Kambule has long been a staple event for those hoping to hear the murmuring heart of carnival amidst the rush of big trucks, big bands and big fetes. After coming out of the gayelle and onto social media with a spectacular film produced in 2021, Kambule has returned to audiences on the bleachers – this time, in NAPA’s car park under ‘safe zone’ stipulations, rather than its home in the historical hub of Picadilly [Street].
This year, it was made a bit easier for us to tick the ‘culture’ box off of the seasonal checklist. After being shuffled around the NCC’s calendar and then quietly wiped off altogether (just days before the opening night, might I add) Kambule retained its signature 5am showing on Fantastic Friday night, and added two additional showings. All of them, sold out!
I am careful not to call this the ‘canboulay reenactment’, as it is commonly translated. Kambule – ‘a play by Eintou Springer about canboulay’ is more accurate, especially in its new, shortened format.
The spelling of ‘kambule’ is a decolonizing gesture that sounds, to the unknowing ear, like a mispronunciation of the word derived from the French ‘cannes brulees’. According to seminal scholar Maureen Warner-Lewis, kambule/kambula comes from a Kikongo word meaning ‘procession’. [I speak more about it HERE in Episode 3 of my Hotfoot Harmony Carnival Series].
In a sense then, historically speaking, canboulay was a kambule. The deliberate naming of this play pushes us to think about the notions about our carnival that have been projected onto it, and to consider multiple historical perspectives aside from the story of ‘Africans copying French’. This aspect of the name is perhaps one of the things that could be explained more overtly in the material that supports the Kambule production.
For Kambule 2020, I was quite literally standing up sleeping in the audience. This year, no more! As a south person with a day job, I was more than happy for the opportunity of a Friday evening show. Myself and my southside carload made it in by the skin of our teeth, thanks to poor communication from the guard booth to the box office at NAPA prior to the event… but that’s another story. Ah reach, and ah siddong, and ah watch. As a side note, the arena staging in Picadilly was quite frankly a nightmare for sight lines, sound and seating, especially for those who ran late. While I understand the significance of the original location, the Taste of Carnival Kambule was a remarkably more comfortable and intimate experience.
Now about the show;
Kambule is indeed a visually appealing presentation even in moments when the action is not as intriguing. The omnipresence of the ensemble means that there is always much to behold in the playing area. The actors themselves look great, in a cohesive costume design of head ties and cotton garments. Though, from examining archival material about the era, I wonder if the modesty of the jammette dress code is overdone in this production.
The new spatial configuration has allowed for a physical set which was commendably done, and doubled as the background for many an Instagram photo after the show. The barrack yard depiction added dimension to the portrayal and really cemented the geography of the jammette yard. Lighting design is another perk of the formal theatre space, and I can safely say that it complemented this performance. These aspects of spectacle, aided by fire-breathing, fantastic choreography by Dara Healy and African drummers on cue, made it a technically sound production – even in the drizzling rain.
A vibrant performance indeed! Kambule featured a solid ensemble without a single weak performer. The voices of Keon Francis as Bois Man, Emmanuel Ansolia and Raheem Bain as Pierrot Grenades and Ajibola as soulful chantwell sustain the rhythm from start to finish. These are headlining names, but the entire cast moved as a well-oiled, well rehearsed and dynamic machine.
I say that Kambule is not a reenactment because it is not; and it need not be. Loosely speaking, it is a slice of life in the post-abolition barrack yards of East Port-of-Spain, framed around the first Canboulay Riot of 1881. It is a play in one act, narrated by 2 pierrot grenades and a stickman, supported by a yard of jammettes [see foot note] who remain onstage for the entirety of the action, echoing the narrative through movement & song. There’s a series of lavways, masquerade competitions, squabbles and picong among the inhabitants of the yard while they prepare to mobilize themselves against the authorities that intend to clamp their festivities.
The contemporary references ‘Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’, a ‘taste of carnival’ and ‘allyuh too wicked’ for instance, are humorous little easter eggs that show an evolving script.
My concern is that the play tells a story without much of a plot. There is always something happening, but it’s difficult to tell how the moments are linked, or how they hold significance in the frame of the looming riot. For me, the trajectory of the plot only becomes clear toward the end, when the jammettes are preparing to mobilize against the armed forces. As two other audience members agreed, “It was really nice, but I wasn’t really sure what was going on for most of the time.”
Had I not had sound knowledge of the jargon, the symbols and the historical context, I too would have been confused, but all the while intrigued by the spectacle. Even knowing the canboulay story in depth, I struggled to pin down the dramatic unities of time, space and action in Kambule. References are made to the Hosay Massacre, which occurred after the first Canboulay Riot. I was of the assumption that the play was set before this. I was also unsure of the time frame – whether the action takes place in the space of one night, across a few days, months etc.
For most of the play, there’s a song, and then there’s a squabble and then there’s a joke and another song and so on, but the path from beginning to end is obscure to follow. This may be because much of the history is retold by the narrator, but not actually represented onstage. As such, there is much talking about things, and little dialogue.
This is where I would hope that the reenactment aspect comes in a little bit stronger. The script is phenomenally written, and this goes without saying. After all, it is the pen of Eintou Pearl Springer. My belief is that a local epic of this nature ought to assume the ignorance of the audience, take us by the hand and walk us through why this is so important, why the jammettes lived the way they did and what happened overall. Moments like the argument between the characters of Alice Sugar and Wilicia, for instance, as well as the narrators’ heckling of Carriso Jane seem to come out of nowhere and don’t particularly propel the plot. At first glance, one would look at these scenes sideways and question what they are truly intended to portray about the gender politics of the jammette yard. Knowing the context, I can surmise, but from looking at the play world itself, there is a question mark over the intent of these depictions.
With talks of taking Kambule to audiences outside of Trinidad after 16 years running, I believe it should be considered how this piece can be more explanatory (for lack of a better word) in its narrative. Again, this is not to suggest that it becomes a reenactment, but some of the creative aspects of reenactment in ancient epics from Ramleela to the Odysses may well be useful to a production of this kind. Perhaps what Kambule is missing is a protagonist, or something/someone of dramatic significance that consolidates the scenes.
Currently, Kambule has the monopoly on portraying this aspect of our history and the Idakeda team has done a phenomenal job at breathing life into carnival theatre. Needless to say, it is an extremely important piece. With this level of social responsibility, it ought not to preach to the choir or to be a showcase of lavways, but to deliver its message to carnival lovers and haters, scholars and laymen alike.
I would like to take this paragraph to say that if I were the Minister of Culture, I would make it an imperative for any theatre production that receives government support to make special considerations for school audiences as part of their contract. As a secondary school Drama teacher, I must stress how important it is for our young students to attend productions like Kambule. On this occasion, I was only able to carry two of my pupils, which should not be the case. For many children, school field trips are the first or only encounters that they have with theatre and cultural forms – many of which are part of the core curriculum. With limited seating due to COVID restrictions, I am of the strong belief that theatre productions should have extended runs with specific days given to school and community groups. I can write an entire article on this alone, and perhaps I should, but Kambule was another lost opportunity to reach out to the youth on curricular and extracurricular levels.
All in all, I am excited to see what’s next for the Kambule Theatre Company, and I wish them all the blessings and funding required to produce part 2 of that fantastic film and continue polishing the national jewel that is Kambule 1881.
The 2022 production of ‘Kambule – a play by Eintou Springer’ will run for one night only, April 2nd at the Naparima Bowl. For updated follow @kambulett on facebook.
Jammette: from diametre- the French word referring to the line of respectability in society. So supposedly, everybody above that line is civilized, educated upstanding etc. and everybody below that line is thought to be undesirable and lower class. In this context, it is particularly the residents of ‘behind the bridge’ in East Port-of-Spain who invented and/or innovated the foundations of Trinidad’s carnival.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Harmony is a poet, actor, dancer, stage singer, researcher, educator, content creator…and the list goes on! In 2019 she graduated from the Guildford School of Acting/University of Surrey with a first class honours degree in Theatre & Performance with Creative Writing, where she grew an interest in writing about the arts. Her passion for performing emerged somewhere between being involved as an ensemble member & soloist for groups in musical theatre, parang, choral singing, dance (ballet, tap and contemporary), spoken word, comedy videos and again, the list can go on. Harmony’s writing is situated between her scholarly focus and her practitioner’s insight.
In 2021 she was awarded the title of Youth Writer of the Year by the Bocas Lit Fest for her theatre reviews and blogs about Caribbean culture. In her capacity as ‘Hotfoot Harmony’, she produces educational content for social media about the lesser known aspects of Trinbagonian culture. She currently works as a secondary school drama teacher while pursuing an MA in Cultural Studies at the U.W.I.