The battle between the forces of the elite European-led Mardi Gras and the working class African-led Camboulay is not just a Carnival battle—it is a metaphor for the battle for the nation’s developmental direction and soul. Our crises of crime, institutional collapse, loss of identity and direction are because our leaders have consistently negated the authentic, the working-class, the indigenous, and the “roots”—choosing instead the foreign, plastic and elite. We’ve become a Mardi Gras people—fake, soul-less, status- and trinket-obsessed, surface and empty. We confront nothing and wait until the rot overwhelms. We’ve abandoned our own star. The Carnival, the culture and the country are all collapsing because of these choices...
From the 1930s, with the first experiments to create pan, to 1956, with the world’s first platinum album, Calypso, by Harry Belafonte, this country went through an extraordinary period of transformation. Our folk culture evolved into classical forms with genius levels of execution, eventually becoming global. During this Golden Age, hundreds of heroic nationals impacted every corner of the globe in sports, politics, the arts, liberation movements and science. Pan, mas and calypso emerged in their modern forms spawning 300 Trini-carnivals worldwide.
During this 20-plus-year period, the trade union movement emerged and the foundations of Independence were laid. Male ethnic secret societies imprinted their community’s culture on the landscape in business, art, ritual and festival... It was a period of extraordinary individual and community genius blossoming, especially out of seven mother communities: St James/Woodbrook; Couva; Arima; Laventille/Belmont/East Port of Spain; Princes Town/Moruga; Point Fortin; and Tobago as village.
The year 1956 marked the peak of T&T’s Golden Age—and beginning of decline. This coincided with the beginning of self-government. Our new leaders’ duty was to consolidate Golden Age gains, creating a society fashioned out of our legacy—in our image. Instead the Independence generation turned its back on our gifts following scripts of development written by our former English and new US colonial overlords. We created no institutions to document, analyse, honour or transmit our genius. We instead swamped our media and curriculum with “foreign content”. Because of this refusal of our leaders to build the missing institutions, nearly all traditions and institutions of excellence are in spectacular collapse—from West Indies cricket to calypso to Carnival.
Similar cultural Golden Ages erupted in different outposts of the African diaspora during the 20th century: blues, jazz, rock and hip-hop in America; reggae in Jamaica; samba in Brazil; hi-life in West Africa, and more. Each age was revolutionary, changing both the dimensions of their societies and the world. Each was propelled by the creativity of marginalised criminal-class black boys aged 12 to 27 who became princes. There were no “public or private sector interventions”... These were spontaneous eruptions of creativity constellated around the African science of music...
Carnival is collapsing because of the marginalisation of these same young, urban African males who were the propulsive force of Carnival and the generators of pop culture globally for a century. Jazz, dancehall, hip-hop—all were created by them and rely on them for innovation. T&T has exiled them with disastrous consequences...
The flipside of that equation involves a ticklish conjunction of class, race and gender. In Carnival—as in other places—men follow women. The issue is this: we cannot allow our women to become the most philistine of us all. Women are supposed to be “bearers of culture”. If we allow our young women to be overtaken, the culture will fall! In the equation of the Mardi Gras, it is the “red women” who hold the sway.
Wherever the “mulatresses” go, so goes Mardi Gras power. The bands they migrate to hold the prestige. In this equation African and Indian women, even white women, don’t matter as much. This says a lot about our society. These colourisms and class issues will destroy us if we don’t confront them. As it stands, because that class of women has no indigenous, ideological agenda and they are simply globalised consumers, our traditions are compromised.
One of the solutions to our collapse is unleashing the top 20 per cent of our genius through systems of merit-based grants and venture capital. This will release T&T’s creative class into the world as touring contingents using the carnivals as springboards. At present, less than .05 per cent of our creatives tour. That number should be 35 per cent. Imagine the earnings if over 20,000 creatives had touring careers of over three months annually!
This has everything to do with “Laventille”. This community gave T&T its most successful indigenous industry—Mas—worth $15 billion a year, with 300 markets worldwide. Nothing was given back for its investments and every attempt to breed industry out of these origins has been blocked. Now the community is collapsing and will pull everything down, just as it raised everything up. Until reparation is paid! As a nation, we owe it to the creative communities and individuals at the heart of our civilisation to crown their genius, empower their best impulses and industrialise their light.
• Rubadiri Victor is a cultural activist.