Sunday, December 17, 2017

My best Carnival

 I haven’t been to any Carnival fetes, haven’t attended any shows, I’ll be at home on the two Carnival days, but already this is my best Carnival ever. Why? There are signs that we might yet stop the ongoing barbarisation of Trinidad and Tobago. For we have been celebrating one of our best, Sparrow, who, in the spotlight, looms larger than the Carnival which has become unworthy of him. I thank Rawle Gibbons, Earl Lovelace, Gordon Rohlehr and all who made possible Sparrow’s visit and this dignified treatment of artistic genius. It points to what civilised society should be. It undoubtedly inspired the Prime Minister to do her part which she did most splendidly, adding to the joy when she also honoured Peter Minshall who took the mas to unprecedented heights and without whom, it is dying, as is the calypso, after the phenomenal output of Sparrow, the mightiest of all. 

I am also glad the PM made the announcement in Siparia at the Kiddies Carnival and very happy that both honorees were present. The children will never forget the day when Sparrow and Minshall came to their rural town. Why are some objecting? Aren’t the children of Siparia worthy of our cultural heroes and aren’t Sparrow and Minshall worthy of the children? We shouldn’t be too elitist and city centric in this small place. Our heroes belong to all of us and they must be shared by all. Sparrow first reached me as a boy in Cedros in the 50s and his songs immediately became mine. Also, by making the announcement in Siparia, the Prime Minister elevated carnival celebrations that take place outside Port of Spain, the location for the ongoing destruction of the mas.

I now ask the Prime Minister to continue her good work and replace that most absurd statue of Sparrow on the St Clair Roundabout which tries to make the artiste look like a statesman. That is not Sparrow, our own incarnation of the indomitable human spirit. Fourteen years ago, in a newspaper column, I commented on the statue’s woeful inadequacy saying, “Sparrow is the bird of endless vitality, the performer of daring demeanour, the pugnacious persona, the confidence exuding to the point of arrogance and above all else the vitality that produced his phenomenal creativity. 

“We have built a statue that is flat and lifeless to commemorate this most extraordinary individual, so full of life”. 

Sparrow has now added coma as a victim of his irrepressibility. The Prime Minister must  commission Peter Minshall to design a statue that will capture for all time, the essence of this heroic artiste who enriched this country. Then the genius of Sparrow and Minshall will be forever bonded and Madam PM will be etched in history with them. 

Yes my heart is full this Carnival. I am also extremely pleased that a place is being constantly carved for vintage calypsoes every Carnival season, so we can continue to enjoy the rich work of Stalin, Shadow, Rudder, Baron and others. When we respect our art, we elevate ourselves; when we celebrate our cultural giants, we expose the banality that has replaced their genius. We shame those who continue to indulge in their own undernourishment, dancing their own destruction, mistaking the vapid for the real, unaware of any cause for embarrassment. Ignorance is the depth of our tragic condition in this philistine place. 

Also contributing to my best Carnival ever, and giving hope we could eventually establish a civilisation, is the fact that my play The Archbishop and the Prime Minister defied the thinking that serious theatre will fail in the Carnival season. We had two recently successful runs at Cipriani College and at NAPA, south; the latter victory was particularly sweet since the play competed that weekend with the Chutney Soca Monarch competition, the Panorama semi-finals and some of the most popular fetes like Blood Bank and the Cancer Society on San Fernando Hill. Last year, on advice from others that Christmas was also not a good time, I unwillingly cancelled a run of the play in mid-December, but threatened not to yield twice and to stage my plays both at Christmas and Carnival.  I thank my audiences for proving we are all not caught in the froth and frenzy that now characterise our Carnival, that our tastes remain varied and sophisticated. I encourage all fellow artistes to do their thing whatever the season. Art must shape the society, not succumb to it.

And so I join the call for a cultural policy in Trinidad and Tobago.  The government will be spending $202 million on Carnival this year. The sum of $249 million was spent last year, $200 million the year before and hundreds of millions for decades. According to one commentator, “where the money gorn?”  This year, the Chutney and Soca Monarch competitions will get $12 million, with $2 million for each winner.  Are these songs worth it? A review said Chutney Soca, this year, was all “rum, horn and bs”.

Previously, commenting on soca, I wrote that “we place pedestrianism on a pedestal, using superlatives to describe the flimsy and fleeting.” What is the government’s basis for extravagance to chutney and soca and insufficiency to drama, dance and the visual arts? What is it doing to save the Carnival and calypso from terminal decline?  Besides, aren’t the chutney and soca competitions projects of entertainment entrepreneurs and have massive patronage from tens of thousands of people? Do we have any idea of the revenue from these enterprises? Are there audited accounts? Are these deserving of public funding?

These disturbing thoughts threaten my present joy. But I remember Sparrow who always triumphed, and it remains my best Carnival ever. 

• Ralph Maraj  is a playwright, 

actor and former cabinet minister