Carnival: The greatest SME show on Earth

BitDepth#1027 for February 09, 2016

It took an absurdly long time for me to realise it, but by following the script of Carnival coverage I met all the way back in the 1980s; I was actually missing the entire point of the festival itself.

It wasn’t a bad time, after all.  Mary and Noel Norton were always there for company, at least after I’d been around long enough and worked hard enough to engage the attention of Norts, who suffered neither fools nor transient snappers lightly.

I remember one fine afternoon in the early 1990’s sitting halfway up a camera platform, a coveted position at the southwest end of the stage next to Mr Norton, watching every band jumping into the warm afternoon light.  My transparencies from that day are among the best I’ve ever shot on a Carnival Tuesday.

So I did the prescribed routine for most of 30 years, as oblivious as frog in a warming saucepan that things were sliding inexorably downhill.

My writing about Carnival grew bitter and angry as the heat rose and my satisfaction with the work I was doing nosedived.

Then, one fine day in January three years ago; I simply stopped. This will be the third year that I’ve declined to attend any events under NCC oversight, but the slippage in interest began long before that. 

Part of the reason for that was my documentary photography series Local Lives, the pursuit of which led me to a very different understanding of Carnival.

I’d explored that previously in a column , and the theory has held up as I work with new subjects.

Every year, I spend time with (and test the patience of) people working on a small slice of the festival. Sometimes it’s a really big slice in the case of Tribe, but I keep discovering the same thing.

A small group of people, sometimes working as a team, sometimes with a network of supporters, work with a deep love for Carnival and with a very specific vision driving their part in it.

Behind Tribe are the Nobrega and Ackin extended families. I’ve counted around 30 core people, most of them related, some along the familial pumpkin vine.

The Alfreds and the Sankars are pillars of traditional masquerade.

Despite the scale of Carnival, there are no large businesses involved in creating it and only a few that might be described as medium-sized.

Most are small and most of those are better described as micro-enterprises.

That’s not a business architecture that either State agencies or private enterprise have engaged with particularly well.

Sponsors cherry pick the most suitable opportunities to enhance their CSR mileage or to amplify their brand perception.

The history of State small business support in Trinidad and Tobago has been generally appalling, and those who have made a success of their dreams have largely done so through their own stubbornness and education initiatives.

These problems are compounded by the unfortunate reality that far too many of the people doing business related to Carnival don’t really define what they do as a business, but as an ephemeral hustle.

Carnival’s annual disposal of months of creative work breeds this kind of thinking by defining Ash Wednesday as the point of no return for projects that don’t find enough air beneath their wings.

People (and there are many) who pursue an MBA don’t generally do that in order to build their own business, they do so to get a better job in someone else’s business.

Creating an ecosystem that effectively and supports thousands of small enterprises is going to mean working from a plan for developing Carnival.

Such a plan would identify what needs to be encouraged through R&D and strategic funding, and what can be left alone to continue its organic growth.

Dr Vanus James, working with the NCC two years ago, developed an exhaustive plan based on stakeholder input for Carnival. Nothing has been heard about it since he explained it in broad terms in July 2014.

Carnival in T&T runs on sweat, love and friendship, washed down by swigs of booze. That’s an admirable foundation to build on, but it can’t continue to be the only one.

Understanding the unique character of the thousands of small business enterprises that actually stage Carnival and making sustainable, year-round businesses out of them will be crucial to any serious effort at correcting the most wayward meanderings of the event.

Until we decide where we want to go, any road made to walk will take us there.

About Mark Lyndersay

Mark Lyndersay is a writer and photographer based in Trinidad and Tobago. He writes editorial leaders for Guardian Media Limited, for whom he has written more than 1,300 since 2001, feature writing and reviews and his column, BitDepth, which has examined personal technology issues continuously over the last 20 years. As a photographer, he divides his time between commercial assignments and annual report photography and personal projects like Local Lives, which examines the backstory of life and culture in Trinidad and Tobago.

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