Carnival’s future, reflected in brass

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Above:Sound engineer Robin Foster (left) discusses loading logistics with Etienne Charles on Carnival Monday afternoon as the band prepares to leave its assembly point. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1083 for March 07, 2017

Two moments stood out for me on Carnival Monday afternoon as Etienne Charles’ band prepared to start their working day. 

There was the sight of four men wrestling hundreds of pounds of gear, instruments, amps and cables into a shrinking space on a forty-foot transport trailer.

Damn, I thought, that looked hard. 

Almost two hours later I was trying to respond to a call on Long Circular Road when a standard DJ truck, which was supposed to repeat the mixed feed from the live music truck for the band passed me playing a really loud soca song. 

The thick, muscular bass pulsed across the river of people separating us, pushing me against the sympathetically vibrating glass show window behind me. 

Damn, I thought again, that was easy. 

How we got from a kingdom of brass to where Carnival has been effectively dehorned offers as an uncannily accurate guide to where today’s festival is going. 

Tradition 

At the peak of the popularity of brass bands, their hubris led them to compete with each other. So they had to have rules. And officials. And judges. They called it Brassorama, and it had its own night in the final week before Carnival, paired with Old Mas, which took itself rather less seriously. 

Out of this emerged a form, a way of playing to catch the judges’ collective ear that gifted us with, among other things, the brass refrain used in the chorus of the soca hit Palance. 

Over time, it became clear that the bands were playing only for themselves and the judges, so the audiences drifted away. 

The early death of old mas genius Dick Butts, the Minshall of Carnival low humour didn’t help that event and it was removed from the Carnival calendar. 

Wrong headed revivals

Etienne Charles rehearses his road band on Carnival Sunday evening at his mother’s Glencoe home. Tony Woodroofe at left and Shaka Charles (partly hidden, comprised the horn section with the trumpeter. Photo by Mark Lyndersay. Click to enlarge.

Brass would return as a party masquerading as a competition with Brass Festival. The new event was less about music than it was about making money, but it breathed new life into the last generation of Carnival road bands, giving them a space to show off their skills before an audience keen to party.

The Soca Monarch competition would tap into both this model of quasi-competition and mass market party with greater success until quite recently. 

What killed Brass Festival was, literally, murder. Cheap tickets led to massive crowds and troubling levels of violence and people with money to spend and no taste to mingle with their lessers increasingly migrated from these large parties into gated, all-inclusive events. 

It’s no coincidence that the last of these big fetes is both hosted and secured by the T&T Army.

Technology

The presence of brass bands wasn’t just eroded by outside factors, they also rotted from the inside out. New synthesiser technology made it easier to replicate first drums and percussion, then increasingly acceptable brass (the first samples were laughably bad) which replaced the men whose lungs powered the best soca and calypso renditions in parties and on the road.

Eventually, a brass band became a keyboard player’s band, with some outfits having a musician dedicated to samples on the digital ivories while another handled traditional keyboard riffs. By the time DJs replaced live bands on music trucks, there were few horn men actually working in live road music.

Profit and expedience

It cost a lot of money to put a brass band on the road – most cost around $50,000 a day on the low end – and that wasn’t a huge payday for the players. 

A DJ, even one with a big name, cost a fraction of that, didn’t need to rest, left space on the truck for more speakers and amps and offered an infinite musical repertoire. 

Harts were the first band to make extensive use of DJs on a truck, a heretical move at the time, and the young Harts, teenagers at the time, played the music themselves. 

They were the first band to use technology to synchronise music across multiple trucks and their masqueraders loved it. 

There was a brief moment here for bands to make a case for live music and musicianship, but nobody on the band circuit seemed to notice what was going on.

By the time musicians and pannists realised what was happening, the ground had moved under their feet forever.

Conflating competition with competitiveness

Carnival has no shortage of competitions. It seems impossible to gather a critical mass of talent working in the space without offering a trophy of some sort. Long time masmen have racks of shelves of this stuff, more forgotten brass. 

Dean Williams, one of the guitarists for Etienne and Friends, was one of the few people to board that truck in 2017 who had done it before. 

He fondly recalled the old Spectrum parking lot, long since razed to make way for MovieTowne, where the brass trucks were parked to be prepared for the road and musicians would meet and chat before mounting up for a day of playing. 

Those musicians were keen to outdo each other, but even the trophy for “Best Playing Road Band” didn’t matter as much as sounding good and being known for that.

What’s been lost

It’s tempting to wring our collective hands and hope that the presence of two bands (Brass 2 the World, led my Mano Marcellin’s son, performed with K2K) on the road this year will lead to a resurgence in the form. It will not.

Lots of people turned up to hear Etienne Charles and Friends, but they still constitute a distinct minority of preference among at least two generations of young masqueraders who have come of age in the era of the soca mixtape.

The arc of brass bands from shining glory to ash heap of history tracks closely with other artforms in the festival, some of which have been “preserved” with considerable effort in a strangling amber of expectation that’s stalled real growth and change in the concepts and styles that underlie calypso, traditional mas, the steelband and more.

We keep shoving bands through the Savannah, into downtown and along hopelessly inadequate streets because that’s how it’s always been done. We long ago sidelined traditional mas on Carnival Monday and Tuesday because we didn’t know what to do with them on that massive Savannah stage.

TUCO pays no attention to and indeed works to discourage successful calypsonians and soca artists, Pan Trinbago isn’t interested in steelbands that work in their communities effectively, the NCBA is openly hostile to new ideas from entrepreneurial bands and the NCC governs this swamp of intellectual lethargy and desperate cluelessness with stunning haplessness.

Brass bands found themselves forgotten guests at an event they played a part in founding in a series of small, incremental moves that each seemed insignificant at the time.

They lost their audience through pointless competition, chased a new audience that really wasn’t into them, ignored technology advancements, customer tastes and the steady grinding of economic and market preference and ultimately had no identifiable plan for carving out new relevance in a changing environment.

If that all sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the trajectory that every major event on the official NCC Carnival calendar is following today.