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Carnival in transition: Raffique explains why the festival is not dying

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.

Photo: Soca star Shurwayne Winchester performs at the 2016 International Soca Monarch. (Copyright ISM)
Photo: Soca star Shurwayne Winchester performs at the 2016 International Soca Monarch.
(Copyright ISM)

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.

Photo: A Tribe masquerader enjoys herself on Carnival Tuesday in 2015. (Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)
Photo: A Tribe masquerader enjoys herself on Carnival Tuesday in 2015.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

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.

Photo: A Carnival meggie. (Copyright Georgia Popplewell)
Photo: A Carnival meggie.
(Copyright Georgia Popplewell)

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.

Photo: A beautiful beach in Tobago.
Photo: A beautiful beach in Tobago.

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!”

Photo: 2016 Calypso Monarch Devon Seale. (Courtesy Facebook)
Photo: 2016 Calypso Monarch Devon Seale.
(Courtesy Facebook)

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.

Photo: Exodus steelband at Panorama. (Copyright Discovertnt)
Photo: Exodus steelband at Panorama.
(Copyright Discovertnt)

But that’s another story for another day.

About Raffique Shah

Raffique Shah
Raffique Shah is a columnist for over three decades, founder of the T&T International Marathon, co-founder of the ULF with Basdeo Panday and George Weekes, a former sugar cane farmers union leader and an ex-Siparia MP. He trained at the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was arrested, court-martialled, sentenced and eventually freed on appeal after leading 300 troops in a mutiny at Teteron Barracks during the Black Power revolution of 1970.

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  1. “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.” Raffique Shah must understand that New World African music—yes that includes calypso, soca, jazz, son, salsa, meringue, etc—does not follow the usual definitions of “western music” vocabulary. Funk, as principally innovated by James Brown, is driven not by melody but by rhythm and hook lines. Soca and the rest of Afro-Caribbean music is driven by unique rhythms. To consign our music, our soca music “to the dustbin of Carnival history” is to completely misunderstand what our music is in the New World sense, and to shine a light on dated and misguided analysis instead of novel and original thought. Come better Raffique, since you and I know that is not only the thought of traditionalist, but folks who write about them without challenging them and their ideas!

  2. A scarily anti-intellectual article by someone who seems to not understand why anything changed or why change is constant. There’s only one commandment in entertainment: engage your audience. May our stake holders grasp this one day.

    • What specifically do you think the author missed?

    • Where to start Lasana. The entire screed comes across as that of the cliched grumpy old neighbour who sees nothing much good to say about anything going on around him. There is no attempt to understand that the actions of yesterday have largely built what we have today and not all of it is negative. Only the most conveniently amnesiac amongst us shall fail to recall the thousands of paying customers who were left waiting annually on Tuesday mornings at mas camps waiting on seamstresses to finish their long ordered items. The needs for such efficiencies (and many many others) were then met by the ‘Savage’ era ( which we are still in). This forum is too narrow to get into the issues of musical entertainment, art appreciation, the ‘seasonalising’ of what should be a 4-6 month arts and craft bonanza, the now significant insularity of the steel band movement (for which the writer had no problem!!). And no one is speaking about the re-emergence of Cuba. We shall talk it out soon. Email is jc.tt@live.com

    • Jonathan, I’d be happy to carry an op-Ed on the issue since clearly you have a strong point of view here.
      My own email is lasana@wired868.com. Thanks. Will message you.

  3. I kinda hoping that those Sheikhs come up with something yes.

  4. …..And if oil prices stabilize, more of the same. Watch and see.

  5. He says he doesn’t think the economic recession had much, if anything at all, to do with the decline in attendance at events… I’m not sure.
    Still it’s going to be interesting to see how events are priced for Carnival next year and what will become of Soca Monarch.

  6. “imagine 400 “singers” auditioned for the ISM prelims! Aren’t you thankful for what you were spared?” Hahaha. Nice line Raffique Shah! Yuh could write calypso? LOL!

    • Hmmm. Very interesting. It would be nice to understand the path to greatness for many of our top performers.

    • Absolutely! History is a four letter word in T&T. They all want to be like Machel (Boy). They ignore he spent many years learning his craft and watching the greats like Nelson (who he calls daddy), Shadow (who wrote “what dey say dey say” when he got in trouble), Kitchener etc. They don’t know his parents policy was school first…. For many years, Performing early (1st) and go home because education was important to his foundation (Monty & Liz). They forget he has about 8 A levels subjects. Studied audio engineering in Germany. Long story short, the majority of our top performers have substance to offer. 390 of those Raffique reference cannot even string together two sentences in a conversation.