BitDepth#872 - February 12

Is Carnival a collection of traditions or is it a commercial enterprise. Deciding this will define its future.
Tradition vs commerce
872-Desperadoes-Frozen North
What moves grown men to wear fur and poke at a papier mache polar bear in the tropics? Probably an imagination that demands a Grandstand's worth of space. Desperadoes plays Polar North. Photograph by Kingsley Lyndersay (restored 2009).

The debate around the state of Carnival tends to boil down to a simple one, whether the traditions of Carnival are more important than its commercial initiatives.
This Hobbesian debate is about whether Trinidad and Tobago was better served by a Carnival that was imagined and staged by a hivemind of individual creators or overseen by a single agency that guides its progress.

Is the self-interest of the masquerader superior to the guiding wisdom of the NCC?
In some ways, it’s now a moot argument. There aren’t enough individual creators working in the space to constitute a meaningful constituency and state spending on the festival is so vast and important to Carnival’s staging that the wishes of politicians fundamentally guide where the event goes from here.

Two things over Carnival jumped out as flashpoints of this discussion.
One was the resentful toilet papering of Sugar Aloes at the Calypso Monarch Semi-Finals. Here, the hotmouth kaisoman was called to task by a crowd of calypso fans for appearing to pander to the People’s Partnership government.

But really, what was Mr Osuna to do? Allow the oldest continuously operating calypso tent to collapse through an adversarial relationship with the government agency dispensing critical funds needed to keep it going?

The time to have a reconciliation with the Indo-Trinidadian fans of calypso was a decade ago, after the body calypso rose up to pillory the UNC government with shocking virulence and chased a good half of their audience away.
What was once an option is now a requirement and even though those fans never came back, state money did, with political strings attached, a compromise that’s haunted every calypso tent to this day.

And then there was The Greens. A phenomenon I’ve watched evolve in the North Stand as the party there grew more raucous and migrated down the steps to under the stand and the grounds adjoining it.
Now that space has been formalised and, Pan Trinbago believes, contained. But behind those heavily shielded walls of tarpaulin a party has blossomed that is on the verge of hiving away completely from the Panorama event itself. It probably serves them right for creating a concert space in which the band by design turns its back on half of its audience.

If ever there was a physical manifestation of the polarisation between tradition and commerce, this was it.
On one side of the partition, a wild party raged, part Spring Break and part clubbing, it sported booze on hoses, pole dancing and an actual disco with fog and DJ. These party people may have chosen to say that they were supporting pan, but they didn’t need it.

In the rest of Panorama, tradition reigned. Armed officers challenged the crowds on the track that were there not just to support their bands, but also to physically haul them along the asphalt to the stage.
In another concert space, there would have been tracks with cables to pull pan racks which would have long ago been designed to specified sizes. Here, on the spottily lit track leading to the most important stage in all of steelband’s existence, time was frozen stiff.

The Carnival argument has not only polarised opinion, it has stalled innovation. Traditional performance is now a moving mausoleum of old ideas, untroubled by new concepts, new materials and new expression.
Commercial Carnival is equally hidebound, constraining itself shamelessly to what sells with no concern about real design and innovation. The blur of feathers on Carnival Tuesday is largely matched by high BPM hum of the year’s soca output in dozens of parties.

That isn’t inspiration, it’s repetition and it’s killing the event.
Before these conceptual silos were built, there was simply Carnival, when everything was possible.
For at least fifteen full years, the designers, composers and arrangers of Carnival have settled for repeating last year with a variation. When things have changed, it has been the result of stupidity, not planning. Destroying the Grandstand, putting the parade on the road and then rebuilding exactly the same Grandstand wasn’t evolution; it was pointless irritation.

Until we understand that the spirit of continuous invention was the true magic of Carnival, that pervasive sense of potential waiting to waiting to be realised, we are doomed to continue repeating last year.
Tradition demands fidelity and commerce must be saleable but creation is risk, it’s doing something that hasn’t been done before.

Where is the environment for that to happen?
Where would Minshall create The Hummingbird or Shorty compose Endless Vibrations now?
There needs to be a third space, outside of commerce and tradition for that type of inventive thinking, the conceptual freedom that once fuelled all of Carnival or this party is, finally, over.

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