BitDepth#929 - March 25

As Carnival comes to an end, a national conversation about the festival still looks back at the event's past.
A Carnival Coda
Rubadiri Victor, who convened the National Citizen’s Conversation on Carnival, speaks during the event at QRC. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

This column is an edited version of a talk I gave at the National Citizen’s Conversation on Carnival on March 23.

There’s a real possibility, in the rush to post mortem the major missteps of Carnival 2014, that we will make more far reaching mistakes in the planning of future editions of the festival.

We are on the verge of deputizing a cavalcade of cultural Captain Bakers, the now largely-mythical villain of the annual Canboulay performance, to police the boundaries of what is allowed and desirable in a festival that is founded on the idea of the bacchanalian release of intellectual inhibitions.

So many of the issues that surfaced during the celebrations of 2014 arose from exactly that fundamental conflict.
Bands being penalised for having underage celebrants and for starting at the wrong point in the parade route.
Everything about the defiantly privatised Socadrome event.

It’s as if we now believe that Carnival must be continuously subsidized and ruthlessly regulated if we are ever to whip it into shape.
But consider something else. Consider the very heart of Carnival itself, the private urge to present something engaging and creative as a contribution to the festival itself.

The essential motivation that has driven everyone from Minshall to a young Paramin jab jab to do something so outrageous, so startling, so utterly unusual that we are moved to do nothing more that stand stunned and mutter, “well, that is mas.”

Increasingly the idea of what is mas is coming under the same type of scrutiny that porn once did. If it has this aspect to it, and conforms to that other indicator, well it must be the thing we have defined.
Except that like naughty pictures, such definitions end up being determinedly personal. One man’s dirty picture in a museum is another man’s Boticelli.

Such constraints end up becoming narrow, constricting and ultimately futile, because people will satisfy themselves according to their own desires.

To explain this a bit less abstractly, let me tell you a story about how I came to immerse myself in what’s called pretty mas for two years.

On Carnival Tuesday evening in 2007, I found myself stuck for two hours as the band Tribe flowed in front of my car as I waited to drive home.

At first, I was annoyed, then I became furious.
I was tired, sweaty and aching from a long day and wanted nothing more than to reach my house, barely a block away.
Then, I became curious. The band wasn’t being laggardly. Indeed, there were people hustling the surging line of masqueraders forward.

My first response to that became the ninth blog post I ever wrote (there have been hundreds since), but it moved me to get in touch with Dean Ackin, the bandleader. In 2008,
I spent a year photographing how the band put thousands of people on the road.

In 2013, I did the same thing again, curious about how the band, which had tripled in size since then, had scaled its operations and capacities.
Between those stories, I spent a few months with The Original Whipmasters, whose intensely personal approach to playing mas had also fascinated me.

What I found in both cases was, to my continuing surprise and pleasure, almost exactly the same thing.
I found families working together with shared purpose. Tribe is led largely by the Nobrega, Ackin and Ramirez families, their extended households and circle of friends.

The Alfreds of Couva produce their tiny band out of their living room and yard, the family, friends and community pitching in to make the unsponsored band happen each year.
You may see a world of difference in the results of their efforts. I choose to consider similarities in commitment, effort, work and their shared sense of independence.

The bands are wildly different.
The Alfreds don’t charge masqueraders to play with them. It’s less a band than it is a fraternity of common purpose.
Tribe runs a pricey all-inclusive street party behind nylon rope for people who enjoy that experience and see it as their investment in Carnival.

It is not for me to offer judgement on the merits of their respective approaches, and I submit that it is not a matter for you to decide or even argue either.
I cannot say that I understand the nuances of the costumes that fuel the competitive world of frontline pretty mas. I can attest, though, that there are people who are connoisseurs of the form, a hierarchy of preferred designers and real rockstars among them.

My inability to distinguish between one costume and another speaks to my ignorance, not a lack of knowledge or studied craft within the form.
Creative entrepreneurship, regardless of its form or relative maturity should not be a matter for public discussion beyond a general agreement that it should be encouraged and facilitated.

Far more insidious and deadly is the steady encroachment of State funding at staggering levels throughout the festival.
Such investments, poorly accounted for, unjustified by commonsense and liberally granted have more to do with politics and oil money than any strategy of sustainable development in Carnival.

This spending amounts to nothing less than the Cepeping of Carnival, the creation of eat-ah-food opportunities that do nothing for the art within the festival and may, ultimately, smother any real movement for change and evolution within fragile artforms.

The subventions that support traditional mas have created a ghetto of handouts and minimal ones at that, instead of funding the growth of real businesses or creative hotbeds of innovation.

Millions are spent on events that are essentially stadium scale parties. On whose authority is the Soca Monarch or the Chutney Monarch competition convened beyond our own consensus of acceptance, and the participation of the artists involved?

Here's what we should do...
Operate by the simplest of watchwords. Measure what you want to improve. Protect what’s important.

Give the festival room to breathe. Most of the problems of Carnival arise because of congestion and poor management of large crowds through small spaces.

Remove that ridiculous rule about children in bands on Carnival Tuesday. Family based bands will die off in a generation without an early engagement in the family business. Push party bands to self police the behavior children in their bands.

Listen to the people who are actually doing Carnival. The masqueraders, the calypsonians, the recording studios, the media, the party promoters. Every tiny fix should become part of a much larger plan.

Face the reality of Carnival today. Fond reminiscing about Carnivals past will not magically cause them to return and we’re wasting a lot of time talking about traditions when that’s exactly what we’re creating today for future generations.

Mas Colloqium Talk: One. Then five to fifteen.
Video: Carnival Stakeholder Conversations
BitDepth#927: Lessons from the Socadrome
Guardian Editorial for March 10: More transparency in Carnival
PhotoBlog: Why I have nothing to say about your Facebook Carnival gallery
BitDepth#926: Carnival's stuttering progress
Guardian Editorial for March 02: The Geography of Carnival
BitDepth#925: How I would fix Carnival
Guardian Editorial for February 26: Elitism or Entrepreneurship?
BitDepth#924: Carnival Copyright Redux
Suggestions to the NCC for accreditation improvements.
Narend Sooknarine's experience with the NCC accreditation team.
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