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 The Carnival that finds fewer takers

By Lennox Grant

 As I ended by saying last week, Carnival remains to be covered in words, that is to say, in the hard-detail reporting on what is visibly or verifiably going on. This is as distinct from the snapshots, and even the video pans, that capture moments effortlessly recorded without identifying the people and clarifying the actions represented in the images.

Usain Bolt came to T&T.  The sprint champion saw; and he conquered, to the extent of being photographed taking a wine on the tattooed, bare-midriff, body of a woman who looked Trini enough to be also long-haired, eye-shadowed, and jewel-studded in the left nostril.

Her push-toe sandalled foot showed slender, well-formed toes. Is she really as Trini as she looks?  The easy answer is that it doesn’t matter. 

The example, taken from the Express’ front-page on Friday, may be only outlandishly applicable to the larger point it is my business to press. Which is the information deficit that is hopelessly endemic in T&T. 

As I was also saying last week, Carnival has evolved downward, spiritually, from being a people’s mission to a state mandate given effect by something called “funding”. Absent that public funding, or other from the private sector, it’s hard to tell what survives in the name of Carnival.

It’s part of the today narrative that never gets told, which denotes an actual walking away from Carnival’s essential modalities. The traditional essence consists of a disposition by people to play the mas they want, sing the songs they want, play the music they can make, all without expectation or hope of winning a prize counted in dollars.

Peter Samuel senior once told me of his young mas-playing days.  His small band, having won in Downtown Port of Spain, he was summoned to collect the first prize—a silver cup. 

What’s the second prize? he asked. It was a case of rum. Oh, in that case, place us second, he said. 

As the organisers complied, he headed back to his band, case of rum on shoulder, to play more mas, more merrily.

The people today, missioned to play mas for the joy of it, if seasoned with rum, free or other, are hard to find. That is to say, they are hard to identify outside the ropes enclosing the merrymakers, who want for naught beyond the services and supplies all-inclusively lavished upon them. 

This mas-playing “experience” has in 2014 gained something resembling concrete institutional form in the Socadrome, the name that provocatively invokes the Rio de Janeiro carnival’s “Sambadrome” spectator laneway. Like long-time bottle-pelting, the word “elitist” is being hurled against the Socadrome.

Never more than a spectator to the movement now labelled Socadrome, I hold that “elites” too are entitled to such mas as they want, and can afford, to play. Nobody demonstrates how Socadrome, in principle and in practice, operates to deny exercise of the mas franchise, as it were, by others, presumably, the non-“elites”.  

But the story that remains to be told would confirm my impression of the diminishing response to Carnival. The T&T Carnival, reflected in mas and pan on the streets, has been finding fewer and fewer takers. 

Apart from the movement now identified with Socadrome, little new Carnival activity—steelband and mas—has been spontaneously emerging from, say, central and east Port of Spain, including Belmont, and even St James. Old activity, so far from advancing, has been in retreat.

If only for Carnival purposes, Desperadoes migrated out of its up-the-Hill neighbourhood. Through such physical separation from Laventille, Desperadoes demonstrates that a band, once sure of its sponsorship, need not feel itself to be the voice of the village, or the aspiration of its community. 

 The Carnival playing field has never been level. People are moved to play what they can. Or they are not so moved, or not so able, and they participate as spectators. 

 Where, now, can anyone point to the starting-small visionaries moved to give expression to an idea of mas or an approach to pan? The promptings, characterised by Lloyd Best as “primitive accumulation”, had led capital-starved promoters of start-ups to recycle oil drums and old-car irons, to mobilise neighbourhood tailors and seamstresses, to scour the abbatoirs for horns and bones, and the bushes for usable stems and branches. 

It’s such inspired promptings, which could lead those so possessed to seek out modern ways and means, that have today gone missing. Socadrome, then, combining capital, organisational and production know-how, and entrepreneurship, is the only show in town. 

Nor can it be shown that Socadrome sucks the air dry of Carnival-related creative, financial or managerial oxygen. 

Hands wring these days, in lamentation of the two enabling conditions of Carnival. One is state funding that’s simply assumed to be ever present and ever larger. Regardless of who is in charge, the state dare not retreat from being the funder of first, and last, resort. 

Pushing their brands, business entities support and promote Carnival activities. To make Carnival things happen, there appears, apart from the state and business, nowhere else to turn. 

Or no one has yet come forward with the mind and the mission to show another way.

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