Divided masquerade: Trinidad Carnival is increasingly a “minority sport”

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.”

Photo: Masqueraders from the Carnival Flirt band show off their costumes. (Copyright Trini Jungle Juice)
Photo: Masqueraders from the Carnival Flirt band show off their costumes.
(Copyright Trini Jungle Juice)

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.”

Photo: A masquerader plays the traditional sailor mas for Carnival. (Courtesy Marshe)
Photo: A masquerader plays the traditional sailor mas for Carnival.
(Courtesy Marshe)

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?

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (left) poses with soca star Machel Montano during the 2016 Carnival period. (Copyright Trinidad Guardian)
Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (left) poses with soca star Machel Montano during the 2016 Carnival period.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian)

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).

Photo: Peter Minshall's 2016 Carnival creation: The Dying Swan—Ras Nijinsky in Drag. (Courtesy Maria Nunes/Wired868)
Photo: Peter Minshall’s 2016 Carnival creation: The Dying Swan—Ras Nijinsky in Drag.
(Courtesy Maria Nunes/Wired868)

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.

Photo: Late Japanese pannist Asami Nagakiya performs with Silver Stars at the 2016 Panorama. (Courtesy Facebook)
Photo: Late Japanese pannist Asami Nagakiya performs with Silver Stars at the 2016 Panorama.
(Courtesy Facebook)

The rant of the Mayor of Port of Spain should cost him his office. His so-called apology reflects an unyielding callousness.

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  1. As an outsider and visitor to POS for Carnival for many of years, I can agree that the climate has grown to become one of the haves and those who do not. What I do not agree with is the notion that because Carnival has become unaffordable for the locals, it will eventually cease to exist. With time, all things evolve; however, in my travels throughout the island, I have experienced a great time in Arima for their Carnival celebrations as well as cities in the south like Mayaro and San Fernando. Being amongst the locals there provided a bit of authenticity to the celebration when needed and I thought more people should attend these events should they want a bit more of the local flavor. It would be a shame for Trinidadians to forgo something so culturally relevant to their history and expect the Government to change it.

  2. Thought about this today. When I was a child, my mom took us to see mas in the QPS. It was a family affair as aunts, uncles and cousins from other parts all came to the Savanna. We’d have lots of food and whoever in the family played mas would find us in the Savanna for lunch. Later as we grew up, we did this ritual picnic less and less. First the price in the stands got too high so we stayed by the cars and walked around. Then we started to play mas in bands that provided food and even sanitary conveniences so there was less need to bring a large picnic. Then Minshall resigned and there was less to see. Crime increased and folks want to feel safe and remain unmolested. Bands were ever more exclusive and elitist. It’s a combination of reasons for diminished spectatorship and several problems to solve and resolve….

  3. It is getting more difficult for the State to justify its spending on Carnival. It used to be that Carnival generated income, but when one considers the growin trend where persons are actually going to the US during the Carnival period due to low airfares at that time etc, the State is may actually be losing more than it is earning.

    Rowley et.al wanted to show up the PP Admin so much that they continued to speak of the economic situation in a manner that was not beneficial to the country, now that it is coming back to bite them in the rear. They should have been more prudent in their discourse and should have curbed their zeal a bit.

    Carnival is no longer attractive to many. It is a security risk that persons are avoiding, with an unwelcomed type of behaviour. People are not going to take the risk for so little benefit.

  4. I was with you until Tim Kee.
    While the mayor’s statements can be classified as reprehensible, I do not believe that he was totally wrong, and certainly shouldn’t be made to resign.
    Responsibility, after all, is a personal choice.

  5. Carnival is a living breathing thing. It constantly evolves over time.

    From calypso to soca to today’s electronic dance music infused soca.

    From steel pan to brass bands to today’s high powered DJs.

    Carnival is also a reflection of society.

    So rather than focus on a symptom and reflection of society that is Carnival we should focus on the parts of our culture that have produced today’s Carnival festival.

    We cannot fundamentally fix our Carnival without ‘fixing’ our society.

  6. And on to The Socadrome….. Mecca of Elitism

  7. Who tell all yuh people what it fix?

  8. Has been for the past decade. It’s now or never that we take ownership of the festival and flesh it fully out (no pun intended) or just let Cuba gobble up all that remains.

  9. “it needs concerned action by those who are affected”
    but all we get year after year is criticism..no ‘workable’ ideas.

  10. it needs concerned action by those who are affected,i have seen steel band tuners cecil catta nose Augustine ,the tuner of my former band crown super stars,going to the great beyond unheralded,tributes must be paid to the fallen heroes,vat 19 tripolians,skiffle bunch,in fact one the former players players of crown super stars is based in japan married to a Japanese .

  11. So who is writing the piece on how we fix it or whether we should fix it? Where do we go from here?
    Every year same old, same old

  12. when you look at the origins of carnival and the associated activities,the behavior associated the steel pan ,the stigma ,the mighty terror classic song the steel band puts it in proper,the pan has gone mainstream,Stalin later sang ,the pan gone and the panman stay,i have commuted to and from east dry river for the most of my formative years.the various steel band clashes,the destruction of high landers amplified pan,seeing and living in the shadow of the violence ,may be i will write my memoirs now

  13. this is nothing new ,this has always been the case,the divide between east port of spain and the rest of the city i s obvious ,behind the bridge we had the traditional steel bands ,catelli blue diamonds,renegades ,the dividing line has been wooodbrook,we have starlift andthe st james based bands,untill the advent of minshall,the leehungs catered to the upper classes ,the seggregation continues unabated

  14. ..Carnival is now another arena where Society’s elitism war is being fought. It’s laughable. With money you can buy VIP status and exclude the Mass. We open Carnival with the peremptory nod to its gritty roots with the Canboulay ceremony in east POS that even the elites attend – then they disappear and close the Mass out. Growing elitism in Society MUST inevitably express itself in Carnival..

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