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A dime a dozen

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Well the frenzied Carnival season is over and the sound of vigorous back-slapping is echoing across the country. I hesitate to offer an armchair perspective but am compelled to touch on some very important observations. You see, this is one of our greatest problems: we are loathe to confront our shortcomings, instead opting to cling to a notion (of questionable origin) that we are the greatest at whatever we do; that our talent and intelligence can rival any country on the planet. For the purposes of this column, I wish to state emphatically that this is just not true when it comes to Carnival.

Let me begin with the Soca Monarch competition which I watched in its entirety on “squeamish Friday.” I squirmed in my chair looking at the amateurish opening acts of acrobatics. Both of the opening groups conveyed the impression of having submitted themselves to choreography mere moments before the show began. Most of the “soca artistes” were tuneless and seemingly asthmatic. It also struck me how many of them expressed their gratitude for having been allowed to perform on a big stage. For many of them it was their first time performing for such a large audience. Did we then really get the cream of the crop for this premier competition or could the finalists have been whittled down further?

Additionally, performers in the groovy category seemed to forget what category they were in and screamed their performances as if they were competing for the $2 million. I also really did not need to know about the bacchanal unfolding backstage amongst the performers. What some performers carried on with could not be mistaken for picong and healthy rivalry. It was pure, unfiltered animus and embarrassing jealousy. Ultimately what we got was a show that dragged on through the night like a wounded beast that just would not die. A lot has been made of Machel’s victory. Many believe that Iwer George should have won the title because he was able to move the crowd the most. Well if it were a political meeting or a full-gospel rally that would mean something; this was a soca competition.

In engaging in such debate we are demonstrating our glaring lack of sophistication and understanding of the nature of these things. From the standpoint of an offering to the world, I strongly believe that it left a great deal to be desired. Our insistence on congratulating ourselves without critical analysis of our flaws and our strengths (such that they are) means that the show, and by extension our society, will never change. The Soca Monarch was not the sole domain of the self-aggrandisement. For the parade of the bands, the commentators were treading a strong current in providing intelligible opinion on the obviously homogenised mas presentation.

This was amply abetted by their paucity of knowledge of the origin of elements of Carnival culture.
One presenter could only go as far back as announcing with seeming authority that Veni Mange was the first all-inclusive party this country had ever seen. (And even that he did qualify with an “as far as I am aware.”) Oddly enough, one presenter of yore, Allyson Hennessy of Veni Mange, was often able to take the spectator down through the ages with detailed historical significance of characters like the Pierrot Grenade or the Fancy Sailor and Fireman. I believe author Earl Lovelace said it best in an interview on Carnival Tuesday: “Carnival is supposed to be an expression of our best selves. This…I am not sure this is an expression of our best selves.”

Then, obviously hoping to dilute what he expected would be received with discomfort, he added, “Certainly it shows our sensuality and sexuality.” Funny, I saw two dogs outside the grocery last week tied at the tails, conveying more or less the same thing I saw on television on Monday and Tuesday.
Now this should not descend into a debate about the propriety behaviour on the main stage; that is a moot point. Consider the international coverage of carnivals around the world, all held at this time of the year because of the Catholic influence in those societies. We are one of hundreds of these festivals and it does not matter that many of them are patterned after ours because who the hell knows that. In many international publications we receive no coverage at all. Even Haiti gets a few photos in the foreign broadsheets.

As a friend’s father was telling me the other day, the only thing that makes ours unique is the steel pan. Yet we seem more interested in extracting money from photographers to take pictures at Panorama rather than have them plaster the Internet with the images and have people from all over the world see this one-of-a-kind phenomenon that occurs annually. The debate rages on about the “copy and paste” Carnival that dominates the streets. At one time it was subtle but now the bands are directly lifting designs from Brazil’s Carnival and squeezing our women into them.

Now bandleader Dean Akin catches a lot of flak for the cookie-cutter Carnival that his band churns out, but he has never professed to be an artist. He is a businessman and a damn fine one at that. In a New York Times interview he said quite bluntly, “All of the people talking about creativity in mas, what are their numbers? That says a lot about what the market wants!”  Again he is quite right. He is not in the business of creativity. Leave that to the broke wire-benders and ramen noodle-eating writers and columnists. God knows you do not need to be creative to get Trinis to spend all of their money.

Tribe sells costumes to “clients,” not masqueraders, and who knows, there may come a time when Mr Akin’s clientele will tire of the bikini and beads and demand to be encased in latex with only openings for orifices. Brian Mac Farlane continues to bleat about the dissipation of creativity in costuming. I believe I understand why he champions this cause so passionately. His band has been winning by default for the past few years. The judges have the easiest time of it because of the chasm in the aesthetics between what he has done and what every single other band has reproduced. In your heart I think what you are hearing Mac Farlane saying is at least put up a fight man!

Brian, just drink your champagne and stop wasting your breath, Carnival as you remember it is dead. Do what you have been doing and at least take comfort in the fact that you are providing people with a choice. If Carnival is to be sustained, we must accept that a lot of what we do is not unique. Honesty is the first step on the path to making this country truly stand out from the dime-a-dozen carnivals around the world. We are bikini and beads, New Orleans is beads and bared breasts ; the next step is just porn and that is free all over the Internet.


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