Is Carnival a popular event? The answer might seem an obvious Yes, given the massive crowds which go to the fetes and the manner in which the festival occupies centre stage in the country for several weeks. But popularity has to be defined and measured before a proper answer can be given to this query.
Let's start with Cro Cro. If, as conventional wisdom claims, the calypsonian is the voice of "the people", then someone like Cro Cro should by definition be popular—ie, representative of majority opinion. But, in a news report in last Tuesday's Express, Cro Cro sounded like he'd changed his sobriquet to Cry Cry: "I was left out of the competition by the (People's) Partnership's choice," he said. "The Government funds all the calypso tents. Last year they didn't give me any funding for my tent. Sugar Aloes and Massive Gosine got money for their tent, and I was left in limbo and out in the rain."
But what Cro Cro is inadvertently revealing is that he is not popular enough to attract sufficient people to his tent to make a profit, which is why he needs the State to give him money. So the business model on which he and Sugar Aloes and other PNM-oriented calypsonians made their money was not an entertainment model (where profits come from patrons and advertisers), but a political one—that is, money earned from the State through acting as propagandist for a political party.
This is why Sugar Aloes' claim that he appeared on a UNC platform only as an entertainer didn't fool anyone. The roti pelters' over-reaction at Skinner Park last week was based on their naive belief that propagandists provide their pabulum for principle rather than for money. (I try to avoid obscure words, but "pabulum" is the exactly appropriate term here—it means "bland intellectual matter or entertainment" and comes from a root word that means "food".)
The wider implication of Cro Cro's remarks, however, is that commentary calypso is now a minority cultural artefact. The same is true of the national instrument, pan, inasmuch as steelband concerts also rely on State funding. Were they popular, then they could make money from ticket sales and corporate sponsors.
Which brings me to the soca stars. American musicologist Jocelyne Guilbault, in her book Governing Sound, says that in 1998, the top performers were earning between $18,000 and $90,000 a night. Last Monday, Machel Montano reportedly drew over 20,000 people to his show. Machel, therefore, can make his money from the standard business model for entertainers. But even Machel cannot by himself attract such massive crowds—his event featured about 15 other acts.
Moreover, not only has Machel earned State monies from particular projects, but the Soca Monarch, a private sector venture, now depends on the Government for its prize money. Yet why should this be so, when all the top soca stars are so popular?
Much of the answer has to do with politics. This injection of State funding indicates the politicians perceive there is some electoral benefit to be derived from supporting the events. Hence the reason the ads for Soca Monarch list about three or four ministries and, of course, the Prime Minister. Moreover, since the UNC depends mainly on Indo voters, the huge purses are seen by that party as a necessary tactic to win over the Afro votes required for victory at the polls. And, when the PNM returns to power, even though their base is already Afro, they will find it necessary to continue funding to the same or greater amounts.
This does not mean the political rationale doesn't also have an economic justification. In a 1998 study, UWI economist Keith Nurse calculated that Carnival generated a sevenfold profit, with the State investing about $12 million and visitors spending almost $90 million.
National Carnival Commission head Allison Demas, in a radio interview some weeks ago, said the NCC will be updating Nurse's study so that they can justify future budget demands to the Government. (Other persons have argued, however, that when State expenditure such as security, health care, and productivity losses are taken into account, Carnival is really a loss-making event: but Demas apparently didn't consider this a possible outcome of the planned survey.)
The only other empirical data on Carnival is equally outdated: a 1994 survey by UWI sociologist Roy McCree, who found that two-thirds of the populace listened to soca and calypso music, with about the same proportion being involved in Carnival either by playing mas or by watching it.
While these studies need to be updated, it is unlikely that the pattern has changed very much in the past 15 years. But, while it seems clear that Carnival does generate profits, what needs to be analysed is whether these profits benefit the overall economy, or just the small minority of performers, band-leaders and their crews directly involved in the festival.