A tabanca of potential

Above: Legendary masquerader Charles Peace makes his final appearance on the Savannah stage. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1082 for February 28, 2017

The technician leaned conspiratorially across the counter at Marty Forscher’s repair store. 

“Were you deployed to Afghanistan?”

Um. What? 

It turned out that the only other times they had taken apart cameras in the condition of my failed Pentax was from journalists or military photographers in that war zone.

The fine dust that had ground my gear to a halt had come flying off the stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah in 1986, swept by huge costumes and stomped into the air by hundreds of dancing feet. 

For decades, that was standard operating procedure stageside at the Savannah, an environment with metaphorical teeth and claws at every turn. 

Since then, the hostility of officialdom has spread throughout the festival. 

Trying to be too entrepreneurial and create new approaches or spaces in Carnival? Ask Dean Ackin about his experiences with the Socadrome or Kurt Allen about the Barrack Yard. Ask any small band or individual who wants to do something small, unique or creative. There’s no mainstream space for any of that.

Carnival once held my attention as a photojournalist every year for three straight weeks, right through to a bleary-eyed Ash Wednesday with a lagniappe on the following Saturday at Pan Trinbago’s Champs in Concert.

I remember a perfect Carnival Tuesday in 1987. The sun was bright and low; the sky speckled with clouds popping off a crisp blue horizon. I was seated next to Noel Norton on an elevated platform at the Grandstand that hadn’t been used by a television camera which offered an elevated, clean view of the masqueraders charging across the stage. It was, in hunter’s terms, a duck shoot. We reloaded roll after roll of film with calm deliberation.

I sat there thinking, “It’s never going to get better than this.”

As it turns out, I was right.

In 2017, on this morning, the NCC, abetted by its stakeholder cronies, will again stage a Carnival that studiously ignores everything that happened in the world since then. After the PNM demolished the old Grandstand, calypsonian and UNC politician Winston Peters rebuilt an obsolete viewing stand for horseracing with no reference to modern wisdom informing the creation of an audience platform for a parade.

There is no virtual calypso tent. No reliable authoritative stream of Carnival coverage. No digital downloads of off-the-board recordings of steelband performances. No programming of shows for 21st century expectations.

I find myself in the grip of a crippling heartbreak over this festival, despite never having worn a costume, sung a calypso or beat a pan. 

The role of the professional photojournalist is to record without being tempted to intervene, and it requires a curious combination of engagement and distance. 

One makes friends, but not intimate ones, the line between observer and collaborator/colleague is always so very easy to cross. 

I made that mistake in my first 12-year engagement with local theatre and its practitioners. It ended quite badly after I became disenchanted and frustrated with the experience.

Love can quite comfortably flip and contort itself into hate.

Friendships were immolated, acquaintances stepped back a healthy distance and my collection of work from that time went into a thirty-year cold storage.

For the most part, I still can’t look at it.

I’ve been luckier with Carnival. Theatre in T&T at its peak between 1977 and 1990 was around two hundred people performing in five spaces, tops.

The creators of Carnival are far more numerous and diverse and represent a wide range of arts and approaches. Everytime I vow to turn away and leave the festival to its own devices, something utterly fascinating will emerge and draw my attention.

Carnival is not dying, as some of its detractors or nostalgic fans may think, it is evolving despite the best efforts of its administrators to prune anything that looks out of place when it turns a fresh bud to the light of recognition.

There is no doubt in my mind that the worst thing to happen to Carnival over the last two decades is the ramping up of State support, fuelled by a flush treasury and politicians seeking an easy win with a large constituency.

That swamp of cash created a Cepepcracy first, an institutionalised expectation that there will be a government handout to lubricate the wheels of an event that was running quite efficiently on its own until the 1980’s.

Virtually every major Carnival institution outside of soca entrepreneurs and business focused bandleaders now depends almost entirely on massive subventions just to break even.

The size and scale of Government spending on the festival, hundreds of millions annually, has pushed private sector support to the sidelines, with businesses preferring to cherry pick safe promotional deals with the most entrepreneurial projects, avoiding any direct investment in the event as a business proposition.

As the scale of spending increased and it became clear that successive governments were not going to insist on proper accounting for public funds spent before disbursing the annual subsidy, the whole mess apparently collapsed into a kleptocracy.

There are things you never hear.

You never hear a Ministry of Culture representative announce that full, audited accounts of Carnival stakeholder spending for the year have been presented to the satisfaction of the state.

If a stakeholder representative body didn’t want to be branded as thieves bent on ransacking the treasury, you might expect that a full public accounting of money given to them by the Government – money provided by taxpayers – would be an integral part of their fiscal year.

Banks who spend shareholder money must account for it, so why should the NCBA, Pan Trinbago or TUCO be any different? They many be NGOs, but they aren’t private businesses or charities.

No Minister of Culture has ever been brave enough to bell this glaring of smug, self-satisfied cats.

No NCC chairman has ever commanded the stewardship of the festival with the full power granted to them by Parliamentary act governing the Commission’s formation, nor have they demanded the backing of the state, whom they represent as the major financier of the event.

By today, calypsonians will have sung, soca singers will have pranced, pans will ring out with haunting, percussive tone, hundreds of workers will still be peeling glue and glitter from under their fingernails and thousands more will set their work to fly on the streets of the city.

Not one of them has been well served by the people who were elected to public office to represent them.

They deserve more.

Better planning. Greater responsiveness. Bolder thinking. Honest representation. Full accountability.

Carnival deserves more. But it won’t get it until the people who actually create this festival demand it.