As we all prepare for another year of partying, Nahdjla Bailey reminisces with Pearle St Helene, one of the movers and shakers of the original St Lucia carnival, who remembers an altogether different kind of celebration…
At this time of year, when the authentic season of Carnival is about to make its grand entrance in those countries which have stuck to tradition and still observe the flamboyant and exciting event in its original pre-Lenten Mardi Gras time period, I was lucky enough to have yet another of my nostalgic conversations with Pearl St Helene on the subject of our St Lucia Carnival of long ago. Pearl, along with her sister Ione Erlinger-Ford and cultural icon Euralis Bouty, was one of the movers and shakers of the very first Carnival celebration put on as an organised public affair.
During this, one of our always revealing chats, I prompted her to indulge me once again with the story of the origin of the St Lucia Carnival as we know it today. Understandably, she was not at all chuffed about the terminal clause ‘as we know it today’. In her mind (and the minds of so many others of that vintage, and even much later) the mainly ‘lewd, alien, unoriginal, uninspired and uninspiring’ event which passes for Carnival these days just cannot be compared, however tenuously, with the elegant and tasteful spectacle of ‘the good old days’. Needless to say, I comprehended, and empathised fully!
Having got that point off her chest, Pearl’s reminiscing began something like this…
“It was 1949, the year after the dreaded ’48 fire which had ravaged the town of Castries, and folks were still somewhat down in the dumps from its enervating effects. Ione and I had returned from our World War II tour of duty, having served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and been stationed in Grenada for a year. St Lucia’s Administrator at the time was Sir John Stow, and it was he who first floated the idea to Ione and me, of having a grand public event such as a Carnival to lift the spirits of the people. In earlier times, Carnival had taken the form of private parties, mainly for kids, and was put on by Ma Clauzel and Ma Bledman, but those had fizzled out, so there really was nothing resembling a real Carnival at the time.”
Continuing, Pearl told me that the idea immediately caught their fancy, and having become acquainted with Street Carnival ‘Trinidad style’ while serving in Grenada, the sisters had a pretty good idea what would be involved. They wasted no time in approaching Miss Bouty, or ‘Boots’, as she was known to her friends and acquaintances, to share the exciting idea. Boots, a culture buff and go-getter who ran the ever-popular Physical Culture (PC) Club at the time, immediately responded in the affirmative. A committee was formed, comprising Miss Bouty, Doreen Sutherland (née Osborne), Alix Walcott (Derek and Roderick’s mother), Lister Simmons (Harold Simmons’ wife) and the St Helene sisters, Pearl and Ione. And so it was that in 1950, the first Carnival Queen Show, pageant and street parade came on stream, and the people loved it. For them, it was pure enchantment to view this magical spectacle as it manifested itself through the streets of the town.
The first queen was the lovely Norma Beaubrun, with Carnival King (oh yes!) Ornan Monplaisir, at her side. José Sanchez led the Parade swinging a shiny mace, and there were prettily decorated floats rolling along. Not to be forgotten was the much anticipated Kann Bwilé band from Morne Dudon led by Nono Wilkie, which remained a standard feature of Carnival for many years. So, contrary to erroneous opinion in some quarters today, Pearl asserts that Carnival of that era was not a solely bourgeois affair, as all strata of society participated together cheerfully and peacefully.
A few years later it was decided to introduce Jour Ouvert, and that was led by Reginald Cherubin who proceeded to the market steps to declare Carnival open. The second Queen was Yolande Clauzel, followed in later years by a line of beauties such as Yolande Plummer (now Augier), Stella Newton (now Walcott), Joycelyn Samuel (now Williams), Gene Auguste (now French), Patricia Levexier (now Chreiki), and Yvonne Clauzel (now Davies). Much later, she recalls, there were the St Omer sisters, Allison Alleyne (Didier) Sheila Simei (now Jude-Breitenstein), and others). As for the role of Carnival King – well, that lasted only a couple of years, the second king in 1951 being Lennard Augier (father of Carnival stalwart Adrian Augier). However, the Festival itself grew and grew, for several years retaining its grand, elegant, tasteful character.
The next milestone was the entry of our late ‘Queen of Folk Culture’ into the Carnival arena. Pearl recounts that, sometime earlier, Harold Simmons had taken Ione and her to Patience to meet his new find, Sesenne Descartes. As soon as Pearl heard the songstress deliver her pieces, she knew that she must be offered a gig at the famous Blue Waters on Vigie Beach – a hotel owned by her family, the St Helenes, and indeed the first locally owned beach hotel. Thus began Sesenne’s weekend appearances at Blue Waters and her exposure to the Castries patrons, who were wild about her. It was then time to introduce Sesenne to the Carnival Committee, who brought her in without delay as entertainment at the much-sought-after Palm Beach Club Carnival shows. Again, patrons there were crazy about her as more and more of the Castries crowd got to hear her.
Regarding the thorny matter of finance, which seems to be so problematic when it comes to Carnival, Pearl recalls that, back in the day, subventions from Government were unheard of; the PC Club raised funds all year by putting on shows at the movie theatres to bring in the money needed to manage the yearly event. Its members did not hesitate to roll up their sleeves and do all the work, including cooking, that needed to be done. The other initiative which was to follow also turned out to be a popular one: the Calypso Contest. This event was greatly looked forward to, and progressed with each passing year.
Recounting all these wonderful memories does, for many, beg the question – where has Carnival disappeared to, and where indeed has St Lucia, as they knew it, gone too? Pearl, Ione and many others decry the perennial indecency and crudeness which they feel is now part and parcel of St Lucia Carnival. I can fully appreciate the pain that those initiators of St Lucian Carnival must feel each time they view certain aspects of the modern-day version. We certainly stand behind those few current organisers who are beginning to turn their efforts towards rescuing this national event. Pearl says she hopes that sometime, somehow, there will be a turnaround in the quality and standard of a festivity which she justifiably holds dear to her heart. And I declare a loud ‘Amen’.
What do you think?
Has Carnival lost its way, or does this fundamental part of our culture need to move with the times? We’d love you to tell us how you feel via Twitter and Facebook, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org