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Cupid and canboulay

Thursday, February 4, 2016
John Gladstone Cupid’s lifelong work has been to create opportunities to revive our native-nation cultures. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

“Bow your head and bend your knees to a king of Caribbean culture …when he was born all the varied elements of the culture smiled, knowing he would save them from the threat of oblivion and European cultural dominance bringing them out of the shadows into the spotlight: Amerindian, African, French influence, Bongo, Bele, Kaiso, Lavay.”


Our rich and diverse cultural heritage that crosses over the civilisations of Africa, India, China and Europe and has come together in the Caribbean of our Amerindian ancestors “have always been inside of us, they never left us,” John Cupid told me, remaining strong in that faith.

The cultural retentions of the ancestors remain, notwithstanding the Middle Passage, crossing the Kala Pani or experiencing the domination creed of European colonialism which entrapped both the coloniser and the colonised.

John Gladstone Cupid’s lifelong work has been to create opportunities to allow our native-nation cultures to be resuscitated in our consciousness and for them to be demonstrated to the world. When we participate in and appreciate anew Carnival Friday’s re-enactment of the Canboulay celebration of freedom from being deprived of the native forms of expressions, when we see Wild Indian mas, Molasses Devil, Fancy Sailor, Dragon and Bat mas (and we must remember, too, Edgar Wiley) Burrokeet, and listen anew to the blood-curdling tall tales of the Midnight Robber as he scatters the innocent, we must be grateful for the work of John Cupid.

It was John who revived the traditional mas characters for the generation of today. To do so, John Cupid scoured the country areas to find a man playing Jab Jab and a woman who knew of the Dame Lorraine character, the Bookman and the Moko Jumbies who have once again become integral to the Carnival.

Thankfully, this year the National Carnival Commission has taken it upon itself to recognise John and his lifelong work while he is still with us and can appreciate that we care.

Wistfully, John, from his home in San Juan, remembers his time in East Dry River: “I don’t take too much credit for Canboulay; people I met were on the way there (to reenacting the Canboulay). They were recognising what they always had. Those who forgot, I brought themb back without any real effort, because it (cultural memory) never went anywhere.

“Each time I moved out in the country I felt the need for more of us to recognise the serious things we did in the history books. The priests we met, the Shouter Baptists, the whole community.” 

John describes East Port-of-Spain, where he had his being on Nelson Street, as “a whole production area where people came and left but the culture they experienced there never left them. Later in life people would say: ‘John, oh God boy you still with that?’ “ 

“How you mean I still with that? It ent leaving me, so I can’t not be with that,” would be his more than indignant retort to those who would seek to rob those parts of the society of their cultural heritage.

I met people like Mr De Suze, French: “What French people doing in East Dry River?” John chuckles at the ignorance of the thought that there were no French people in East Dry River.

“Bon jour madam…We said it without thinking it, but we understood what each other was thinking, and that was the important part,” says John.

“I think that is what helped me. I did not have to go and invent anything— Toute monde (moon), we had everything there, we had Chinee, Japanese…toute moon. Most of us came from different parts and we settled there.” John has told me on separate occasions in the past that “the history of the country is wrapped up in patois.”

“Everywhere I went in the country I met somebody from East Dry River; that was a nursery for people who went everywhere, and they were comfortable in themselves (in their skins of who they really are) because they never left it. So I did not have to hold any mirror up to them,” says Cupid, now in his 87th year.

John inserted the re-enactment of the Canboulay into the Port-of-Spain Carnival more than ten years ago, but this was after he gave it a trial run in Point Fortin back in the 1980s.

During several interviews I conducted with him over the years of the Canboulay in the city, John always dwelled on the importance that the emancipated Africans in the East Dry River placed on having their celebrations (1880s) in the manner they chose to. And this was notwithstanding what Captain Baker (the British police captain) mounted on his steed attempted to suppress. They protected their goatskin drums and other elements of the ancestral culture to lampoon Massa and lament being awoken in the foreday morning to out the fires on the sugar cane estates.

But if John Cupid had done nothing else but revive the Canboulay and insert traditional mas into the modern street parade, that would have been sufficient to have made his contribution to the restoration of our cultural heritages.

However, he in his early years in cultural clubs, especially the Barajuan Literary and Cultural Club (Barataria/San Juan), John was limbo dancer, actor, short story writer, he took T&T cultural contingents to the 1967 Montreal Expo, to Europe, to several parts of Africa including Nigeria’s Festac, to all over the Caribbean and to dozens of once forgotten communities (behind God back is how they were once described) in rural T&T.

“John was an organiser of extreme competence and he was always on the lookout for causes,” retired insurance executive Peter Salvary said of John.

In between all of his ventures to revive and showcase the culture, John read for a degree in economics at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. There he organised carnival street parades which were the forerunners to Trini-inspired carnivals abroad.

But John did not utilise that degree to work in abstract figuring, rather, he worked with large corporations such as Trintoc/Petrotrin and Clico, from where he put the financial and human capital of these organisations to work on dozens of community projects involving the culture.

Back in 1969, John researched and developed the Historical Villages in T&T project based on the art and craft and the way of life peculiar to those villages— San Raphael and the basketry of the indigenous peoples, Lopinot for its history and Parang music, and Paramin for its culture and songs. Not surprisingly,

John researched and produced the first Parang LP record with the Lopinot Sisters Road Groups. Almost 40 years ago when I first met Mr Cupid as a young reporter, he introduced me to Papa Goon, he has not stopped talking about that Cocoa Panyol parang originator from Lopinot. “Culture is not only the fruit but the root of development that must be considered in every phase and aspect of the developmental process,” John told a reporter on a trip to Grenada where he (John) had discovered roots of the Trini mas amongst the people there.

His awards vary, from those for his contribution “to the survival and evolution of T&T Parang;” to community development in places such as Talparo, Point Fortin and Tobago.

John remembers his father who came from a village in Tobago and who was “one of the main men” at the Angostura factory on Nelson/George Streets and his mother who was from East Dry River. When I called him and made the appointment for the interview on a Thursday, he reminded me that “rum shop and Chinese shop close half-day on Thursday.” That particular cultural tradition remains with him on his banister in Barataria/San Juan.


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