It’s Carnival next week, and we’re diving into the eroticism of this major festival.
Sexologist and theatre artist Onika Henry joins Karen Yates for a deep talk on the community, sexual freedom, and the roots of resistance that can be seen in the Carnival of Trinidad and Tobago.
Wild & Sublime Podcast Transcript
#S2E10 | Carnival: Reclaiming Communal Erotic Joy
[Wild & Sublime theme music]
Onika Henry: The power is being able to travel to these imaginary, into these spiritual realms, receive wisdom through experiential capacity. You know, whatever it is your intention was in the beginning, for having the mask and being part of the ceremony and the prep that prepared you to put this mask on, and then you come back, having received new knowledge, finally being able to truly come back to who you always were, who you were meant to be. And being your authentic self. That masking is something that we inherited from our African ancestors, the power of that mask as a gateway to these other worlds.
Karen Yates: Welcome to Wild & Sublime, a sexy spin on infotainment®, no matter your preferences, orientation or relationship style, based on the popular live Chicago show. Each week, I'll chat about sex and relationships with citizens from the world of sex positivity. You'll hear meaningful conversation, dialogues that go deeper, and information that can help you become more free in your sexual expression. I'm sex educator Karen Yates. Today, I talk with sexologist Onika Henry about Carnival in Tobago, and how decolonization informs the collective erotic experience. Keep listening.
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Welcome, sexy listeners. This episode falls on Thursday, February 11th. In a few days, Monday and Tuesday next week, in many parts of the world, Carnival occurs -- or [pronounces with different emphasis] Carnival, depending on where you are. The massive, explosive celebration just before people pack it up for Lent, the six-week period in the Christian tradition of fasting and reflection. This all, of course, will be hampered this year because of COVID. Now, my only experience with Carnival, that I mention later in this episode, was when I went to Rio many years ago and took part in a giant dance and music rehearsal in the leadup to the event. That memory stayed with me. And so, when I saw a recent TEDx talk about Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, one of the most famous in the world, and how its roots in resistance are part of the decolonization of the erotic for the islands' participants, I knew I wanted to ask the presenter, Tobago sexologist and theatre artist Onika Henry, to come on the podcast. She graciously accepted. This interview was lengthy. We have a lot to talk about. And some parts have been edited down. Enjoy.
Onika Henry, welcome.
Onika Henry: Thank you, Karen Yates. [laughter]
Karen Yates: For the listener, I just have to say, I sent Onika so many questions. And she wrote back, "Wow, these are a lot of questions!" And I think it is because the idea of Carnival has so much resonance for me, on so many different levels. And so, let's begin. And I would love for you to locate us. Explain briefly the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and how Carnival developed in the country.
Onika Henry: I am the smaller Island, called by the indigenous folks Aloubaéra, but colonially known as Tobago. This is the land of the Kali'na and Lokono. We are the most southerly of the Caribbean islands. And so you can literally see the Venezuelan coastline from where we are. Trinidad and Tobago, we weren't always a twin-island state. We were owned by the Spanish and the British at different times. But we also had French settlers. At one time, our space had Spanish laws, owned by the British, but socially and culturally ruled by the French. So that's a little bit of history of Trinidad. Tobago, on the other hand, changed hands between the French and the British, like, 22 times, and also had Dutch settlers. And so, we did not become one country until about 1899, under the British, which was our last colonizer, and we became independent in 1962.
Carnival developed mainly because of the heavy French Catholic influence in Trinidad. And so, coming out of the enslaved's witnessing these really grand masked balls that Europeans had, particularly the French. What the enslaved did was that they found a cover, let's put it that way. They found a cover for their own masking traditions. And so, we created our own festivities, you know, our own version of the balls, quote-unquote, on those plantation spaces. And, of course, the colonialists probably saw it as, you know, the enslave trying to imitate them, or doing a very watered-down version of what they were doing. But it was something completely different. Our ancestors were literally finding ways to deal with their situation -- ways to find catharsis, ways to find healing, and resilience, and rebellion through the practices that they inherited from their African ancestors. And so, they are literally a mix of different rituals, and traditions, and music and dance that came from different African nations or tribes within the Carnival traditions that eventually became part of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. And that's basically it in a nutshell. And so, you will find that in Caribbean islands, we have different versions of Carnival, but for areas where they have a heavy French influence, the Carnival and the Carnival-type activities happen in that period before Lent starts.
Karen Yates: So, talk to me a little bit about the actual rebellion, and how the rebellion of the peoples then moved into the taking back of Carnival.
Onika Henry: It wasn't until, of course, emancipation, that Carnival left the plantation space and spilled out into the streets. It became our street theater and our street festival, starting from the time emancipation came. In terms of rebellion, one of the ways in which we did that was, of course, hiding and keeping our ancestrous traditions within our Carnival rituals. As you know, of course, in a colonial space, the religion is imposed, the way you dress is imposed, what are considered acceptable dance, acceptable clothing, acceptable hair, all of those things became imposed upon persons here -- persons of African descent, and later on, indentured servants, coming from a colonial background. And so, within Carnival, we created characters that were ours. Within Carnival, we created a space for music, lyrics, songs, that literally directly -- sometimes indirectly -- but directly attacked what was happening in society. And when Carnival -- after emancipation, Carnival went up in the streets -- we took over the streets. [laughs] We often would defy the laws, through how we would play Carnival on the streets. Even now, there are still some old laws that we don't pay attention to, which are also not enforced. The drums were also banned. African drumming was banned as part of law -- that's an old law, but you're not allowed to play drums after 6:00pm. [laughs]
Karen Yates: That's kind of hard during Carnival, isn't it?
Onika Henry: Yeah. And so, completely ignored those laws. People continued to play the drums, continued to play the music. And in fact, when we did not have access to drums, we created new kinds of drums out of discarded oil drums, which is now our national instrument, which is the steelpan. So when you hear about the steelpan, and the steel orchestra, that also came out a response, being very subversive, and finding ways to keep what our ancestors gave us as a way of keeping our identity, and holding on to what we thought was good, what we thought was beautiful, what we thought was relevant.
Karen Yates: I would love to hear a bit about the various Carnival characters, and how, in the enactment of these characters, there is a subversion of the colonial message.
Onika Henry: I want to share a particular Carnival character -- or more accurately, Carnival play -- that's called Dame Lorraine. And you can hear the French in that. Dame Lorraine plays off of the customs and the fashion of the French aristocracy. Back in the period of the 18th to early 19th century, what our ancestors did was that we took that scenario of that ball, the aristocrats, and we turned it into parody and satire, in the way the elite conducted themselves. And so the play would highlight the fact that you may be in power, but we are carefully observing you, we are scrutinizing you, and we see you for who you are. One of the things, for example, that we would focus on: some of the characters in the play had very, let's say, overdone body parts. An example would be -- I'm going to get a little explicit here -- there's a char--
Karen Yates: We're on Zoom, and I'm like, "Oh, honey, go for it!" [laughter] This is a sex podcast.
Onika Henry: So, there's a male character, I think he was called Gros Lulu -- "big penis," male genitals. And this character, of course, you're dressing up in this very aristocratic, elite French costume. But there's a huge bulge in the costume, and the character is walking in a way that indicates to you that this huge extension is very uncomfortable. But the way this character is interacting with the other characters, you become aware that the reason he has this issue is because he's promiscuous, and it represents somebody having an STI that has gone untreated. And so, all the characters had something about them that was exaggerated, that was linked to how they behaved and how they presented themselves. And we were saying in that play, in the dialogue, that we see you and we know you. So that's one way that we took our power back, that we made the colonizers recognize: Yeah, you know, you're no better than we are. We're not buying into, we have never really bought into, that narrative that you keep ,about who you are being superior, et cetera. So that was one thing.
And then there is the Jab Molassie. Once again, coming down from French roots, French patois for "black devil." The devil character, of course, is a play on how we were seen, as people of color, as black people, and how we behave -- you know, we were considered to be devils. There's a term that they also used to refer to women, diametre, I'm sure I'm mispronouncing that, but coming down to our French Creole, the character is a Jamette. Kind of like a she-devil, very scandalous, very sexual. Of course, we are taking the words that you are claiming that we are, and we are playing them back for you. But showing you that we have a choice in terms of how we use these characters, and how we take on or don't take on how you label us. Getting back to Jab Molassie, they're covered in black, tar-like substance -- we use charcoal and oil now -- like a really, really dark black color. Tongue and the mouth colored red, and a foaming at the mouth. And the movements are also lots of pelvic movement, lots of pelvic thrusts, very sensual and sexual, but there's also a pitchfork. What these characters would do on Carnival day, on the streets, and when Carnival went onto the streets, the elites, the whites, the colonialists, they began to retreat. Sometimes they would be in the audience looking on in their court and you were near, though. The black devils that usually travel in groups, gather around them, and be threatening to touch them and mess up their very, very nice clothes. And in order not to be touched by this black devil and made dirty like us, you had to pay. So those are actually money-making characters on the streets of Carnival. In my mind, that was also one way that we can find reparations. [laughs] And so, that devil character is one way of taking back power, of changing the power dynamic, but also playing or turning around the narrative in a way that empowers us. That shifts the balance back to, you know, we have control now, and you're going to pay for what you've done to us, and we're not here to necessarily harm you, just to tip the scales again, to make things a little bit more balanced.
Karen Yates: And there's a playing out -- it's a safe playing out of the role, of the reversal of power within a safe container.
Onika Henry: Within a safe container.
Karen Yates: Women playing the Jab Molassie, and the taking back of sexual power. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Onika Henry: Yes. Part of our Theatre Arts program here in Trinidad and Tobago includes learning about, participating in, the Carnival activities. So it was part of my degree, literally. And we have a Carnival arts degree, by the way. So yes, you can have a whole degree in Carnival arts.
Karen Yates: Wow. I seriously made the wrong choice back in the day!
Onika Henry: An artist came in, a Carnival artist, somebody who regularly participates and plays Carnival, came in to talk about her journey. She explained that she chose playing that character as a form of therapy. She was looking for a way to get rid of her anger, her aggression. And of course, coming from a community, or a socioeconomic background where, you know, therapy is not necessarily accessible, is not really affordable, finding ways to heal oneself was a choice that she took. And she said, I chose the devil character because I could make myself unattractive for that period to the man. She had experienced a sexual assault. She was having difficulty overcoming it and getting back to quote-unquote "normal." And to deal with her aggression and anger, she chose a character that allowed her to express that aggression, to express that anger, but also kept her safe, because it's not something that men will be, you know, attracted to. She has her pitchfork. But the movements of the character are also sensual, and sexual. And so, within that container, I can express my aggression, I'm not hurting anybody, but I'm also releasing that trauma that's been stored in my body. And I'm also getting back in touch with and reconnecting to my sexuality and my sensual itself. She found the playing out of that practice very healing for her. And that story stuck with me. And I see now, you know, the link between why perhaps that story stuck with me and why it came back to the surface during my study in sexuality. There are many, many ways in which people can choose characters: for some kind of catharsis, some kind of healing, some kind of even mental analysis or analogy of what life feels like for them, not just for sexuality. But the Carnival space is also such a hugely erotic space that it just made sense to me to work on erotic themes and sexual themes through Carnival characters.
Karen Yates: Yes. You did a TED talk, and you quoted Corey Gilkes. And I want to read this quote. "Our ancestors understood the erotic as simply another aspect of life. They saw in the sexual union a way of communing with the divine energies."
Onika Henry: What I think Corey meant, from my readings and my conversations with people, that the erotic was not spoken of in hushed tones. It wasn't taboo. It wasn't a bastardized part of humanity. It was critically important, and it was seen as sacred. It was seen or understood as a life force for our ancestors. I'm not only including our African ancestors, through which the Carnival traditions came, but also those who came after and added, and those who were there before. Like the indigenous peoples -- their art, their literature, what we know about them, they also did not separate sex from life. It was part of sacredness.
Karen Yates: You know, about 15 years ago, I went to Rio, just before New Year's Eve. And I took part in one of the samba schools' preparations, because as you laid out, Carnival takes six months of preparation, for the most part. And these various schools, or crews, or community associations, you know, put in a great deal of effort. So I attended one of the rehearsals, which schools did to get money from tourists, to pay for the costumes and to pay for everything that it takes to do this. And I was so aware of this power that was immense. Because it was this group, this group music, group dance, drums. At such a profoundly powerful level, and the sweep of what happens to you when you are involved in that. And it is erotic -- big-E erotic, you know. It's what we were just talking about: It's "life force" erotic. So, in looking at the Carnival tradition, I see, in the little bit that I viewed that night, the space is charged with this life force, this eroticism. And it becomes a container in these several days, where things can happen, or things can come up, and be experienced. And I would like you to talk a little bit about that quality, and how space is negotiated during this time period. And what people are able to experience.
Onika Henry: I'm sure you're familiar with Taoist or Tantra exercises, or breathwork and so forth, that can bring about a particular kind of -- if you want to call it headspace, or spiritual space. And so, think about that, and think about the Carnival group space in particular, that is going to be utilizing particular drum rhythms, particular movements, particular chants, the pouring of offerings or libations, et cetera. That does really create that charged space, in which the practice or the rehearsal or the training takes place. And so what happens is that you are bringing everybody into the same energy level. You're bringing people into, yes, that charged space. And once you are participating, you are going to feel that difference, you're going to feel that tingling sensation, or you're going to be deeply connected to your body, or to other bodies in a way that feels tangible, although it's not quite tangible. Learning to negotiate space with other bodies usually takes place, at least in my observation, when we're talking about dance and dance movements. Especially if the dances are done in couples or in groups, you are negotiating how close I get to this body, and how far do I come. You are also negotiating sometimes with words, the chants. A lot of the sand the songs that I use within those spaces are what we "call and response" And a lot of ways in which our lyrics and the songs are created is using a form that we call "extempo." It's extemporaneous. And so in the moment, you're using your words to negotiate how you relate to or you respond to something someone says to you. And so learning that negotiation of bodies and other bodies takes place during that group prep. One of the things I did not mention, in terms of negotiating space with other bodies, is the challenge we do have of consent on the road. And when you have so many people, in so many states of dress or undress, dancing and gyrating, and you'll see people, you know, people come together, gyrate on each other, rub on each other, dance together, and then and then move on. Because that space also allows you to do that. You can have multiple dance partners, some of whom you never know, will never meet again, on the streets. And that's something that's part of what you're allowed to do, you know, meet lots of people for lots of nice sexy dancing, and then you have a nice sexy dance and you move on. And one of the challenges we've had with that, of course, are men having a sense of entitlement to women's bodies -- because well, you're on the street, you're gyrating, you're half-naked, you're calling for it, you're asking for it! So there is that, that we have had national conversations about. And therefore we talk about, you know, making that eye contact, that body language, and still making the space consensual, even though it is a very erotically free and open space. So trying to keep that sense, maintaining boundaries, and having consent in the space. That has been an argument, a discussion. And I think one of the reasons why that is an issue is because there is a little level of dissociation, or disconnect, between how masqueraders are prepared for Carnival. In those Carnival spaces, in the Carnival communities, you're learning about that negotiation, about that consent, about those boundaries, and those body boundaries, when you are learning the dances. And all of that is part of the preparation for going out in the streets. But you know, there's a huge disconnect with that. I mean, people can come from anywhere, not part of any particular community, from foreign countries. You come in, you're by yourself, and you go on the road and you participate. So, figuring out how we negotiate such a huge crowd of massive erotic energy, and still have consent happening between persons on the street. That is something that we've been talking about.
Karen Yates: You'll hear more from my interview with Onika Henry in a few moments. On our last episode, I announced a Valentine's gift for all new and current members of The Afterglow on Patreon. Members will be able to select one ebook from the SinCyr erotic catalog for free download during the month of February. The books will tingle everybody's fancy -- and I love a tingling fancy. Just sign up for our monthly membership program at any level, starting at $5 a month, on or before February 28, to get this amazing offer. The link to The Afterglow on Patreon is in our show notes.
[drum beat under] Wild & Sublime is also sponsored in part by our Sublime Supporter, Chicago-based Full Color Life Therapy, therapy for all of you, at fullcolorlifetherapy.com. If you would like to be a Sublime Supporter, showcasing you and your business and supporting us at the same time, contact us at . [music out]
Now let's return to my interview with Onika Henry. In part two, we discussed the mask community and the process of Carnival.
Onika Henry: We have said over the years "Carnival is Woman."
Karen Yates: Did you say “Carnival is woman”?
Onika Henry: Yes, Carnival is woman. And that theme became real in the late '80s, early '90s, when all of a sudden, the massive number of women came out into the streets to play Carnival. Before that, Carnival was King. And so, there is a clear shift, in terms of gender, or the gendering of Carnival. When it started, where you have many men, mostly men, even the Dame Lorraine characters in a play, or the actors, were male. And so even in the streets, a lot of the participants, the creators of the music, or the costumes, were men. And that just drastically changed, coming through the decades. And we say, Carnival is woman and woman is boss. [laughs] So there is that, that change. I mean, when you look at the pictures, it is just stark. Huge difference. And so of course, in the media, there has been this talk about, you know, how women are behaving themselves, and conducting themselves, and there's all this lewdness. And you've got all kinds of high society people down there, no clothes, you know, the bank workers. And of course, that is where the deep colonization has begun, you know, where you are simply embracing the erotic as another part of life. Where all kinds of bodies, not just athletic, slim, you know, high-colored bodies that you may use for the marketing of Carnival -- you know, all bodies are welcome. And women took that, everybody took that to heart. So, you know, we don't care what you think. We're going out there, and there's this massive explosion of women on the streets. So that's an interesting thing.
Karen Yates: I mean, that just adds a completely new layer, because I think I was under the impression, "Oh, women have been participating in this from the beginning!" But of course, that doesn't make any sense, when you think historically of cultural norms, that does not make any sense. But what's so interesting, it's like, Carnival is still an act of rebellion.
Onika Henry: Oh, yeah.
Karen Yates: And it probably will continue. There'll be new inroads that will be made, where we see limitations, right? And Carnival will address that, right?
Onika Henry: Yes, yes. Because Carnival has a space through the capacity, through the forms that contain it, and negotiate how that happens. And so, women have always been involved, but not in such a large percentage. You know, so we do have female icons who have been part of Carnival trends, who did play Mas, but of course, they were also labeled a particular kind of women, played Mas. And of course, that was--
Karen Yates: Yeah, what do you mean by that? You mean more like what they used to say, "loose women"?
Onika Henry: Yes, yes. The terms were derogatory. You know, there was a clear distinction between a decent woman -- you know, decent women, mothers, wives, et cetera -- they could not also be Carnival masqueraders.
Karen Yates: Right. Yeah.
Onika Henry: The upstanding church women, you know, no. And women just kind of completely broke out of that mold. And so mothers and wives can also be in the skimpy costumes, or they leave their husbands home to look after the children and have their time. And so there was definitely a complete shift. You know, sometimes, literally there are stories of women on the road, and, you know, their husbands are sidelined, looking after the children. [laughs]
Karen Yates: That's a nice reversal, eh?
Onika Henry: Yes, a lot of power reversal, role reversal, happens in Carnival. And we do still -- once again, what we've inherited from our colonial times is a non-acceptance fully of sexual minorities. So that LGBTQ community. And so they can perhaps have -- I mean, anybody can have their own Carnival space, and have their own mask on, et cetera. But the way in which you see that heterosexual interaction on the streets, I don't see that happening a lot with persons from sexual minority communities. And so I think there's still that tentativeness about seeing, perhaps, a same-sex couple -- except if it's women, because you know, that seems to be the standard. It's okay.
Karen Yates: It's a worldwide standard.
Onika Henry: Yes, you know? But two men, perhaps. That's still [unclear]. That's an issue. It's not going to cause any major disruption, I don't think, but people may talk about it. You know, people may say things about it, people may be unkind. So that, still, is something that needs to be part of our conversation around how do we completely decolonize Carnival, or decolonize our sexuality, so it shows up in our Carnival space, which has room for it. And it makes sense, because the word for gender doesn't exist in a lot of our ancestral language. There is no word for gender.
Karen Yates: Oh, wow.
Onika Henry: You can't translate it, it doesn't exist. And so there was never a binary that existed in a lot of our ancestral thoughts, and beliefs, and religions, and attitudes, that just wasn't there. You know, and it's one of the reasons why some of our Carnival characters are also sexless or genderless -- so that anybody can play it. One of the peoples who came here from African ancestry -- the Yoruba, for example, and the Hausa, if I'm pronouncing that correctly, H-A-U-S-A, they didn't have words. I know they had no words for gender in their culture. But I know among the Yoruba beliefs and their traditions, also of which a lot of our Carnival traditions come, anybody can have any mix of energies. And so, masculine energies didn't only belong in male bodies. Same thing for female energy. So those energies weren't labeled as belonging to a particular body type. And so like, for example, our Moko Jumbie, the ones that walk on stilts, anybody can be a Moko Jumbie. Anybody can play a Sailor, because bodies are just containers for all kinds of energies. And so you know, going back to those roots, the roots of our traditions, which is what I try to do, the aim is to help people understand that there, we didn't have this this demonizing or pathologizing of things that were non-heterosexual, or of dark skinned bodies, or voluptuous, really big bodies, or disabled bodies, or transgender bodies. You know, we didn't have that, coming out of the traditions that gave birth to our Mas. And so if we get back to our roots, where there's a definite intention behind this yearly ritual, communal joy practice, if we get back to our roots, then we get to reclaim the original intention, then we can really begin to work on some of our social and class and political issues that have been inherited, or has been enforced on us through our colonial experience.
Karen Yates: Yeah, it's a beautiful, sustaining fountain. My question is, you know, in the awarenesses that happen when we mask -- and of course, the idea of mask is very powerful -- I think of it as a theatre artist, and I would love for you to weigh in on it. But also, this is a very real yearly phenomenon that happens, where people take on the mask. Talk about the power of that, and the term that you have used several times in your other lectures, about masking to unmask.
Onika Henry: Perhaps I should create some context. So the Carnival world is one that's centered in imagination and intuition, rather than logical reason. It privileges things of a spiritual nature, things of the Spirit, over material things. And so in that space, where you are allowed to be and do you, in this most authentic form, when you think, well okay, people will just simply gravitate to being able to do that. We also recognize, or come to terms with the fact, that we have not always been free to be sexual, to be authentic. And there are still people, there are still groups of people, who -- even just regular individuals -- who still don't feel comfortable being themselves in a public space. And so, that masking provides protection, behind which you can unmask. And so you're allowed to, or you can be yourself, without fear of reprisal, without fear of somebody judging you. Nobody knows who's behind the mask. Yeah, nobody knows who is moving -- who is this person moving their body in such erotic, and sensual and sexual ways? Nobody knows who is whining and gyrating -- those are the terms we use for the movements, the waist movements -- in such a scandalous way, in such a scandalous costume? You know, which may be next to nothing, in terms of costume. And so that masking is, in my mind, sort of a gateway, a gateway into being yourself, a gateway -- and for some people, who are very spiritual about the mask, and the mask is not just to hide behind which they unmask, but the mask becomes a gateway into trance, or gateway into that other world. The power is being able to, as some people describe it to me, being able to travel to these imaginary, intuitive, spiritual realms, receive wisdom through experiential catharsis. You know, whatever it is your intention was in the beginning for having the mask, of being part of the ceremony and the prep that prepared you to put this mask on, whatever it is, and then you come back and you ground yourself, having received new knowledge, or new gifts, or new wisdom, finally, being able to truly come back to who you always were, who you were meant to be, you know, being your authentic self. And of course, that masking is something that we inherited from our African ancestors, the power of that mask, as a gateway to these other worlds. But also for people who may not so much be into the spiritual aspect of things, just a way of giving you that protection, so you can be yourself behind that mask. So for me, that was the "unmask through masking." Being yourself while you have this cover, this protection. And perhaps it's so intense, it's so beautiful, it's so powerful, being yourself for those two days, or for that whole season, that you are able to exist as yourself without the mask when you come back to the quote-unquote "real world," after Carnival.
Karen Yates: Yeah. And also, what I thought was so interesting is, there's, you know, the characters of the Mud Mas, who are just simply covering themselves in mud. So they're still relatively -- you can still perhaps see who they are. But there's still this covering that allows a type of, maybe psychic protection, or emotional protection, right?
Onika Henry: Yes.
Karen Yates: And you just talked about, you know, this transformation that happens, and the reclaiming of power, perhaps to, especially with colonial forces, what was not allowed, and what still resides in the body. You know, all of these years later, it's still in play, right? It's still in the body. Trauma still is in the body.
Onika Henry: And we've unconsciously passed it down. As elders to children, you know, we pass it on through what we say, through the concepts, attitudes, or beliefs we still have. Through the behaviors, and our children think, "Well, this is right, and this is normal." So yeah, we pass down that trauma.
Karen Yates: And so, in playing out a freedom -- you know, true power, true erotic power -- and again, I mean, big-E erotic, freedom of life force. And you know, you as a theatre artist, I know, too, when you go on stage and you play a character, that is, again, you're going to a semi-trance state, when you play a character. Coming back into everyday life, after experiencing this, maybe "beingness" that you had during Carnival, how do you integrate? Because I know there can be a crash, right? There can be a crash when you play something so empowering.
Onika Henry: [laughs] Oh my gosh!
Karen Yates: Do they have support groups? [both laugh]
Onika Henry: So...
Karen Yates: Is there a post-Carnival thing that happens?
Onika Henry: Actually, you are literally expressing what so many local people feel like, especially if they've come from foreign countries, and they came back home for Carnival, and they have to leave, that sense of crashing -- the cry. A lot of people cry when they leave here after Carnival. I mean, literally, in tears. So interestingly, because Carnival comes -- there's Carnival Monday, Carnival Tuesday, and they have Ash Wednesday -- the churches are also really full. The Roman Catholic Churches are really, really, really full of people who practice that period of fasting for Lent. So for some people, this yearly ritual just kind of flows really nicely into that tradition, of going through that period of building up, building up, building up, and then right, we're going into a period of fasting, and you know, being in a different kind of headspace. And there are also what we call Carnival cooldown parties or events. And so yes, there is a gradual -- you know, I mean, the feteing, the partying ends on Carnival Tuesday, but there are a number of events that happen, that people have a chance to kind of slowly participate in a less intense way, and kind of come off of that high, and get back into regular life. So there definitely is a cooling-off period that needs to happen, to prepare people for going back, or coming back to Earth, I guess.
Karen Yates: Yeah, yeah. I guess my next question is, how do people integrate from these... And this happens in many different aspects. It happens when you do a very intense workshop. It happens if you go to, say, a weeklong sexual excursion. How does integration happen?
Onika Henry: I would suggest coming out of what the carnival space is meant to do -- you know, what's the intention that our ancestors had for Carnival or Mas? So it's a space created for resistance, resilience, and rebellion. It's also a space for playful deviance, and contestations. It's also a space for communal joy practice and celebration. It's also a space for catharsis, it's a space for erotic energy What we do with all of those themes, or topics, or intentions, is that for Carnival, we give it form in terms of music, and movement, and costumes, and character. And so, if I were to try to suggest or find a way to bring that into our everyday life, I would suggest finding, the kind of things that we teach about in somatic sex ed: finding your pleasure on a daily basis, finding simple joy practices that are freeing to you. And then I will also add to that, to make it closer to what happens in Carnival, is that you don't do that alone, that you have at least one other person who, if they're not participating with you, they're at least witnessing. And so you are able to, you know, to perform you, to be authentic you to someone who's accepting of you, and loving of you, and cheering you on in that way. So finding our pleasure practices or joy practices that we can give form to, preferably with another person, or in a group or community setting, as often as you can -- kind of like Carnival self-care. If you want to think of doing Carnivalesque things, that is about caring for yourself, and following your pleasure, and following your joy, but also doing that in ways that speak to themes that are important to you -- being resilient, or rebelling against some you know, social institution, or you know, some social movement, and resisting something, being playfully deviant -- all of those themes that are in the Carnival space. Finding what those themes are in your individual life, and how you can lay those out, how you can address them in simple ways that bring you a sense of freedom, or a sense of joy, or a sense of satisfaction. That's also witnessed by one other, or a group or community.
Karen Yates: You're also making me want to ask you about the other -- really, one of the largest components of Carnival is the community. It's community, it is a community. And, you know, I've heard you talk about so beautifully -- this is a space where all bodies are welcome. Everyone is welcome: young, old, if you have a disability, if you're skinny, if you're fat, it doesn't really matter. You're welcome. Mothers are allowed -- you know, not "allowed," but supported, if their nursing. Children are supported, they have their own Carnival parades that are separate, that are not, you know, "erotic." [both laugh] So it's all this -- it's caring for, at this really deep level.
Onika Henry: Yes.
Karen Yates: Which is intrinsic, as I see it, to the nature of why this transformation can happen. Because it's a 48-hour experience. It's a powerful group experience, anything can happen. But it's within a container that creates a tension that allows for transformation. I guess my ultimate question is, can transformation happen, of what you speak -- of what you're talking about, the playing out of characters, and all this. Can it happen outside of a massive group event?
Onika Henry: In preparing to create community, or create a group for participating in Carnival, that takes place months before, and so people have a chance to kind of, you know, figure out what the dynamics in the group are, what my role is, how are we interacting, how are boys interacting in a space. So for those who are into music, the orchestras exist in communities -- as in, it's a group, the musicians themselves are a community, but they also are taken care of and exist within communities. Right? And so the community kind of takes care of them, the community comes to listen to the rehearsals, and you know, to give feedback, and to kind of join in to just being a part of the rehearsals and of course, as food is being shared, et cetera, et cetera. But you would find that, for persons who have fallen through the social cracks, that those steelpans, those music communities, were places where they learned to belong, where they learned to find identity, where the elders have helped them manage their issues, talk through issues of life. And so it became their family. And so for a lot of young people, the time spent in the music communities of the steelpan became sometimes the only meaningful time that they had in their life, the only times where they felt part of a family, part of a group where they felt a support, where they felt taken care of and looked after, where people will be looking out for them. And so that's one way, one space that can give that sense of community, where transformation takes place. So you may have a few people together who are writing the songs. So that may be, maybe three or four people in a space, working on whatever issues we're going to address in our music this year. A lot of times, those songs address social, cultural, and political issues.
And of course, you have the communities that are not directly a part of Carnival, but they provide support for Carnival. I mean, we literally have a Carnival industry. And there are those who don't participate directly, but they will provide the child-caring, child-rearing spaces. And there are those who would provide materials for making the costumes, even though they may not be in the Mas camps. And we call them the Mas camps, are the spaces where -- that's kind of your costume production space. And that's another community. You're there with the designers, and you're talking about the costumes and the themes, and what color would bring us our best. You have the wire benders, people who are shaping and creating the costumes. All of those are communities that are happening to the lead up of Carnival.
Karen Yates: What I just love about your describing all of this is that it's process. It's all process. And you know, it's so easy, I think, when you look at something as grand as Carnival, to be like, "Ah, I'm going to jump in, and I'm going to have this experience!" Or, "They just showed up one day, and Carnival happened." And it's like, yeah, as we said at the beginning, this is a six-month process. And these spaces that become these highly charged, highly powerful spaces that can change people -- they don't just happen. I mean, since we are both theatre artists, you know, it takes months and months and months to create something that people think just sort of happened. And decisions are made, and things are negotiated through. And all the while, communities are being created through these small actions of process and building. And so then, that is what it takes to create this enormous vessel that is called the Carnival. I mean, yes, during the rebellion, I'm sure it was just, like, mayhem, when rebellion happened. And you know, that's a different action.
Onika Henry: And even then, rebellions weren't usually spontaneous. You know, there's something brewing, there's something that's being planned. And so even for times that I can recall that I read about rebellion, when I was doing research, masks were present. So you know, people had stuff just waiting. Or things that they knew they could grab.
Karen Yates: Right. And I mean, we just had a rebellion just recently here in America. You might have heard about it.
Onika Henry: There we go!
Karen Yates: You know, it was building, building, building, right? Underneath. Many people ,many people did not know. And so, yes, and then when it happened, people were prepared for it, that were taking part in it.
Onika Henry: Yeah.
Karen Yates: In terms of COVID, I've heard you speak about how crushed everyone is.
Onika Henry: Yes! We are not okay!
Karen Yates: You know, and I heard you say in one conversation that people were talking about doing backyard celebrations. Now that we're even getting closer -- I mean, now we're just two weeks away, less than two weeks away -- what's going to happen?
Onika Henry: Right. People have a lot more online concerts. And so, [unclear] who would normally get together in a space and we enjoy the music, they are bringing the music to us in our homes, via Zoom and platforms. People are playing the music, they are bringing their concerts and events online. People are gathering, like in small groups in their homes, you know, with friends. They just kind of get together and jam to the music, and you know, party in your own space. That's been happening. The Children's Carnival is still going to be happening, of course online. And we're having online symposiums about Carnival. So it's a time for us to kind of look back, and do a lot of academic focus on Carnival. Reclaiming -- because that's a conversation -- reclaiming the Carnival for the masses again. Because there is also still that class divide, you know, that the high fashion kind of Carnival has become a big thing, that commercialized aspect of it. And so once again, you see the color, and the class, and the ethnicity divide between those who are, you know, white or white-presenting as the participants who can afford the costumes, as opposed to the workers, you know, on the ground. So there are discussions about that, and how do we get Carnival back to the traditions where they actually serve the people again?
Karen Yates: Yeah, so now looking at it under the lens of capitalism -- it's good. Good stuff.
Onika Henry: Yes! [laughs]
Karen Yates: Talk about the role of the observer, and the difference between being in it and participating, in taking a character and playing that, versus observing. What's the difference, and what happens there?
Onika Henry: I'm going to respond to that, talking about myself as an observer, and other persons sharing with me, you know, how they feel as observers of Carnival. Especially foreigners, coming in and observing this for the first time. For some people, there is some voyeurism, and they're just simply feeling pleasure, perhaps even arousal, from looking at people in their erotic states, and simply people are enjoying themselves. I also suspect there is, playing out what I just learned, called "mirror neurons." And so these mirror neurons that I just learned about, that just kind of makes perfect sense to me, in terms of why Carnival can also be healing, even if you are just simply observing, you know, that kind of being able to feel and relate to what other people are going through or experiencing. And so these mirror neurons in our brains, they appear to simulate not just other people's actions, but we are able to, in our bodies, kind of get a sense of that person, the other person's intentions or their emotions as they're going through a particular action. A perfect example would be, we know what it's like to perhaps stub our foot really hard on a stone, you know, on a rock. So if we see somebody else stub their toe, our bodies are feeling like, "I know what that feels like!" And so it's not you, but you're looking at this person, and your brain, your mirror neurons, are mirroring what you think is happening in that person's. And so that ability, to kind of instinctively or immediately sometimes understand what's happening on that road, in that space, when people are enjoying themselves, or simply know the joy, this child is feeling jumping up in their costume, on Carnival day. Looking at the expressions on women's faces -- a lot of times, sometimes the eyes are closed, and they're just in what seems like a trance, and they're moving to the music and you're looking on, you're like, "I know what it feels like." And so you're in the audience, or maybe just looking on on TV, and you're just feeling it too, and you feel the sensations in your body. And you know, it may motivate you to do something pleasurable for yourself, you know, on that day, or, to go find how can you experience this in your own world. And so I think that's part of what it is, those mirror neurons that we have within us, that allows us to connect that way, to empathize as an observer looking on at a crowd of people, or a small group of people, or that single masquerader all by himself, covered in mud. This is my story, because this is what I saw one morning, early on J'ouvert. And you're just like, "Oh! I know what he's feeling." And for that moment, it was just me and him. Because I was working as a cultural officer at that time, I was taking pictures, I was doing the photography thing. And, you know, I came up really close to him and took that picture. But for that moment, it was just me and him, in this... I don't know what. I don't even have the words to describe that sense of just completely free, no care in the world, and just in pleasure.
Karen Yates: Yeah, it's freedom, right? It's freedom. And I think about, as you're telling these various stories of seeing, maybe, someone on TV, but also being in the space where one is the observer. With this heightened sense, you know, people playing characters, and this theatricality, everything becomes finely etched out, becomes iconic. It becomes almost like seeing deities, and being able to take it in, these images are presented to ourselves and we can take them and put them inside us. They live on. Because there's so-- I mean, when you think about life, and seeing things, some images we see that are quite powerful and beautiful, or ugly, we pull them into us, and they live there. And they can be sources of power. Or can be touchstones. Yeah?
Onika Henry: Yes.
Karen Yates: Onika, thank you so much. Beautiful. I really enjoyed talking with you about this.
Onika Henry: You're welcome so much, Karen. I enjoyed talking about it.
Karen Yates: You can find the link to Onika Henry's website, as well as her TEDx talk on Carnival, in the show notes. Onika will be presenting in the next few weeks at the symposium on Carnival, and we will have that link too, posted on social media.
That's it for today's episode. I'll be back next week with more sexy goodness. Thank you for listening. If you know someone who might be interested in this episode, send it to them. Do you like what you heard? Then give us a nice review on your podcast app. You can follow us on social media @wildandsublime, and sign up for newsletters at wildandsublime.com. I'd like to thank associate producer Julia Williams and design guru Jean-Francois Gervais. Theme Music by David Ben-Porat. This episode was edited by The Creative Impostor Studios. Our media sponsor is Rebellious Magazine, feminist media at rebelliousmagazine.com.
- INTERVIEW: Onika Henry, Part 1 (3:14)
- INTERVIEW: Onika Henry, Part 2 (24:24)
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