Carnival: the state of disunion

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Above: Revellers in Tribe’s Wings of Desire at the Socadrome in 2015. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1026 for February 02, 2016

Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival looks set for interesting times.

No less a person than Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has explained that for his government managing an economic downturn, “other priorities will fall in place and Carnival is low down on the totem pole. Very low down.”

“The Government should facilitate the festival,” he said, “but the Government shouldn’t own the festival and be the bankroller of the festival.”

Minister of Culture, Arts and Community Development Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly has line responsibility for Carnival’s growth. Photo courtesy GORTT.
Minister of Culture, Arts and Community Development Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly has line responsibility for Carnival’s growth. Photo courtesy GORTT.

The Government’s official Carnival manager, Minister of Culture, Arts and Community Development Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly has put fuel to the fire of that prime ministerial directive, cutting spending on Carnival by $60 million (just a bit more than one fifth of last year’s official budget) for 2016.

In response, the NCC announced that it was cutting the Carnival Village, which it described as “a very laudable project.”

You may be forgiven for asking “what Carnival Village?”

This bizarre little project was a catch-all for craft vendors, hustlers and entertainers who would perform on a schedule that seemed to match no potential audience. Children were bussed in to “experience the culture.”

It was, of course, exactly the kind of thing that a government agency does when it has no actual plan to develop a keynote cultural event and decides that selling knicknacks is as good an idea as any.

More cuts are likely to come, though with no architecture on which to stretch their current spending and most of the history of billions of dollars aggressively unaccounted for, such cuts are likely to be arbitrary and happen at a remove from the actual need of serious practitioners of Carnival arts.

One such cut is likely to be the Socadrome, which scraped by for yet another year, despite representing no direct cost to the Government while continuing to grow as a successful entrepreneurial effort at meeting Carnival’s needs without taxing the public purse.

This politically-led schizophrenia about Carnival funding simply has to stop.

If necessity is the mother of invention, the ready availability of a seemingly unending stream of state supplied cash has only served to strangle innovative thinking and entrepreneurship in Carnival.

The Government, as Dr Rowley has correctly assessed, has no business getting involved in Carnival. State institutions do not understand the event, and their interventions have been manifestly destructive for the most part, while accidentally providing funds for small creative efforts with the back spatter of massive firehose applications of taxpayer’s money.

There is no mechanism for a small creative professional working in the Carnival space to apply for merit-based funding for a project. Those creatives must either shoehorn their ideas into existing funding tributaries or figure out how to do it on their own. Most aren’t done at all.

There is no better demonstration of the gap between official governance imperatives and the festival’s reality than the State driven motto for Carnival 2016, “One Road, One Stage, One Carnival.”

What does that even mean? When Lord Kitchener sang of a “road made to walk,” he wasn’t talking about a single road or route. He was celebrating Carnival’s remarkable resilience, adaptability and capacity to find fresh paths, both literal and aesthetic.

That isn’t the sort of thing that fits into bureaucratic channels nor does it provide ready veins of opportunity for political mining.

It’s time to acknowledge that the State’s intervention into the annual festival has been almost universally deleterious to creative potential, independent thinking and entrepreneurial spirit and has proven cumulatively far more lethal than a thousand Colonial soldiers on horseback seeking to openly kill Carnival.

Calypso tents in 2016 would be unrecognisable to a patron in 1984 used to the abundance offered by the Original Young Brigade, Calypso Revue and Spektakula Forum. Battlemania, an effort to recapture the electric magic of tent clashes, collapsed.

The Greens at Panorama Semi-Finals finally succumbed to the tone-deaf throttling of Pan Trinbago, some patrons rejuvenating the source space, the North Stand, but more than 2,000 skipped steelband support entirely to prance around the National Stadium in old costumes and Monday wear at Bacchanal Road, produced by Caesar’s Army.

The costumes of the Carnival parade are sharply bifurcated between the commercially driven fluffing of large bands and a traditional costume tradition that’s drifting inexorably toward a crisis in design, support and faltering business models.

The T&T Carnival has been at saturation point for tourism and continues to produce events that have proven impossible to either profitably broadcast live or package for retail consumption.

These are not mysterious and unknowable facts.

They have existed clearly and boldly alongside an undeniable exuberance, a continuously refreshed well of inventiveness and personal courage that buoys Carnival past these potholes of indifference and tragically muddled official thinking each year.

If the Government wants to pull out of spending hundreds of millions on Carnival it must first demand accountability, so it knows what it’s been spending that money on, decide what it is willing to support in the public interest while allowing stakeholders to chart their own course for the festival.

As a corrective for getting major representatives of these stakeholders hooked on mainlining easy government money, it must institute cold turkey business development programmes that define sustainable business models which encourage audience focused creative thinking.

It must also withdraw from funding competition prize money, which has been the single most ruinous force in Carnival’s evolution over the last two decades.

It is no accident that the most entrepreneurial thinkers in Carnival also don’t bother with the festival’s competitions.

The Government, in the persons of Dr Gadsby-Dolly and Dr Rowley must look to the billions earned by successful global entertainers that are being lost while local minds scramble to win contests with absolutely no international currency.

Carnival will not become a pillar of successful and sustainable diversification the way we’re doing it now and that’s just the way it is.