“In a market economy, prices indicate demand which, in turn, affects supply—falling prices indicate lower demand, higher prices reveal shortages and, generally, supply adjusts to meet demand.
“[…] The trouble was that State subsidies distorted the market for calypso. So government funding, especially over the past 25 years, concealed preferences—or, more accurately, lack of preferences—for the Carnival in general and commentary calypso in particular.”
In the following Letter to the Editor, Kevin Baldeosingh suggests reasons for the struggles of the calypso tents in the 2018 Carnival season.
It seems that a recession concentrates minds wonderfully. This is shown by the number of commentators who are now applying economic judgments to issues where they previously based all their opinions on ideological beliefs.
Nowhere is this more glaring than in respect of Carnival. On 24 January, Sugar Aloes a.k.a. Michael Osouna announced that the venerable Calypso Revue was going to close owing to meagre corporate sponsorship, small audiences and a reduction in government funding.
This heaps irony upon irony. The first irony is, of course, that Aloes became successful not because of the quality of his calypso commentary but owing to his aggressive support of the People’s National Movement. Now, it is the very same PNM which cannot afford to subsidise him.
The second and related irony is that Aloes’ racial lyrics drove away from the Revue the very people whose ticket purchases could have sustained the tent in these lean times. Amazingly, in a subsequent interview the following week, Aloes actually cast blame on Indo-Trinidadians for the failure of the calypso tents, arguing that these were the same persons who flung $100 bills on stage to get encores for calypsoes such as “Chambers Done See.”
In the media conference held by Aloes, Lord Kitchener’s former manager Errol Peru said that Kitchener would be disappointed by the tent’s closure over half a century after it was founded as Kitchener’s Revue. But it was the same Peru who, in 2007, wrote in a letter to the editor: “Ask any tent owner/manager and they would tell you that the Indo-Trinidadians were the biggest supporters of the calypso tents; they would buy all the front row seats and Johnny Walker Black and would always invite the calypsonians to meet their families and have a drink with them.”
Unsurprisingly, no official data exist in respect to how much money was given to calypsonians each year. However, Minister of Community Development, Culture and the Arts Nyan Gadsby-Dolly revealed that the government had allocated $7 million to calypso this year, which is about 5% of the Carnival budget.
Extrapolating for previous years on the premise that the percentage allocated to calypso has remained constant, I have estimated the allocations for the past decade:
TABLE: Carnival budgets 2009-2018
|Year||Carnival Budget||Calypso allocation|
Source: Ministry of Finance
Significantly, the allocation does not vary much year by year. The only drastic increase in the past decade occurred in 2012 and in 2015—and 2013 was Local Government Elections and 2015 the General Elections. This appears to imply that sponsorship and ticket sales are more crucial to the tents’ bottom line but it is likely that most of the sponsorship monies come from State entities.
More pertinently, the private sector hasn’t continued its sponsorship, and this is obviously because the returns don’t make advertising in a calypso tent worth their while.
For me, the most risible remarks from the media conference came from The Mighty Chalkdust a.k.a. Dr Hollis Liverpool, holder of a record nine Calypso Monarch titles. He said: “The calypso tent has done a lot for T&T, not just corn soup but for nurturing calypsonians and developing their art. You cannot let the calypso tent die. The calypso monarch could die; that is all right.”
Here we encounter the third irony. Chalkdust ignores the glaring fact that the calypso tent is dying because people now find most calypsonians’ offerings boring, trite or narrow-minded. But Chalkdust himself is the epitome of such calypso, hence the reason he holds the record for most Calypso Monarch titles.
Chalkdust himself called for support for the tent out of respect for the memory of Kitchener, yet his own preferences were revealed by his failing to offer any of the millions of dollars he got in prize money to help out the Revue.
Which brings me to the fourth irony. According to Minister Gadsby-Dolly, “What disturbs me the most is that this tent, a staple on the Carnival landscape, with such a proud legacy, is not attracting significant patronage.”
“This may be a signal to all tents,” she added, “that a change in modus operandi is required to improve their brand and attract more corporate sponsorship.”
Gadsby-Dolly is quite right. But it was government patronage of calypso which distorted the market signals in the first place. In a market economy, prices indicate demand which, in turn, affects supply—falling prices indicate lower demand, higher prices reveal shortages and, generally, supply adjusts to meet demand.
In economic terms, the market is a device which reveals people’s preferences. But markets only work to reveal preferences when free. The trouble was that State subsidies distorted the market for calypso. So government funding, especially over the past 25 years, concealed preferences—or, more accurately, lack of preferences—for the Carnival in general and commentary calypso in particular.
Thus, according to culture critics like author Raymond Ramcharitar—who tracked the growing antipathy to calypsonians like Aloes, Cro Cro and Pink Panther—important signals were ignored as were data showing that between 15,000 to 20,000 actually left Trinidad for the Carnival, while many more thousands went to beaches or ignored the so-called “national festival” in other ways.
According to the Central Statistical Office, just over 38,000 tourists came to the Trinidad Carnival in 2015 while the 2016 figure dropped to just over 35,000 last year’s rose to over 37,000. In the past five years, Carnival arrivals have ranged between 35,000 to 39,000 visitors over a 19-day period with an average spend of TT$9,500 per visitor. Given the annual government expenditure, this suggests that Carnival is a money-losing festival.
Had the calypso tents been allowed to operate according to market principles, calypsonians would have been forced to adjust their offerings to cater to audiences who, typically, want calypsoes which attack the powerful, are witty and which are cleverly written.
But since politicians were the paymasters, the majority of calypsonians sang songs which did not question any status quos and which catered only to the hardcore patrons.
The virtue of the recession is that it separates the chaff from the wheat. The problem is, after so many years of bending over for politicians, calypso may now be pure chaff.