I don’t think Trinidad’s Carnival is dying, as many people say it is.
For the traditionalists, it’s a case of wishful thinking. They want to see the jarring noise that passes for music—songs that have no melody, only hook lines and tempo—consigned to the dustbin of Carnival history.
And they think the absence of a dominant hit song or competing songs this year, signals the beginning of the end of an unwelcome element that has stymied the creative musical juices that once enriched the festival.
The fiasco that was the International Soca Monarch competition—depleted enthusiasm, p-poor offerings, little television interest—is seen as further evidence of the demise of the noisy distraction.
Bearing in mind that soca or “road” music is but one component of our Carnival, albeit a critical element. The others, calypso, pan music, concerts, fetes and masquerade—must be considered when we seek to analyse what is happening to the festival; whether it is dying, stagnated or undergoing a metamorphosis.
I think, or maybe hope, that what we are witnessing is the latter.
It could be that the lean economic times are forcing us to adapt, adjust, downsize or whatever you want to call it. And maybe, out of these changed circumstances, a different-format Carnival will emerge.
The fact that several once-huge fetes and concerts had to be cancelled because of slow or no ticket sales, tells an interesting story.
We always believed that whatever the circumstances, Trinis would beg, borrow or steal in order to enjoy the Carnival. No health threat—polio in 1972 or Zika in 2016—would deter them from participating in the weeks of festivities that make up the season.
That did not happen this time around.
Sure, there were sold-out events, but these were the exceptions, not the norm. The all-exclusives—my term, since I believe they are priced to keep some social classes out!—suffered lower patronage, hence smaller profits.
Many mas’ bands complained about diminishing numbers, and even the Grand Savannah Party that is the Panorama semi-finals did not attract the huge crowds it drew for many years.
So, something is amiss; and I don’t think it’s the country’s economic circumstances.
Fewer than 10,000 persons have lost their jobs over the past year. And for those who did, there are many vacancies waiting to be filled, admittedly offering lower wages/salaries than the retrenched once enjoyed.
It seems that more people are drifting away from Carnival because they no longer see the overall package as being as attractive as it once was. The music, the mas’ and the environment—from a safety standpoint—have all degenerated.
And although many people still attend the festivities at the main centres in the cities and towns, quite likely more stay at home or use the long weekend to enjoy themselves at beach resorts.
I am sure that flights to Tobago and accommodations there were heavily if not fully booked, which is a positive from the perspective of Tobago tourism. But a negative if we are talking about the future of Carnival.
Also, the demographics tell us that many young people, the age-groups that usually drive the festival, are staying away from it.
I should add, too, that the perception that Indo-Trinis are withdrawing because they feel targeted by calypso lyrics or by a sense of not belonging, cannot stand up to scrutiny.
I attended the better-organised tents—the Martineaus’ Spektakula was the best—during the golden years from the 1960s to the 1990s and not once did I see an audience that comprised more than ten percent Indians.
In contrast, chutney shows, which I have never attended—I classify this genre with Soca—but which I have watched on television, are well-patronised with ninety-nine percent Indian attendances.
So no Indian boycott brought about the demise of calypso tents.
It was the decline in the quality of calypsos, combined with a proliferation of tents that punished patrons with interminably long shows that subjected them to having to endure hours of mediocrity—and I am being generous here—before they heard one okay-ish calypso, which drove fans away.
I ask, for the umpteenth time in recent years, when last have you listened to a calypso that prompted you to say: “Kaiso, boy!”
With the greatest respect to today’s bards, competitions and winners are about having the best songs in a cast of ordinariness.
In the Soca arena, standards are exponentially worse: imagine 400 “singers” auditioned for the ISM prelims! Aren’t you thankful for what you were spared?
But for the costumed kings and queens, there is nothing to see in mas’—except if near-naked street-orgies appeal to you.
The lone art-form that has risen above this self-induced cultural wasteland is pan music.
The instrument, the players and the music get better every year. Yet, they get the smallest slice of the State-Carnival pie.
But that’s another story for another day.