of stress, celebration of culture, and yes, release of social inhibitions…South American and Caribbean peoples usually have very close relationship with their music as a such that they can usually be seen humming or tapping along to it…there is also no concept of “Old” and “New” music…if you hear it and like it – yup dance to it…no concern if it is on the radio or not…we could learn a lot from them…

      • Scott says:

        Oops sorry misspoke…Crop Over is in July…