By Lincoln Depradine
There are a few things that are part of the annual ritual of all carnivals. Among the rituals are complaints about unfair and poor judging; dissatisfaction with government and private sector funding for the festival; questions about the receipt and disbursement of money; poor festival organizing; dissatisfaction with the administration of the carnival; and disappointment that the carnival did not live up to the expectation of one or more persons.
These rituals are ever present from Trinidad and Grenada in the southern Caribbean to Toronto and New York in North America, to Notting Hill in England.
And part of the reasons we’ll have these perennial griping about carnival, wherever it exists, is because of discordance and anachronism.
Modern carnival is a work in process, I submit; and, I’ve argued before and will continue to argue, that there never will be a “perfect” carnival to satisfy all stakeholders, including masqueraders, calypso and soca artistes, pannists, the government tax collectors, and the capitalists who invest in carnival and are looking for returns on their investments.
A free-flowing cultural expression
In a commentary, written shortly after this year’s carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, I noted that masquerading on the street began as a populist cultural celebration among poor, enslaved black folk; their only wealth was embodied in their spirit and their soul and their creativity and inherent talent for song and dance.
Carnival, in its germinal stage, was a free-flowing cultural expression. But, with the passage of time, tension has been growing over how to package carnival to make it both an entertaining spectacle of pure enjoyment and a celebration of freedom, and also a money-making venture.
One of the challenges with this noble approach, I wrote, is the level of unpredictability and chaos inherent in carnival.
I pointed out that one cannot “produce” and “direct” carnival the way you “produce” and “direct” a Broadway show, or a show at Marryshow House or at the Grenada Trade Centre. Indeed, a good team of professional producers and events’ and stage managers, could enhance the flow of a calypso and steeelbands’ competition.
However, I bet there is little any of these professionals could do if the truck, taking the costume of the King of the Band from St Patrick, holds up in Coast Guard; on Grand Roy Pan Angel – playing first in Saturday’s Panorama – can’t get their instruments to roll on to the stage on time because of a mechanical error; or, because the wheels of bass stand get stuck in the mud at Tanteen. If not that, something unpredictable, something not on the script, is bound to occur at a carnival event. It’s just nature of this huge, evolving festival.
Carnival is not a military parade
Although it would be laudable, especially with the increasing numbers of people playing Jab Jab at J’Ouvert, to do more marshalling of revelers, it’s near impossible to succeed in this endeavour.
The reason is simple; carnival is not a tattoo or military parade like we have at Independence or During the Santa Clause Parade in Toronto or the Macy’s Parade in New York. Carnival, by its very nature, engenders spontaneity and an urging for spectators to stop, dance, whine, or engage a friend or spectator watching on from the sides.
That’s why taller and stronger barriers have failed to stop spectators mingling with masqueraders at all carnival. Shooing masqueraders along at the speed of a marching band is antithetical to the celebration of carnival.
So, not surprisingly, for example, the Festival Management Committee in Toronto experienced what it calls “challenges” as it attempted to route bands through the grounds of Exhibition Place and then unto Lakeshore Boulevard in Toronto last Saturday.
And when you listen to the complaints of people in Toronto, you can easily believe they were commenting about carnival in Grenada, Trinidad, St Vincent or New York.
One calypsonian described Toronto’s street parade, that involved nine bands, as a “disaster,” saying “they rush it, rush it; by one o’clock people sit down in the stadium ain’t even know what’s going on.”
Another person, Elsworth James – a veteran calypsonian and entertainment promoter – said organisers “should seek advice from people who understand the culture, who know the culture, and don’t just listen to the voice that is only supportive of your agenda. Take the best points of views to improve.”
Aging followers of calypso and pan
For all the doomsday prediction that carnival is “dying,” there is little chance of that occurring in Grenada or elsewhere. It’s too important in its cultural and economic importance for that to happen.
What is likely to happen, though, is a continued dwindling in participation and support for some aspects of the carnival arts.
Steelbands are attracting lots of young people, especially girls. But the audience at competitions remains an older generation – many of them pannists from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The biggest panorama crowds are at Trinidad and New York panoramas. And, even then, those cheering the bands generally are “ole timers”.
Calypso, like pan, also has an aging following. The young – and young at heart – flock venues in every city, and every country, for Soca Monarch competitions.
Hundreds of artistes register to participate in the preliminary rounds of these soca competitions.
The traditionalists that run calypso associations, and reminisce about the “good ole days” of calypso and the lyrical beauty of compositions by Sparrow, Kitchener, Melody, Caruso, Slim, Dictator, Flying Turkey, Scaramouche and others, might want to consider how they could rope in the young people who gravitate to soca.
Perhaps, they can organise a “calypso” competition with artistes singing to a soca beat. Judging, overwhelmingly, will be based on lyrics – unlike a “real soca” competition where the emphasis is on stage presentation and the fashionable “jump and wave.”
Soca championships also pay a lot more than calypso competitions. So, the future of calypso also appears to depend on bigger prize cheques for competitors.
Country and city carnival organisers worldwide – including the Spicemas Corporation – also should consider establishing an international body that would allow for the exchange of expertise and ideas; and also ensure that a greater share of profits is returned to entertainers from the millions of dollars that are generated from the various carnival festivals globally.