Leeds Beckett University
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Decoding twenty-first century carnival: orality and British Caribbean carnival

posted on 2022-10-05, 10:45 authored by Kafilat Dabiri

British Caribbean Carnival is often portrayed as a noisy, disruptive party for the Black community in Britain, which is increasingly expected to fulfil a number of additional and conflicting civic roles, including tourism, community cohesion, excellence in professional arts and entertainment; these expectations act as centripetal forces which are encircling Carnival. Meeting all of these expectations is essential for Carnivalists, in order to gain the support of the agencies which permit the event to take place. However, for the Caribbean Carnivalists themselves, Carnival and masquerade have an important role to play in their culture, identity and heritage, and Carnival is the preserved intangible cultural heritage which links these Carnivalists to their past and their future. 

Part of this culture is the use of orality, which has led to the development of a British Caribbean Carnivalist oral subculture in the U.K. Orality is essential, not just as the mechanism with which this intangible cultural heritage is preserved and transmitted, but also because there are very few textual sources where this culture and methods of making Mas are found. In this thesis I explore how orality is central to the preservation and transmission of the intangible cultural heritage of British Caribbean Carnival, and and my contribution to knowledge is the challenge the dominance of Bakhtin’s theories of Carnival and the Carnivalesque Bakhtin, 1968). 

The traditional masquerades of enslaved Africans have undoubtedly evolved and adapted to meet the changing environments which were encountered, and I argue that residual elements of these masquerades have lost all practical meaning, and have become instead, social semiotic signs. To illustrate this, I have used horned and devil Mas as a case study to follow this semiotic sign through its journey in early African enslavement to its appearance in British Caribbean Carnival. 

My approach to this research has been greatly influenced and informed by my experiences gained from working in many roles in the culture, arts, and heritage sector, and from my work with Carnival groups. During my career, I have developed networks of people with great knowledge and expertise from across both the culture and Carnival sectors, which has given me the opportunity to recruit interviewees for this research from national museums, universities, government policy organisations and Carnivalists. I have also gained a deeper understanding of British Caribbean Carnivalists from the research process for this thesis, which I used to help to develop Carnival in a Box, a digital Carnival project in 2020 (carnivalinabox.co.uk). My field research in Grenada enabled me to witness in person, the retention of African masquerade in the traditional Mas of the island, and relate this to the my observations of its preservation and transmission into British Caribbean Carnival parades. 

Over the past fifty years, the various Caribbean Carnival traditions which have migrated to the U.K. have developed into a diverse, multicultural expression of what is increasingly (and no longer exclusively) Black British culture. Its importance extends beyond the noise and excitement of Carnival day.


Qualification name

  • PhD


Emily Zobel Marshall; Caroline Herbert; Susan Watkins

Awarding Institution

Leeds Beckett University

Completion Date


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