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Trinidad & Tobago Carnival in Danger?

This year's Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is practically over, but it has inspired a slew of blog posts – some explaining various aspects of the celebrations, but others lamenting the state of the festival.

Tony Deyal, writing at Abeng News Magazine, described it like this:

I am in Trinidad. It is hot and dry. The roads are crowded. The murder rate is high. The nights are noisy. It is a silly season beyond reason, adequate description and financial sanity. It is Carnival time.

The rest of his post was mostly a recollection of the “Old Time Carnival” of his childhood, but even amidst the revelry, he noted:

What struck me was that there was always an undercurrent of violence- perhaps because the majority of the people worked in the cane-fields, made their living with cutlasses and spent most of their recreation time in the rum shops. It was the way disputes were settled and started.

Photo of a Jab Molassie by Quinten Questel; used under a CC license.

Photo of a Jab Molassie by Quinten Questel; used under a CC license.

Back in the present day, Mark Lyndersay, via a series of thoughtful posts, contemplated the challenges facing “Carnival's leadership”. Naturally, he consulted “people whose work [he] enjoy[s] and who also have both opinions on and skin in the festival”. His experts included Leslie-Ann Boisselle, a ten-time queen of Carnival contestant who suggested that calypso should be taken out of Dimanche Gras:

‘Leave the kings and queens for Dimanche Gras because tourists don't understand the calypso but the visual medium of the mas resonates with them.’
She believes that both shows, a calypso final and a costume based Dimanche Gras could be ‘tight, well coordinated productions, professionally produced…make it something that could be filmed and marketed for sale, something that could be run on international tv as a two-hour special.’

"Carnival Queen"; photo by Quinten Questel, used under a CC license.

“Carnival Queen”; photo by Quinten Questel, used under a CC license.

Kenwyn Murray, part-time lecturer at the University of the West Indies Carnival Studies Unit, thought that there should be more training in the Carnival arts:

‘What we admire about the mas of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s is what we forget about it. They came out of yards, where there was informal training going on. The event has moved out of ritualistic expression to a larger commercial activity. There has been unchecked growth and people have been participating in an ad hoc way, based on what they know and what they can rely on. Training in the industry needs to be looked at deliberately.’

To help meet meet the need, the university is now offering a Practitioners Certificate in the Carnival Arts.

"Future bat head" part of the Cat in Bag Productions 2014 Carnival presentation and an example of the skill of wire bending; photo by Georgia Popplewell, used under a CC license.

“Future bat head” part of the Cat in Bag Productions 2014 Carnival presentation and an example of the skill of wire bending; photo by Georgia Popplewell, used under a CC license.

Blogger BC Pires had an interesting perspective:

‘I'd axe out VIP sections of anything, including declaring all-inclusive mas bands illegal. If we keep turning what used to be something that brought us all together into the main device for separating us, it will end in bloodshed on the streets, and not the one or two choppings or stabbings we have now. There will be an eruption of violence that will make the steelband clashes of old look like primary school recess lock neck. We will all be playing casualty.

No, put that change as two. The first firetrucking thing I'd do is force music systems and bands to keep their volumes to a healthy level. NOTHING is ruining Carnival now more than the earsplitting volume of the music, it's like being beaten up.’

In another post, Lyndersay addressed “the geography of Carnival” by itemizing all the controversies that took place this year with regard to parade routes:

The road, this Carnival makes clear, is no longer made to walk as Lord Kitchener sang.
It’s now an event management challenge that must be planned and curated with immaculate clarity if everyone who hopes to enjoy Carnival is to have their space.

The country’s largest annual festival is being convened along roadways that no longer meet the needs of the vehicular traffic they were originally designed for, so it’s no surprise that they are also inadequate to meet the surge in Carnival Tuesday foot traffic.

The tweaks and adjustments that have sought to meet the growth of the festival amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The good ship Carnival is listing badly and there seems to be a dearth of either creative or sensible thinking about how to address the problem.

He continued:

It’s been more than 60 years since the administration of Carnival came under the oversight of the State, and this premier event has attracted increased taxpayer funding even as the planning invested in its long term development has withered.

In that time, calypso has become a ward of the state, the steelband is in desperate decline and design has been balkanized into traditional and fun silos, neither of which has advanced the design of Carnival over the last two decades.
Carnival needs better analysis, better management and better organization.
The continuing wonder, that the event is so exciting…and so much fun should not cloud the thinking of the festival’s leadership.

It’s time to seriously examine the issues and make hard decisions about the festival itself that separate history, tradition and sentiment from reality.
Carnival is creatively reinvented from the ground up each year, but there is no reason that its infrastructure and organization should follow that model.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule: small, creative Carnival bands springing up and bringing together the best of art, design and social commentary, all in a fun package.

"'Miss Miles' setting up"; an example of one of the small bands that blends creative design with social commentary;  photo by Georgia Popplewell, used under a CC license.

“‘Miss Miles’ setting up”; an example of one of the small bands that blends creative design with social commentary; photo by Georgia Popplewell, used under a CC license.

Finally, Lyndersay wondered about “how tissue thin the difference between modern soca and European dance music has become” and why local music just can't seem to break through internationally:

It’s not the only spot in the Carnival landscape where international breakthroughs seem imminent, and it also isn’t the first instance of the type of creative osmosis that’s brought the festival to international attention.

From Who let the dogs out to Minshall’s command performances for the Olympics, to the impact of Differentology on international music charts, the products, aesthetic and creative potential of Carnival always seem just on the verge of being a big thing, before retreating determinedly to the safety of the parochial.

What is it about T&T that brings us global attention, as calypso did in the 1940’s and 50’s, only to lose momentum?

In his estimation, “a misunderstanding of roles is a big part of it”:

The State really needs to decide whether it is an investor in Carnival or its sponsor. When Carnival stakeholders begin to gripe about the lavish freeness expected by representatives of the State during events, perhaps it’s time to admit that you’re a sponsor, and a loutish one at that.

Yet the conversation about Carnival is always about investment and returns and earnings, business terms that mean nothing when more than $200 million can be ploughed into the annual festival with no expectation of serious accountability for spending on that scale.

An investor considers a plan, puts money behind it and expects accurate reporting on the progress of the business.
A sponsor buys into a brand in the hopes of leveraging their own fortunes, their return comes in winning attention.
The state needs to decide which it is and stop trying to be the worst of both.
Similarly, the NCC [National Carnival Commission] really needs to decide exactly what it is, because it’s acting like the serf of the stakeholders instead of the convenor of Carnival.

He summarized the state of Carnival by saying:

Tomorrow, on Ash Wednesday, there will be much celebratory backpatting on the success of another edition of the festival.
This will happen regardless of the conspicuous failures of so many State sponsored events to galvanise public interest or to contribute to the formation of anything that might resemble a sustainable Carnival economy.
Next up is Lent, when the literal eating of fish will accelerate, despite another year’s lost opportunity during Carnival to meaningfully engage the metaphor of making fishers of men.

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