Popcorn Chicken vs. the KFC Festivity: Interrogating Colonel Sanders on the Theme of the Suspected Appropriation of the Trinidad Carnival

First, let’s get the title straight. Hear this: two Hungarian students fly off to Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost twin-island state of the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, 10 miles east of Venezuela, 30 miles north of Guyana, formerly British Guiana. You only get turquoise-blue water around Tobago. In Trinidad, the western coast is black of tar and frequent oil spills. The southern coast’s waters are thick of the Orinoco-mud. The Atlantic side is as rough is it can get: a shoreline eroded by the meters each year can testify to that. The north coast: you get far better waves than on the Big Sur in California, but you have to cross the mountains to get there. It’s that type of shoreline – tropical fauna covered cliffs crashing into the water with smooth beaches forming intermittent bays – on which Columbus stepped out in 1492, ensnarled by a booming Vangelis-scented bass organ soundtrack. I actually used to listen to this very album on my way there, riding the Maxi Taxi, just to get in the mood.

(Actually, Columbus only reached Trinidad in 1498. He never stepped on shore to avoid being left behind by a hungry and mutiny-poised crew. He saw three adjacent hills on the southern shore of the island, thought about the holy Trinity, hence the name. A last bite of etymology: if you think of Tobago, think of tobacco.)

The local shaman, head of the Carib community of Arima, called piai in Arawak, asserts that these two students are the first Hungarians ever whom he saw entering the rainforests of the Northern Range. Perhaps we even managed to do our share of the first-Hungarians-ever-to-set-foot-on-[insert place name here] project.

The Hungarian girl assists a psychotherapist of East-Indian origin at a girl’s home, where young girls, sometimes below the age of 10, are kept as a result of their criminal record, a juicy little list of theft, murder (yup), and rape (yupp). The Hungarian boy has an internship that allows him to spend entire afternoons shooting pictures of cows grazing in a graveyard.

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is young, younger than my father, who is not at all old. Mid-aged. It has 1.3 million inhabitants, half of which is filthy rich, while the half which bites mud each day. Imagine the GINI index. Due to irrationally overhyped government subsidies, gas is around 1 dollar per gallon or 65 HUF/l. Temperature is a constant 95 F or 35 C. Means of finance is the Trinidadian Dollar, an artificial currency pegged to the USD. 10 degrees north of the equator makes a 6-month wet and a 6-month wet season throughout the year and a stable 12-12 hours of daylight and nighttime. Half of the population comes from West Africa, the other half from the Bengali territory in East India. People are either called Jeremy Cumberbatch or Ravi Ji. 150 years of imperial British rule had its impacts: they drive on the left, only import Cadbury cacao, and deduct serious points from your essay at the University of the West Indies if you play hard on the serial comma. All cars are “pre-owned” and imported from Japan. Probably this is the only place on Earth where whoever has a refurbished Suzuki Swift is king.

So what about the title? KFC is everywhere. Colonel Sanders’ omnipresent gaze staring from the side of KFC-buckets haunts the place and puts me in an act of revolt: I listen to one of my favorite guitarists of all time, Buckethead, the entire day. This guy used to have an actual KFC-bucket on his head during live performances with “KFC funeral” inscribed on a yellow band around it. He used to call KFC the chicken-holocaust. I used to gobble my Twisters at Király utca back in Budapest, but in Trinidad I was merely coping with the idea that in certain ways Trinidad is a slaughterhouse for all of us, Trinity-bantams.

Carnival is the well-known pre-Lenten event every February or March, found all over the Caribbean states but most prominently in Trinidad. After Venice and Rio, the Port of Spain version of it is the most attended Carnival-event annually in the world. It literally draws over a million people. This year, KFC found the revenue of its two-storey facilities, which are open 24/7 (yup), unsatisfactory. In response to that it penned an entire anthem to facilitate literally all of its commercials pertaining to Carnival. This anthem was the “Popcorn Chicken.” The chorus ran as follows: “Pop-corn chick-ken. Feel yuh riddim. Pop-corn chick-ken.” (32x) Locals call this a “creative process,” undertaken by their favorite company. I viewed it as highly problematic act of cultural appropriation.

Let’s go even further back in universal and Caribbean history. Carnival was supposed to be an act of resistance. Similarly to the mocking quality of farce and commedia dell’arte in France and the Italian city states during the Middle Ages, the Caribbean slave population – through the appropriation of the pre-Lenten masquerade tradition employed by their own white and mulatto (Creole) slave owners – represented its own way of celebrating emancipation through a mask parade. They played percussive music, donned costumes, paraded through their streets. The parade began at 3-4am in the morning and lasted late in the evening. The appropriation of “mas” meant that slaves mocked the upper-class masquerade balls by using the same costumes but parading on the streets, electing their own new “king” and “queen,” and creating alternative personalities through mas-roles – generally based on certain personality archetypes -, such as the “Midnight Robber” and the “Blue Devil.”

Today what you do when you want to participate in Trinidad Carnival is pay around 500 USDs for a pretty but ill-fitting costume that barely lasts until the end of the day and also pay another set of beefy fees in similar chunks to participate in a mas-band (band of people wearing the same mass-fabricated costumes), where you get your drinking truck and music trucks guiding you along the hot streets of Port of Spain.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fun. But it’s not what it was used to be. It’s not revolt. Perhaps against the cumbersome rhythm of everyday life. Meanwhile, KFC sound systems boom the Popcorn Chicken anthem with an ear-ripping volume.

But here we were, still young, tanned within an hour, headbanging to Bunji Garlin’s hit “Truck on the road.” It was a song about trucks on the road.

Personally,  I couldn’t pretend that my inner journalist-slash-social-critic wasn’t working in me. I couldn’t not see how the post-colonial struggle in Trinidad and Tobago railed off its initial trajectory of resistance. The problem is: forming a nation on an island which served as a colonial sugar and tobacco factory for centuries, hosting a mixture of displaced ethnicities, would have been a hard enterprise anyway. In the age of post-nationalism, where cultural myths, identity-narratives, and national artifacts have been – respectively – decomposed, fragmented to bits (bytes) of neutral data, and physically destroyed, such enterprise is even harder. And not just for a struggling young nation. But for all those ex-colonial powers in Europe, as well as for the less fortunate countries, such as Hungary, which are in serious need of reevaluating their cultural and political assets (sic!) within the global context of information society.