Carnival fantasies

Following the 19-hour Panorama Savannah party, the half-a-dozen calypsonians suing TUCO over its Dimanche Gras selections, and whatever controversy over costumed bands or street violence emerges today and tomorrow, later this week into next there will be ample public commentary and handwringing about the inefficiency and stupidities of our Carnival.

When this happens predictably every year, even as state bureaucrats’ tone-deaf pronouncements about a safe and orderly Carnival are recycled, I usually wonder: Could the festival of the God of Inversion—Karene Asche should really know better—be “well run”? What would an orderly bacchanal look like?

Could even the best global managers ever discipline Trinidad & Tobago’s Carnival, a sprawling ritual with so many moving parts, origins and constituencies, into any efficiency? And wouldn’t that be to fundamentally chop it off from its riotous, defiant and populist roots—the way North American Carnivals have been bleached into public safety, order and corporate commodification—turning it into an inorganic tourist economy festival the way Eastern Caribbean carnivals once ran?

I always remember my Carnivals in Brooklyn for each of the eight years of the Giuliani administration that had policed parties out of the neighbourhood mas camps, exiled panyards to the industrial border with Queens, and introduced a “Turn Music Off” LED sign at the end of the parade route. I looked forward to the sudden moment during Jouvay when the Grenadian jab molassie posse would come down. After they had passed, not a single police vehicle was left white; and for every year they kept up a single, singular chant of the Mayor’s name and the three-syllable orifice from which he had emerged at birth.

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 20.11.28 PM.pngI’ve never held a warm embrace of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of economic self-interest as a way to organise anything in the public interest. But any casual observer would notice that the areas of Carnival the state has stayed out of appear to be those where the market has enabled the greatest commonsense and efficiency. The profiteering, production-line bathsuit-and-beads mas bands. The obscenely exclusive fetes. The free movement of music—from the pirate CD, to the internet, to the cusp of an electronic composition becoming road march.

On the other hand, it is precisely those areas that government and special interest groups (SIGs) have attempted to organize through sponsorship or discipline that have been the most spectacular failures: The refusal to accept solutions to the hours-long parade-of-the-bands bottleneck at the Savannah, which has made me decide playing mas is sufferation. The hopelessness of the judging of state-sanctioned competitions—pan being the most glaring example of the meaninglessness of one- and two-point differences between scores of competing bands. The inability of most of what I find artful and imaginative in calypso to make it into Dimanche Gras.

I particularly struggle to understand why the model of judged competitions continues to dominate and distort Carnival. I want to hear good pan and good calypso in manageable doses. Do I care who “wins”?

It’s the first thing I’d eliminate were I the Carnival czar. With International Soca Monarch the private market hasn’t succeeded any better than the state and SIGs at a competition that avoids the smell of patronage or the glaring confusion that we just don’t agree on quality or form. Besides those patrons who haven’t forgiven Machel for his violence, I think I know what anyone would answer if given a choice between seeing the soca artist lineup in the Stadium on Monday or Friday of the same week. Without state support, Carnival competitions would simply collapse, allowing cultural evolution or the market to replace them with something more sustainable and rational.

2017-02-27 08.01.05.jpgLive brass is back on the road this year, to the delight of so many in my generation. Bands are deciding to forego the Savannah bottleneck. Portrayal mas that requires discomfort and dedication for its joy has remained alive, though no longer dominant, with designers from a new generation. Masqueraders afraid of the jamettes will hopefully go back up on top the trucks, party on the fringes of the capital, and give people back the road.

Does any of this require regulation? Where in our most significant national festival (or at least the most significant creole one) is it appropriate? Should taxpayers be funding anything other than infrastructure and security? I’d prioritise increased immigration and customs officers on duty for arriving visitors over free doubles and Solo. I’d start with banning ropes around anything on the road but drink trucks.

Seriously. But more seriously, I believe government’s other core role in Carnival ought to be to reward innovation. Seed ideas. Enable think-tanks. Preserve old forms. Provide traditional mas characters with two music trucks and support for academies to teach the traditions. Provide incentive funding and profit-matching for successful ventures.

Too much of our thinking rests on patronage approaches—money for Sparrow; a house for Minshall—and too little on market approaches. Calypso Rose’s French producer didn’t give her a house or car.

Finally, I hope my friend Sonja Dumas will accept the job as Carnival czar to make at least some of this rethinking happen.


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