BitDepth 770 - February 22

Culture intellectuals gather to discuss Carnival and Multiculturalism at UWI.
Robber talk or action plan?
Peter Minshall puts movement to his talk on Carnival’s origins at UWI’s Centre for Language Learning. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

It was tough work sifting through the flood of words at the Think forum on Carnival and Multiculturalism. The event, held at UWI’s Centre for Language Arts on February 11, attracted a standing room only crowd for Peter Minshall’s talk, or more accurately, performance about Carnival’s origins, accompanied by a house broom with bristles he described “coolie pink.”

Minshall’s talk, hugely entertaining and theologically challenging, was full of dramatic pauses and meaningful looks that would be in short supply as more than a dozen speakers struggled to fit large discussions into 10 and 20 minute time slots throughout the day.
The overall impact was of a sprawl of thoughts spat out like ever faster bullet points as the seminar raced to a conclusion. The strobing concepts that lingered were the most intriguing.

Pundit Ravi Ji reminisced on a childhood full of fascination for Carnival.
“The eldest son of a Brahmin was expected to become a pundit,” Ravi Ji recalled. “He was allowed to participate in old mas in Port of Spain, but when he broke away and went to Chaguanas to jump up in the bands, I got a cut ass.”
Of the stated concept up for discussion at the event, Dr Louis Regis said, “I have no idea what multiculturalism is.”

It would be a statement of confusion or outright dismissal that was echoed throughout the day’s discussions, particularly in the wake of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s dismissal of “state multiculturalism” just a few days before.
Pat Bishop put the matter forward more forthrightly, saying that “There’s a need to separate words like policy, development, culture, multiculturalism and Carnival from each other or risk just talking nonsense.”

There wasn’t a single speaker who endorsed the notion of multiculturalism in Trinidad and Tobago, a position summarised by Gillian Moor who said: “Multiculturalism attempts to ensure that different cultures get equal time and resources, but Trinidad and Tobago culture trends toward merging and synthesis, so how would multiculturalism address the nature of local culture?”

The idea of cultural policy also came in for some disquieting review. Marcia Riley explained that “Policy exists in three levels, policy as intention, policy in action, policy as experienced. How does that play out in Trinidad and Tobago?”
Pat Bishop deepened that thought, saying that: “A policy may be described as a statement of intent, it is the parameters of doing, but it is not doing itself.”
Dr Suzanne Burke offered a rich presentation that put forward exactly the kind of provocative facts that make discussions so rewarding in talkshops like these.

Dr Burke noted that Carnival has been subject to formal state policy and supervision since the formation of the CDC in 1957 and more recently the NCC in 1991. This has led, she asserted, to a strategy of using Carnival to spin and achieve political narratives that are unsurpringly favorable to the party in power at the time.
One compelling statistic that Burke shared was the steady increase in the Carnival subvention from the NCC, moving from 12 million in 1996 to 70 million in 2008 to 120 million in 2011.

Amid the dour annotations of the current state of affairs in Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival, there were some bright and witty notes sounded throughout the day’s discussions.
The “no she didn’t” award went to Sunity Maharaj who roused the post-luncheon crowd when she declared that: “I think Gypsy should be the Prime Minister, because this is Government by extempo.”

The summary statement from the forum was still being formulated as this column closed, but was said to run to a page and a half. More useful, I suspect, will be the promised posting of the discussions, which were recorded, to the Department of Creative and Festival Arts website ( for wider consumption and debate.

Notes from the Carnival symposium.
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