For some years now, Carnival has been trending away from the major spectator event it once was to being a theatre of mass participation as more and more people choose to play rather than watch mas. The shift has been particularly evident in the thinning crowds lining the pavements along band routes in Port of Spain and in the large number of empty seats in stands at the Downtown and Savannah venues.
This year’s crowd attendance at the main Carnival venues in the capital suggests, if anything, a deepening of this trend. Perhaps gone forever are the days when parade routes were framed by throngs of people, many of them families with children who would make the journey into the city and settle into some preferred spot to watch the unfolding of the spectacle that is Trinidad Carnival.
The explosive growth in masqueraders at the expense of spectators is not the only factor at play here. Another major element has been the congestion resulting from the increase in the size and number of big bands which has played havoc with band routes. Loath to risk getting trapped for hours behind a big band, many bands have abandoned downtown Port of Spain; some have given up the Queen’s Park Savannah as well, opting to give their masqueraders a good time on the street by avoiding the competition stage altogether.
The consequence has been the falling away of the viewing public from the equation in which spectating and participation have been finely balanced to give both a central place in the Carnival. The shrinking spectator populations has also impacted the dynamic between masqueraders and spectators, with many bands parading streets without an audience, resulting in them turning increasingly inward.
Unless the Carnival authorities are happy with this development, one would have expected them to have addressed the problem as an urgent priority by now. The fact that they haven’t suggests they either don’t recognise it as a problem, or don’t see it as their problem, or, if they do, have no idea how to solve it. It is possible that Carnival management is largely seen as a matter involving the parade of bands and masqueraders and not the viewing public. Certainly, there is nothing to suggest that any thought is given to the comfort or quality of the viewing experience of spectators.
The time has come to bring the spectator into the Carnival equation as a full investor.
As a start the National Carnival Commission (NCC) should take a good look at its empty stands and review all the factors involved, including its pricing policy. At the other end of the capital, where the stands at South Quay are even more empty, the Port of Spain City Corporation needs to re-examine its entire approach to the hosting of Carnival.
The over-emphasis on competition locations by both the NCC and the city may be one reason for the neglect of spectators along the routes.
If Trinidad Carnival is to live up to the hype as the greatest spectacle on earth, it must value the role of spectators and prioritise their interest, too.