Saturday, February 24, 2018

Neglecting the base

 Carnival 2014 is here and finds us with another last-minute, makeshift, piecemeal initiative called the Socadrome. Why is it that after two decades of ever-worsening congestion and overall degradation in what is reportedly a billion-dollar business, we are still unable to pull together the brains and the creativity to do a comprehensive review of the Carnival in all its dimensions? Is it the politics? Vested interests? Short-sightedness on the part of the bandleaders? 

Most of the visitors who come for the Carnival do not play mas. Most of the people who come to Port of Spain from the other districts on Carnival Monday and Tuesday do not play mas either.  For most of the people in the city on those two days, the Carnival experience is mostly off the track, and it follows that most of the economic returns from the Carnival parade come from non-masqueraders.

This is the huge and growing customer base that the NCC and the POS City Corporation can justifiably be accused of neglect. The foreign visitors alone spend over US$100 million, probably a half of what could be earned through simple improvements in the quality of the product. It is unfortunate to say the least that so little imagination has gone into uplifting the conditions under which “the greatest show on Earth” has to be experienced by the vast majority of these customers.

The marketing of Carnival seems largely intended to increase the number of masqueraders on the road, and the numbers suggest that it is succeeding. But ironically, this very success is the undoing of the spectacle that the Carnival parade is supposed to be, and undermining the entire Carnival experience. 

“Show” and “spectacle” indicate a visual experience. More people might be playing mas, but even more people want to see mas. And that does not mean seeing a party in the road, but a parade of masqueraders passing by and putting on a “show”. Furthermore, when they are not actually looking at the parade, these customers want services, security and facilities where they can enjoy the off-track Carnival experience. 

Congestion on the road is directly and indirectly killing the Carnival experience in many ways. When the parade comes to a standstill and alcohol is flowing, the masquerade inevitably becomes a party, which is not what people have come to see. But for a whole generation of young people the party has replaced the parade, and if the party is all they know then party is all they will want. “That is what they want” can hardly be an excuse for allowing the Trinidad Carnival to deteriorate and the centrepiece “Parade of the Bands” to become a farce.

Creativity in Carnival is expressed in costumes that move. When there is no space to move, the creativity will dry up. You don’t need a Carnival costume for a party; you just need to look pretty. And so it is that prettiness has displaced creativity, and wining on each other has replaced dancing along the street. With fewer opportunities to parade there is less incentive to be creative, and in a classic vicious cycle, with less creativity on show there is less reason to parade.

Congestion in one part of town means empty streets in another. So even as more people play mas, less mas is being seen. The spectators must either wait for the bands to pass or go where they are piling up. Where the spectators go the vendors must go. The situation goes from bad to worse. 

The solutions are obvious: the creative space must be extended; the masqueraders must be able to move; the “parade” must take priority over the “party”; the spectators must be able to spectate—and to do so in comfort and safety; the facilities and services for the spectators must be greatly improved in quality and quantity.

The mechanisms for implementing the solutions are not obvious—and certainly not simple. They include distributing the parade evenly along the whole route; pacing the bands as they move along the route; putting the spectators (and the vendors) where they can see the parade and also access other services and facilities. This means selecting the route well in advance so that the infrastructure can be put in place and the spectators advised about what they can expect.

This requires the full co-operation of all stakeholders. The bands have been free to start parading when and where they want; free to stop for lunch when and where they want, and free to change their routes if the circumstances do not seem to meet their immediate preferences. 

You cannot have control without cooperation. We must all agree to follow the same “rules”—for want of a better word—or there can be no solution. This is simple logic, and it is pointless to argue that it requires a level of discipline that is beyond the society or that free-for-all is at the heart of the Carnival experience. 

There is at least one comprehensive proposal—called the “Carnival Loop®” —that incorporates these rules, and the discussion must start right after Carnival on how they are to be introduced and implemented. 

The first step is to seek an agreement by the majority of the stakeholders that comprehensive changes will be introduced next year.  The second is an unequivocal and irrevocable commitment by the bandleaders that they will fully cooperate in this effort to eliminate the congestion, for without their cooperation any initiative is destined to fail.

Once these two steps have been taken, the bandleaders will have to agree to two further fundamental innovations; namely, the large bands will be spaced evenly around the city, and the movement of the bands will be paced using GPS technology throughout the day.

• Geoffrey Frankson is a medical doctor