BitDepth#926 - March 04

Carnival’s stuttering progress
926-Ice
This is half of the crowd for Tribe Ice, the first major party of the season. This is what happens when popular soca meets the target audience for a big band. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

There’s a song that I’ve been listening to over the last two weeks, a 2013 dance number by Fuse ODG, the working alias of Nana Richard Abiona, a British musician of Ghanian descent.

It’s a peppy little number, full of the celebratory synthesiser riffs so typical of UK dance music with a funky rhythm that’s reminiscent of Afrofunk. It’s also a song that would fit right into any soca DJ’s playlist without causing a hiccup in a Carnival party’s full tilt wining.

That’s how tissue thin the difference between modern soca and European dance music has become.
It’s not the only spot in the Carnival landscape where international breakthroughs seem imminent, and it also isn’t the first instance of the type of creative osmosis that’s brought the festival to international attention.

From Who let the dogs out to Minshall’s command performances for the Olympics, to the impact of Differentology on international music charts, the products, aesthetic and creative potential of Carnival always seem just on the verge of being a big thing, before retreating determinedly to the safety of the parochial.

What is it about T&T that brings us global attention, as calypso did in the 1940’s and 50’s, only to lose momentum?
We always seem well prepared to make a strong beachhead landing and then decide that storming up the slopes of Normandy is just too much bother and it might be better to suck a Carib and watch the waves instead.
What causes this to happen repeatedly?

A misunderstanding of roles is a big part of it.
The State really needs to decide whether it is an investor in Carnival or its sponsor. When Carnival stakeholders begin to gripe about the lavish freeness expected by representatives of the State during events, perhaps it’s time to admit that you’re a sponsor, and a loutish one at that.

Yet the conversation about Carnival is always about investment and returns and earnings, business terms that mean nothing when more than $200 million can be ploughed into the annual festival with no expectation of serious accountability for spending on that scale.

An investor considers a plan, puts money behind it and expects accurate reporting on the progress of the business.
A sponsor buys into a brand in the hopes of leveraging their own fortunes, their return comes in winning attention.
The state needs to decide which it is and stop trying to be the worst of both.
Similarly, the NCC really needs to decide exactly what it is, because it’s acting like the serf of the stakeholders instead of the convenor of Carnival.

According to the NCC’s website, this is what it is constituted to manage…
  • The regulation, co-ordination or conduct of all Carnival activities throughout the country held under the aegis of the Government.
  • The development, maintenance and review of rules, regulations and carnival festivities throughout the country.
  • The identification, evaluation and promotion of all Carnival related industries with a view to the enhancing and marketing of their cultural products and services.
  • The development and implementation of a marketing strategy for Carnival with a view to optimizing the revenue earning potential of the festival and its contribution to the national economy.
  • Is this what the NCC has been doing?

Under the direction of the State, the Carnival Commission has long been pursuing a strategy of distributing fish, not teaching fishermen. The result is a Carnival welfare state that’s unsustainable without a flush oil economy.
It’s been the outsiders, the large bandleaders and the soca performers who have developed real world skills when existing systems failed them.

That’s turned out to be profitable for many of them and the biggest bandleaders and soca singers now manage engines of creativity and production which are completely absent in most of the festival.
Instead of embracing that model, demonstrably the most successful one in modern Carnival, the NCC has reneged on its responsibility to develop in favour of pandering to its official stakeholders, all of whom are now firmly stitched to the public purse.

Tomorrow, on Ash Wednesday, there will be much celebratory backpatting on the success of another edition of the festival.
This will happen regardless of the conspicuous failures of so many State sponsored events to galvanise public interest or to contribute to the formation of anything that might resemble a sustainable Carnival economy.
Next up is Lent, when the literal eating of fish will accelerate, despite another year’s lost opportunity during Carnival to meaningfully engage the metaphor of making fishers of men.

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Guardian Editorial for March 02: The Geography of Carnival
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