Two of my previous reviews of Carnival unequivocally set out issues within the festival that are troubling, particularly if Government is to continue funding the festival at the significant levels that it does.
Last year’s review The minority sport of Carnival, referred to “the obvious acceleration of Carnival’s decline into a minority sport with less and less redeeming artistic value and rapidly decreasing audiences.”
I asserted that “reality suggests that the same deficiencies turning off spectators and their families will over time inevitably turn away masqueraders.”
This year there was an unmistakable decline in masqueraders in the order of 15 to 20 percent. If you also factor in the reduction of steelbands on the road, the decline in participants in bands on the road likely rises to 25 per cent.
It can be accepted that the short season and/or current economic conditions may be partly responsible for the decline. However, with commendable honesty, the Chairman of the National Carnival Commission (NCC) is prepared to consider that “a poor Carnival product” may be a factor in the decline.
In last year’s review I mentioned the pretenses that accompany reference to Carnival activities such as the cliché “the greatest show on earth”—so “great” that our own people stay away in droves and the vacation and travel industry are major beneficiaries of the four-day weekend.
My comment last year on the travel away from Carnival was that our “beaches at home and malls and other destinations abroad taken together probably have more Trinis spending their time and money there than Carnival spectators in all of Trinidad’s streets.”
Given these circumstances it is questionable whether Carnival enjoys firm support as “a national festival.”
The questionable status of Carnival as a national festival is underlined by the clear division between the participation of those who buy membership in expensive all inclusive bands, whether for J’Ouvert or the main parade, and those outside the rope without access to the funds or perceived social status required to be part of the all inclusives—an ironic name since they are vehicles of exclusion of many, including street vendors, seamstresses, wire benders and other art and craft makers, all of whom are being driven out of Carnival.
No one doubts the entrepreneurial acumen of the all inclusive pioneers, who deliver the luxury street party experience, but the short point is that Carnival has fundamentally changed, commercially and sociologically, and these changes has very divisive aspects.
The important, pressing question is how to re-open Carnival more equally to all.
This question requires an answer because of the significant level of investment of taxpayer funds in maintaining Carnival infrastructure and security.
Related questions are: Is the Government recovering taxes from the entrepreneurs who make large profits using taxpayer funded infrastructure? What is the appropriate level of funding support for the traditional arts of costuming, pan and calypso?
Are the beneficiaries of that support properly accountable and do they run their shows in a manner that brings in paying spectators and without waste and freeness?
The re-entry of Peter Minshall, our premier mas designer, into Carnival this year highlighted the extent of the artistic and spectator drought, which his presence served to mitigate.
Sadly, his re-entry also underlined the nastier aspects of the fight for State funded prize money and the manner in which competition blunts creativity.
Fear of Minshall’s genius provoked extraordinary attacks, the most ridiculous and condescending being the suggestion that moko jumbie was not mas or that it should be confined to the ole time category and the Victoria Square venue. That suggestion is reflective of the level of divisiveness in our society and the contempt for valid mas traditions.
In my review of 2014 entitled Stars on the Route of All Evil, I dealt with the condescension shown to Trinidad All Stars—in which my wife and I play sailor mas—when All Stars won the Band of the Year title in that year. (See The Daly Commentaries, page 643).
All Stars’ sailor mas was patronised by statements such as “caps and epaulettes are not creative”, which displayed complete ignorance of the many varieties of sailor costume and the costuming and dance traditions of sailor mas.
In many respects, the segregation in Carnival is a reflection of our wider society in which the worth of individual citizens is assessed not by merit first but by reference to wealth, shade, address, connections and perceived status.
It is for that reason that during the Carnival season craft persons are of little account and, in any season, one murder victim may be more mourned than another.
Are we playing a divided masquerade throughout all the seasons?
Finally, I add my condemnation of an admonishment of female vulgarity as a response to the murder of any Carnival participant.
The rant of the Mayor of Port of Spain should cost him his office. His so-called apology reflects an unyielding callousness.