"Hellyard: Contested Space
and The Performance of Resistance
The Barrack Yards of Port of Spain"
Architectural spaces and cultural
objects have memories, they have social lives. Telling stories through
smells, textures, rhythms and contradictions, post-colonial spaces, as
heterotopias, bring together multiple narratives in one place. Experiencing
post-colonial space in this way maps the objects and bodies within a choreography
of resistance and recreation. Such a process can be understood as a kind
of fragmentation of the self, and of the community, in order to navigate
the local history while challenging it. This is part of the power of Trinidad
Carnival as a decolonizing force, and its contradictions as a marketable
cultural object. The city of Port of Spain becomes a field for the image
of Trinidad in the global sphere, and living spaces, sites for individuals
and communities to resist that image and fragment it.
Foucault writes, in "Of Other Spaces": "Our epoch is one
in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites
space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the
erosion of our lives, our time, and our history occurs, the space that
claws and gnaws at us, is also, in itself, a heterogeneous space."
(Mirzeoff, 1995: 239) He calls these heterogeneous spaces "heterotopias",
spaces with constant movement, where I see myself both there and not there,
where several incompatible sites are juxtaposed in one place, of which
I feel both a part and outside of. Using this theoretical frame in thinking
about post-colonial spaces in the Caribbean, we can begin to understand
how within the city, time is accumulated, expressing a kind of eternality
through the museum and library, and also temporal, momentary, slippery,
expressed through stillness, resistance, carnival and festival. Time is
thus fragmented: colonialism is both memorialized and defaced, in the
meeting of contradictory architecture and ways of being.
The friction between the vibration of historical tradition and an ever
changing consciousness fuels our movement in the everyday-here desire
and contact mark our bodies and spaces, like scars. These marks generate
competing local narratives of space and place. We speak with these re-tellings,
both dominant and resistant, and form a choreography of moving objects
and oral histories that collide during our search for subjectivity. Architectural
and ephemeral structures of memory that resist domination (i.e. stories
that are heard, seen and sensed), act as presences that cause a rift or
disruption in the coherence of power. Like a quilt, the stories and objects
emerging out of contested spaces seek a re-mapping of one's identity.
Manifest alternative ways of knowing within the barrack yards of Trinidad
and Tobago provide an archaeology of resistance within objects and spaces.
Matter speaks, in the yards. The alternative epistemology of these heterotopic
spaces is a re-arranging of history, a way of claiming it-these sites
claim time spatially, they are both a destructive and a creative power
through their refusal to be coherent, and their refusal to forget. The
embodied narratives from the barrack yards perform a historical wave of
tides, historically influential on Carnival practices now active outside
the yards. This notion of an outside has great impact on the yards themselves
as homes, and as fertile grounds of resistance: what these spaces produce
(I.e. Steelpan and traditional masqueraades) are then displaced as objects,
and fragmented again in the global economy.
Indigenize the Soil:
Performance, production of resistance and the economy of the yards
The yards embody the intersection of market and personal identity within
everyday experience. People contest space in the yards, not just the city
space, but the imaginary spaces of what comprises, after a violent history,
a national identity in a global market. The barrack yards in Port of Spain
are historically working class communities, settled by displaced Africans
who escaped the plantation after emancipation in 1834. These spaces, which
were built by the colonial government at the time of emancipation in order
to "deal" with a booming population of free blacks and an influx
of immigrants from South America and other islands, are socially invisible
and reviled in urban discourses on sanitation, civility and production.
The people who live in these yards, in the 19th century and currently,
are often people with little or no income, relying on government help
and other community members for survival. Others are displaced rural farmers
who came to Port of Spain to make money with the intention of returning
back to their rural homes in Manzanilla, Mayaro or Guayaguayare with sufficient
wealth-but rarely have even enough income for the transport back. Many
take sporadic work, just enough to pay the small rent or cook a large
meal once a week. Even more choose not to work at all-surviving through
trade, stealing, or dependence on a lover.
This lifestyle, called everything from vagrancy to "unholiness"
by the 19th century elite, is not only survival, but also a resistance
against the violent labor inscribed upon the black body in Caribbean spaces.
Working rarely or not working is a refusal to be the black body that is
only capable of service or labor, a body that has no history or ability
to reinvent itself. The yard space provides, through a kind of collective
incoherent system, an anti-establishment sensibility that underscores
every aspect of city living in Port of Spain. This is why it is so threatening
to the growing city's identity, why Steelpan and Calypso, historically
based within the yard, have been dislocated from their origins as reactionary
critiques, and resituated as cultural capital in the global image of Carnival.
The barrack yards are considered "deviant" spaces because they
are homes where drumming, ritual, carnival mas', and steelpan flourished
during the colonial presence. They are poor, crowded and unsanitary, yet
they are a space removed from the daily economy, where the concept of
labor is very personal and communal, rather than national or corporate.
This is self contradictory, in that these city dwellers also must participate
in the economy in order to eat and have water, etc
but they do so
with resistance and inconsistency. Likewise, the carnival permutations
that come out of the yards, like Calypso and Pan, have become economically
viable cultural capital-but the residents do not see that capital.
The "yards", which are spaces built in the courtyards behind
storefronts and houses on the streets of Port of Spain, housed in their
prime, up to 30 people at any given time, although they were built for
nine or ten. The living quarters consist of several rooms arranged in
a barrack like system, around the perimeter of the yard. Several people,
even whole families, may share one room. The cooking fires, rocks used
for bleaching clothes and restroom facilities are in the center of the
yard - shared by all residents. As a meeting space, these shared facilities
allow for some shared responsibility, as well as tension and outright
conflict. Women often launder clothes in the yard for money-at any given
time the yards are filled with clotheslines and the smell of bleach. Cooking
food items to sell on the street is also another form of income, although
minimal, and we can imagine the competition this creates between residents
who share one are for hanging the wash and one small alley stoop to spread
out their wares. This crowded and highly unsanitary system (the bathroom
was, in the old days, often just a pit, that drained into the same groundwater
they drank from) remains crowded and technologically poor today-- although
many of the structures have been altered (i.e. electricity stolen from
The "primitive" nature of the construction, which has not been
really updated since the 19th century, is a prime target for city policies
looking to clean up the city's image. The yards in Port of Spain are considered
an obstacle to modernity, and are slowly being chiseled down to a few
rooms and some rubble as commercial buildings take over. Once, families
rented a room, up until the mid 20th century, for a few dollars a month-but
in the current era rent is rising and rising in an effort to move people
out of the yards. In the increasingly commercial American global economy,
landlords seek to sell these valuable city spaces to department stores
and parking lots for more profitable income. People are then moved to
government housing outside the city where it is hard to find work, or
they are rendered homeless. For some, this is a welcome move-but the structure
of living is altogether different, since tenement housing is a divided
system with little community interaction and a focus on the individual
family or person as an isolated entity.
The destruction of the yards, while a welcome relief for sanitation workers
and landlords, evokes a sentiment of erasure toward the memory of resistance
in black Trini culture: ironically the very center of what made Carnival
what it is today. This is a kind of contradiction-the state erases that
which conflates its power with those of the people. The cultural capital
produced in the yards cannot remain in the yards once it enters the mainstream,
in order to become emblematic of Trinidadian culture it must be sanitized
of its rebellious and volatile memory. Yet, the forms themselves refuse
to forget, because the people refuse to forget. So the state erases the
physical spaces which map the city's memories in time and place, making
Yard dwellers make a living by claiming illegal market space on the street,
are often arrested, have goods confiscated, or are fined. These postcolonial
policies show the state constructing economic borders around who can sell
what where-as it constructs itself for the global market. The state markets
the yards' "products" on a global scale while simultaneously
colonizing and even destroying the home space where they originated. Thus,
the yard, and its objects-calypso and steelpan, are also heterotopic,
In the 1880s, the colonial regime in Trinidad banned the use of the skin
drum, for fear of its power to incite revolt, as a form of control of
the Africans, and ultimately a method of culture deprivation. This did
not quiet the people, for in 1884 riots broke out in Port of Spain after
the authorities banned torches and drumming in Carnival. Thereafter, the
resistance continued as new forms of music and rhythm production were
incorporated into Shango ritual and local celebrations.
By the twentieth century, tamboo bamboo had replaced the drum as a form
of percussion. This process involved the beating of different lengths
of bamboo stems on the ground in an upright position, in order to create
a hollow 'grunting' sound. Bottle and spoon, shack-shacks and "Chantwells"
(singers) accompany the rhythms in a tamboo bamboo band. This too was
banned by the police, as rivalry between bands from different neighborhoods
escalated in gang warfare, leading to injury from sharpened bamboo 'spears'.
The musicians in the 'bands', who were essentially gangs, were not to
be suppressed. Tamboo bamboo continued on for several years in the hills
of the Laventille slums and in the barrack yards of Port of Spain until
the development of the biscuit pans, iron bands, and eventually steelpan
(made from the oil drums that came with the arrival of American oil companies
exploiting local resources.) Locals once called the band members "badjohns"--
as bands violently confronted each other on the streets throughout the
year, escalating during Carnival time. It was through this medium that
gangs of men and women, often referred to as jametes by the white elite,
competed for musical potency and claimed their space and place in the
city. Critics of the current system, where pan is highly commercialized
and hierarchical say that the government's recognition of the form has
'sanitized' the true nature of pan. Critically acclaimed Trinidadian author,
Earl Lovelace states:
"Steelband was the Emancipation-Jouvay movement's new force. It had
arrived at the beginning of a new epoch. The colonialist movement was
on its last legs. Self-government and independence were around the corner.
The steelband movement provided a new focus and challenge, not only because
of its music, but because of the violence that accompanied it." (Lovelace,
1999: 55 )
Sponsorship and institutional recognition changes the face of the steelpan
movement; the constant battles that were once between bands are gone,
the players have no personal stake in the process, the band is no longer
"ours" but "Amoco's". The dynamic has changed, as
bands are now judged on the stage of the Savannah, not by each other,
but by chosen officials. There are set criteria with which they critique
their performance, and a protocol of behavior during the process of setting
up and breaking down the band. Competition, which has always been an integral
part of Carnival- is quite different in its formations from 40 years ago,
when bands of steel, traditional mas' characters and 'jametes' ('undesirables'
from the yards, who followed steelbands) collided in the streets.
The steelpan is hailed as the only acoustic instrument invented in the
20th century, and Trinidad has more steelpan orchestras per square mile
than any other nation. This musical form, which has shifted from being
a form of resistance born in the ghetto, has been mobilized as one of
the icons of Trinidadian heritage, now appearing on the $20 bill. It is
ironic- companies like Amoco sponsor and influence the image of the very
bands that were once looked down upon as the vagabonds of society. Once
using their instruments as a form of rebellion against the colonial regime,
the police, and each other, pannists now play in a highly sponsored, yearly
competition (Panorama) that is part of Trinidad's nation-building process.
The yards are an ghostly presence of the problem of racialised poverty
and class warfare in Port of Spain. Barrack yards are a thorn in the side
of a Port of Spain that wants to narrate itself as modern, clean and economically
stable to its audience- American oil companies and global tourism. However,
tourists who come to Trinidad to find happy steelpan players and clever
calypsonians at Carnival only need walk the streets of old Port of Spain
to see that what the yard embodies, to see what the old colonial French
architecture bearing graffiti from the 1960's People's National Movement
screams-is on the bodies of jametes playing devil and robber mas'. Carnival
and pan contain and mobilize a memory that is too slippery, to contradictory
and embedded in the labor of being to be erased-although its spaces are
fragmented yearly as these practices spiral out into the global marketplace.
Ritual and performance in the yard space, which combines local and foreign
sensibilities, are methods of making the soil their own, making a "home"
out of homelessness. In the yards, time is experienced differently than
it is at the capital, bank or in the school, and residents' memories are
constructed on the urban -rural continuum (where their families are from).
Those in the yards have a connection to the rural towns, where ritual
and cooking practices are brought into Port of Spain-and urban trends
are brought into the villages. People's location here is constantly shifting,
they are rarely official tenants, and often move from the village to the
city several times for economic reasons. Although this instability may
seem like a source of frustration, it can also be seen as an empowering
strategy, since this mobility is a way of constantly renewing and shifting
the boundaries of identity. One is never fixed in the yards, but shifty-and
this is antithetical to the colonial and neo-colonial agenda.
In the yards we can see the home as a place of resistance; a condition
of possibility for memory/history/desire to materialize in movements,
textures and sounds. Bodies in these spaces are considered deviant, dangerous-but
also have a unique power. They have access. This access leads to a way
of knowing Carnival, the street, the market: that the state can never
colonize, an epistemology of resistance that violates every rule of European
Modernity. These bodies, even in their new tenement spaces, create an
incoherent space on top of the orderly colonial urban sensibility. While
gender and race issues are equally in conflict here as they are in the
dominant space, the yards will always have their own manifestations of
confrontation with power within the Steelband movement and calypso, and
beyond, sans humanite.
Seremetakis, in writing about the senses' relationship to memory, asks
if memory is stored in the specific everyday items that form the historicity
of culture, items and spaces that create and sustain our relationship
to the historical as a sensory dimension. We can see the yards as spaces
where history and the everyday are made visible, are odorous, and co-present.
From the layers of rock, wood and steel upon old buildings, we sense the
presence of time-but it is the bodies within these spaces, and their refusal
to produce for the system, that contest the stories those layers would
tell. The yard dwellers' presence is a testimony to the other ways of
sensing time and memory that are not mapped out by the dominant narrative,
but are powerful in the everyday rhythms of the home, the street, and
because of pan and calypso, the global market.
Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, in interrogating the detachment of objects in
ethnographic and capitalist projects, articulates the problem of trying
to create a wholeness in their presentation to the world. The notion of
preservation of spaces and practices is also a complicated practice: one
that often performs as if objectively authored. Kirschenblatt-Gimblett
asks, in reference to fields that become emblematic of culture, but cannot
be petrified in a display form: "what happens to the intangible,
the ephemeral, the immovable, the inanimate" cultural objects-those
that cannot be encased, made temporal, made "whole." (BKG, 1998:
28) The barrack yards locate alternative ways of knowing in objects and
spaces that resist notions of wholeness, where historical and cultural
narratives speak and teach, and yet embody the conflict under which they
were born. The history of the people living in the yards, the critical
voice of calypso and steelpan resist petrification, they refuse stillness,
and thus, through their practice, resist the very forces that seek to
make them representations or commodities.
Within these objects and spaces, the past is more of a dialogue than a
'place' where facts are kept, more of a process than a 'truth'. Understanding
their being, therefore, involves not only the knowledge of events, dates
and names, but also insight into the nature of Trinidadian history and
memory as fragmentary, subjective and self-conflicting by nature. Thus,
we begin to see that the past unfolds as a process of oral and aural translation,
a conversation or confrontation between bodies, relics, spaces, and generations.
Although the practices emerging from the yards have changing meanings
in local and global contexts, and the yards are "disappearing",
the sensibility of resistance will live in moments of contact. Contact
between senses, sounds and collisions in the practices, objects and bodies
of communities who refuse to be quiet, or to forget.
Foucault, Michel. "Of Other Spaces" Translated from 1967 lectures
by Jay Miskowiec, The Visual Culture Reader. Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed. Routledge,
New York. 1995.
Lovelace, Earl. "Emancipation-Jouvay Tradition and the Almost Loss
of Pan", The Drama Review. Fall 1998, pp 54-60
Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Destination Culture: Tourism Museums
and Heritage. University of California Press, Berkeley. 1998.
Seremetakis, Nadia. The Senses Still. Westview Press, Chicago, 1994.