Saturday, February 24, 2018

Making rough ways smooth


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There was a small item in this newspaper on November 8, 2012 reporting the death of Electra Harris, a broadcaster and founding member of the Whitehall Players, a group that included Errol John and Ronnie Williams as foundation members.

I knew Mrs Harris because she was the mother of Gideon Harris, my close friend and chief secretary, so to speak, of our small discussion group to whom I have referred as the Alberto Street boys. Gideon died in May 2012, a few months before his mother.

I set the personal context only as a prelude to putting into a broader context the cultural activities of the generation to which Electra Harris belonged and to demonstrate the lineage of our rich and enduring cultural traditions.

The Whitehall players were among those pioneers, who set about creating and performing indigenous works supported by enlightened persons who were not deterred by the snobbish sniffs of the establishment.

Beryl Mc Burnie was of the same generation as was Helen May Johnstone, music festival founder and mother of Queen's Hall. So were Spree Simon, Neville Jules and other pan pioneers followed closely by Williams, Mannette and Marshall. To these pioneers of the performaning arts of theatre, dance and music we owe an un-repayable debt of gratitude for our cultural liberation and the current vibrancy of our cultural sector.

The sniffs consumed a diet of foreign material and were arguably Trinidad's philistines, that is, those who were smug and indifferent or hostile to indigenous artistic and cultural liberation.

Sadly, the sniffs are still with us and we have public officials who are suddenly scenting the perceived bling of cultural promotion without having made any intelligent assessment of what cultural reserves we have and where and how they might be used and, above all, properly rewarded.

It is readily easy to appreciate the direct line that runs from Errol John's Moon Over Rainbow Shawl, created in the fifties, through Earl Lovelace's Dragon Can't Dance (published as a novel in 1979) and Tony Hall's Miss Miles (opened at Little Carib 2010).

Moon Over Rainbow Shawl was first performed in London in 1953 or thereabouts and only recently I received online an announcement from the Royal National Theatre of a revival of the play for a new run.

In view of the current proposals to form a super, one size fits all, State-controlled company to promote art and culture, it might be useful to remind readers what is the British Royal National Theatre. It is the successor to the renowned Old Vic at Waterloo. Its funding arrangements are instructive.

The National Theatre is one of two publicly funded theatres. The other is the Royal Shakespeare Company. The funding arrangements are described as follows: "Earned income made up approximately 54 per cent of revenue (34 percent from ticket sales and 20 per cent as revenue from the restaurants, bookshops, etc.). Support from the Arts Council and a number of smaller government grants provided 35 per cent of this income, and the remaining 11 per cent came from a mixture of private support from companies, individuals, trusts and foundations".

I do not know how producers in London originally discovered Moon Over Rainbow Shawl but I wonder what efforts our missions abroad make to sell our theatre and other productions in London and in diaspora sources.

As others have emphasised, we should be looking at having cultural missions perform abroad, creating commercial opportunities in markets that have far more substantial populations than ours. Our now well established pan fusion with sitar and Indian melodies would be well received in India.

I repeat that we need to expand the Carnival season into a full first-quarter festival encompassing all our arts or alternatively build a new indoor festival (to avoid rain) later in the year, around the seemingly defunct Pan is Beautiful classical competition and to coincide with the November concert season. There should be several venues moving away from over-centralization at one venue.

In Sophocles' play of the same name, Electra laments the murder of her father and advocates revenge. The chorus, a main feature of classical Greek drama whose role was to comment on the action as it unfolded, responds: "Forget not thy foes but refrain from an excess of wrath against them; for time is a god who makes rough ways smooth".

The pan movement and all our other artistes who struggled against the indifferent establishment have seen time and the pioneers make smooth many of the rough ways for artistic endeavour. Last week the rough ways of race preaching politicians sullying Divali were made smooth by expressions of inter-cultural respect in music and song by enlightened organisations. My Divali was enriched by the bhajans sung and played on pan in Birdsong's yard.

However we must urgently rationalise by reference to a published policy the principles to be applied to public funding of the arts and festivals. Another special purpose company is no substitute for that.